It was my first trip to Hawaii, and I knew that taking my camera & binoculars is a given! Halfway into the trip I realized that I should have included my fins & goggles too! Having a Green Sea Turtle swimming right below me was an absolute highlight of the trip not to mention the birdlife! Kona has 5 volcanoes that make up its entire landscape. The most recent eruption was Kilauea on May 3rd, 2018 and as we traveled around the island, meeting the inhabitants, everyone knew the day the lava stopped flowing – Aug 20th, 2018. It wasn’t until I made it to the west side and witnessed the massive lava trails did I realize the significance of the statement. Lava stops for nothing!
So, what about the birds? Kona has just finished building its first “Bird Trail”. It is 92 miles long and stretches from coast to coast. And there is an annual birding festival in October (https://www.hawaii.com/event/hawaii-island-festival-of-birds/). Unfortunately, this year’s event (2019) has been cancelled due to the protest by the native Hawaiians of the planned building of a new observatory on Mauna Kea. It is the tallest mountain on the planet but only if one includes counting what is under water (33000 ft).
Kona is a huge island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one of the Hawaii islands. To our surprise, we didn’t see a single Gull – we thought it was the perfect place for them – water, fish, seaweed and plenty of humans eating sandwiches & French fries! That raised our curiosity as we expected to see Gulls all over the place – but not a one. Upon doing some research (I googled it), I found out the following……. “Hawaii is a fairly isolated group of islands. Gulls are not generally found very far from large land masses. They are not predisposed to long distance movements over water, like terns are. They might be seen during mating season.”
What we did see and hear a lot of is the Zebra Dove (also known as the Barred Ground Dove). It is the most common call one hears (a pleasant soft, staccato cooing) early morning and the doves are very abundant. Native to Southeast Asia, it is a small bird with a long tail, predominantly brownish grey with black and white “stripes”. They are most often found in and near the palm trees & can be seen on the ground.
Kona is a fascinating island with stark contrasts in land, sea and wildlife. We saw only a small portion of the island and are already planning for a return trip. I was pleasantly surprised at the abundance of birds and how easy it was to find them! I’ll start with my first favorite, the Yellow-billed Cardinal – a lifer. A stunning bird that can be found near the ocean, marshes, lakes & rivers, as well as the edges of woodlands & forests. They are native to South America having been introduced to Hawaii in the 1960’s. They have a black and white belly, black throat and a brilliant red head.
Next up is the Java Sparrow – another lifer! And another bird that was introduced to Oahu, Hawaii in the 1960’s native to Java, Bali & Bavean in Indonesia. It’s one of the larger finches measuring over 5 ½ inches long, feeding primarily on seeds & insects. We saw them in only one place living in a house directly on the ocean. They preferred to stay up high sunning themselves in the palm trees.
Saffron Finch photo by Cathy Kozmary
The next lifer is the Saffron Finch – a stunning bright yellow bird with an orange crown – originally a tanager from South America. Sometimes regarded as a canary introduced to Hawaii in 1965. It is most common in short grassy areas along the coasts. The adults are 5 ½ inches long with some stripes in the chest, a black bill and pink legs. They are easy to find due to the bright yellow that flashes around, usually in pairs. They are seed eaters sometimes catching an occasional insect, are feisty and very territorial – not to be underestimated for their small size!
What I was surprised to see is the Northern Cardinal and seen typically near the Yellow-billed Cardinal. The Night-Crowned Black-Heron is very common along the coastal areas. We saw 5 of them, all juveniles, sharing a clearly popular fishing area with “Barnacle Betty” – a massive Green Sea Turtle that can often be found within the Kaloko-Honokaupu National Historical Park. We enjoyed a guided hike with the park ranger, Cindy, who told us many interesting facts about the island, native Hawaiians, and environment. The Green Sea Turtles in the park are protected by the 20-foot rule – do not go within 20 feet of them! The park is home of several fishponds where the native Hawaiians have built stone walls which are dry stacked without mortar. These stone walls are often positioned to enclose an area, protecting it from the strong ocean waves, but allowing new sea water to penetrate through the lava rocks and circulate the ponds. These ponds are amongst the great engineering feats of Hawaiians.
Whilst visiting one of the local markets, we enquired about “best beaches” & were told about one special beach that was about 30 minutes north of Kailua-Kona. You need a pass from the complex that is behind the beach as the parking is limited, which keeps the number of visitors to a minimum. There are 3 separate areas to swim, one of which is also great for snorkeling. A few of use ventured into the water and by luck a Green Sea Turtle was in the area and we saw it swim right underneath us (no 20-foot rule outside the park). It was another highlight of the trip!
The Japanese White-Eye is very common at 4 inches long. There were introduced in 1929 to help control insect pests and are now the most abundant land bird. The have successfully spread to all islands and can be found in forests from sea level to the highest mountains. They are often in small flocks gleaning insects or gathering fruit & nectar from shrubs. There is some controversy about the Japanese White-Eye saying its spread has impacted the native Hawaiian birds and caused some decline thereof. Nothing to date has been proven and no corrective actions are planned.
Two very common birds along the shorelines are the Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling. They are often seen together with the Turnstone in higher numbers. They forage for insects amongst the exposed ocean floor. The Sanderling, also known as the Hunakai, is the smallest of the common shorebirds (7 to 8 inches). It has a thin black bill & black legs. From far away, they look fully white against the green-blue ocean water. During the winter, Hunakai have pale gray and light brown feathers on their backs. Their dusty brown crown meets with the contrasting stark white cheeks. This snowy coloration extends down their necks to their bellies. Like many kinds of birds around the world, the hunakai puts on its most colorful feathers for the nesting season. If you are lucky enough to see a hunakai that is reddish-brown on its head, breast, and back, you can be sure its nesting season is close. By contrast, the Turnstone is larger (8 to 10 inches) and is dramatically colorful. They eat a variety of items throughout the year using their ingenuity. During the winter, they get their insect and crustacean food from shorelines and fields, often turning over rocks, shells and marine debris to find the food beneath – hence their common name of turnstone. They use their bills as shovels to dig for crabs, clams, and mussels. They will often eat carrion and eggs of seabirds like curlews. However, during the breeding season they eat mostly flies!
Submitted by Cathy Kozmary
All photographs courtesy of Cathy Kozmary