|I'iwi / USGS Photo|
Even before we’d spotted a single bird, we knew that we were in the right place, thanks to the ear of Jack Jeffrey, a former biologist with the State of Hawaii who now guides birding and photography tours. Just a few minutes from the parking lot of the Puu O’o Trail, he began identifying call after call. There were twittery trills, raspy kazoo blasts and what could have been R2-D2 chirps and beeps straight off the “Star Wars” soundtrack.
Jeffrey explained that recent research has traced the ancestry of nearly 60 species of nectar-loving Hawaiian honeycreepers back to a flock of finches from Asia that arrived nearly 6 million years ago (even before all the islands had formed). Of those 60 species, only 18 remain today. The honeycreepers, along with many other native animals and plants, have suffered pressures from development and from introduced predators and diseases. With so many unique species facing extinction, Hawaii is often described as the endangered species capital of the world.
Photographer Kim Hubbard and I spent eight days in Hawaii in December, mixing birding on Oahu and the Big Island with other sightseeing. We found that bird-watching served as a lens on the islands, allowing us to meet locals who were passionate and expert enough to share their insights and help us step off (or in one case very much onto) the beaten path.
Sitting on the edge of what was once a moving wall of lava, we looked straight out over the treetops. A buzzing sound that might have been a miniature helicopter announced the arrival of an apapane. This bird would fit in your palm; it’s as red as the ohi’a flowers. Its legs and slightly curved beak are black, its lower abdomen white. Unlike a hummingbird, with which it shares a zippy pace, it actually lands to feed on the flowers. Jeffrey described watching these birds as a series of three-second sightings. The pattern, he said with a metronome beat, is: “There it is, there it is, there it goes.”
Even though we were sitting in the open and chatting, the birds came closer and closer as they got used to us. Soon we spotted an ‘i’iwi with orange-red plumage. Its beak, a pale orange, curved to dip perfectly into the spray of stamens that form the blossom. The ‘i’iwi paused, then extended its neck to sing with full-bodied earnestness — operatic vigor in a tiny package.