Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bulletin #155 - Native Birds of the Big Island - Hawaii

As some of you know, my wife developed lymphoma in late 2010 and died in August 2011. The story has a happy ending as I met Lisa, a nurse who had looked after Linda. Lisa and I were married in March and honeymooned in Hawaii in April. Lisa loves the outdoors, birding, and has taken to photgraphy with gusto. We had a fun vacation taking all sorts of photos of birds, scenery, flowers etc. In a couple of months, she has progressed to the proficiency that took me 3 years! I will be showing some of her photos on this blog in the future.

Many of you, who are birders, know that the Hawaiian Islands have been decimated of their endemic birds by the presence of humans and the rats, cats, pigs, cattle, sheep etc that were introduced, as well as agriculture. Additionally, mosquitoes were inadvertently put into the ecosystem in the mid 1800's by whaling ships. These mosquitoes spread avian pox and avian malaria to the highly susceptible native birds.
Hawaii has the highest percentage of extinction of their native birds of any place on earth. The remaining birds occur at elevations over 3500 feet on the remnant patches of native forest and are difficult to find. We used a guide service to bird for a day and found some of the endemics on the 'Big Island' as Hawaii is known by locally.

The bird most commonly associated with Hawaii is the Iiwi (Vestiaria coccinea). This red bird with black wings has a long curved bill. It is found in the rainforest consisting of koa and ohia trees. The ohia has red blossoms somewhat like a bottle brush tree. It is endangered, but still fairly common on all the main islands.
Here is another photo of an Iiwi probing for nectar in an ohia blossom.
Iiwi and ohia bloom
The other red bird with black wings is the Apapane (Himatione sanguinea). It differs form the Iiwi by having a white belly and a short black beak. We did not see an adult, but the juveniles are olive rather than red. This one is showing some molt to red on his breast. The Apapane is also endangered and occurs on all the main islands.
Apapane - juvenile
The Hawaii Amakihi (Hemignathus virens) is a fairly common olive bird found in various forest habitats. It was recently split into separate species on 3 different islands (Hawaii, Oahu and Kauai). It is olive with a short curved beak.
Hawaii Amakihi
The Palila (Loxioides bailleui) was a lifer for me. It inhabits dry forest of mamane and naio trees on Mauna Kea mountain. It eats the seed pods of the mamane tree. It is gray with a yellow head and wings and it has a heavy bill for tearing open the seed pods. It is criticallly endangered and was one of the first three birds listed in the Endangered Species Act of 1977. The government set aside its habitat to save it in 1977.
The above birds were formerly classified as their own family Drepanididae, the Hawaiian honeycreepers. Now DNA research shows they all descended from finches and have been placed in the finch family.
Songbirds of several other families are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands as well. The Omao (Myadestes obscurus) is also known as the Hawaiian Thrush. It is obvious from its plump shape that it is a thrush. The Myadestes genus is the same as our Townsend's Solitaire. The Omao is gray brown backed and gray below. This bird posed beautifully for an extended period of time. There are 3 other Myadestes thrushes in the Hawaiian Islands, one on Molokai and 2 on Kauai. 2 of these three may already be extinct.
The Hawaii Elepaio (Chasiempis sandwichensis) is a small songbird in the monarch flycatcher family. It has a long tail carried upright and its brownish coloration makes it resemble a wren. It is a small (5.5") forest bird. Here are 2 photos of this bird.

Hawaii Elepaio

Hawaii Elepaio
There are 2 other species of Elepaio - one each on Oahu and Kauai. These were formerly considered a single species, but recent DNA evidence showed enough variation, that they were split into 3 separate species. 2 color variations occur on the Big Island, but the DNA showed them to be identical.
For those interested, there was also a species of Crow, the Alala, on the Big Island. It went extinct in the wild in the last decade. Efforts, to breed it in captivity for restoration, are underway.

We saw some other birds that are native to Hawaii but not endemic. The first was the Pacific Golden-Plover (Pluvialis fulva). Locally it is known as the Kolea. This bird winters in Hawaii and breeds in western Alaska, making the 2500 mile trip over the north Pacific Ocean in about 60 hours. It was almost in full breeding plumage when we saw it in mid-April. It has a black breast and belly and speckled golden upperparts.
Pacific Golden-Plover
The only native owl in Hawaii is known locally as the Pueo. It is a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus). It occurs on all the main islands.
Short-eared Owl
We also saw Ruddy Turnstones which are known as Akekeke, but didn't bother with photos as they are local here in Texas.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2012 David McDonald

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