Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Day in the Forest

I'iwe feeding on Ohi'a luhia blossoms

I’m not a birder and have never spent time around any of them, but when I got an opportunity this weekend to go on a guided hike in the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern slope of Mauna Kea I jumped at it.  This tour is specifically for viewing some of the rarest plants and animal species on earth, but especially oriented for spotting rare and endangered birds of Hawaii.  The Hakalau tour is provided by Hawaii Forest & Trail and is a long (12 hr) day from start to finish that includes 2 ½ hrs of driving one way, over 11 miles of off road meandering into the forest reserve, and roughly 4 miles of hiking with about 650 ft of elevation gain.

Birders being birders
The weather on the drive over was perfect with light winds and clear blue skies.  But within a few miles of the forest everything changed as we entered the windward side of the mountain and drove into the clouds, heavy mist, and rain.  One of the dedicated birders called it, "perfect birding weather".  The rest of us called it "a soaker".  Nobody came out of there even remotely dry.

The hiking included about 650 ft of elevation gain down and back along both 4-wheel drive trails and forest paths.  On the drive in we spotted numerous birds including, chukar, erckel's francolin, kalij pheasant, ring-neck pheasant, wild turkey, gambel's quail, common myna, house sparrow, skylark, and Pacific golden plovers.  My seat in the vehicle didn't allow me to get photographs of any of these unfortunately, but I see most all of them on a regular basis anyway.  My treat would be the rare forest birds that we almost never get to see.

Nene and Goslings
At the assembly area where the van was parked we were greeted by a large group of Nene geese, including several of their goslings.  The Nene is the state bird of Hawaii, endemic to the Hawaiian islands, and has been under threat of extinction for many years.  Nene can only be found on the Big Island of Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. 

They didn't seem to mind us being there at all.  But maybe they knew we weren't legally allowed to get any closer than 25 ft of them!

Hawaiian Nene
The male and female Nene look almost exactly alike.  The males tend to be a little bit larger however.  One of the features I like the most about them is the "ropey" pattern and texture of feathers on their neck.

The goslings in the photo above are still wearing their down coats.

Japanese White-eye
It was unfortunate that most of the day my camera gear had to stay in the bag... it was simply too wet and nasty to bring it out.  That didn't stop the hike and wandering around to spot many native birds however.  We were lucky enough to see "Elepaio (flycatcher), a Hawaii Creeper, Amakihi, I'iwe, 'Apapane, and many others.  The guide was especially helpful locating birds by calls and flight characteristics.

One of the little guys I found on my own and identified once the limited set of photos were reviewed was this little Japanese White-eye.  He's not a native species in Hawaii, but was introduced here at some point.

Hakalau Forest Diner
Hawaii Forest & Trail included a light breakfast at our rest stop on the drive up at the Mauna Kea State Recreation Area, and a sandwich and chips lunch at the exclusive Hakalau Restaurant seen at right.

From what we saw on the floor the Nene enjoy this eatery on a frequent basis as well.  :)  We left nothing behind... everything packed in gets packed back out.

Taking flight

I did manage to capture one other native bird during a break in the weather.  The little guy at the left is an "Apapane about to take flight after feeding in an Ohi'a tree.  From a distance the 'Apapane look very similar to the I'iwe above, but they have a much shorter dark beak with less hook, and they're more red than orange.

We did not see a Hawaii hawk (I'o), or an an owl (Pueo) on our trip.  Both do frequent the area but have been hard to find recenly

As impressive as the bird life is the forest itself is equally stunning.  This entire area is still recovering from years of cattle grazing.  It is now completely fenced to prevent cattle or wild pig intrusion and is intensively studied.  Efforts to replant the koa tree and other species are ongoing to provide additional habitat and food for the critters who live here.

Biodiversity is Everywhere

Lessons learned from the day:
  1. Get a good quality rain hood for your camera body and lens!  There's no point in carrying gear around all day if you can't use it!
  2. Forget the tripod if you won't be shooting from a blind.  That's dead weight too.  A monopod will be lighter and might work just as well.
  3. Birds will come to you if you stand or sit quietly and wait.  Chasing them is useless effort.
  4. Put everything in your backpack in Ziplock bags!  They'll get soaked otherwise.  This means Everything!
  5. Bring your own raingear, layer your clothing, and wear waterproof hiking boots if you have them.  Rainforests are wet places.  And at almost 7,000 ft above sea level sometimes cold too.
  6. A good quality walking or hiking stick is invaluable!
  7. And have fun regardless of the conditions because it's all part of the experience.  If you're miserable odds are everyone else is too.
In all it was a great day, and the hot shower and bed felt great later. It was worth it for a day out in a place very few people get to see, including those who have lived here their entire lives.  The Hakalau Forest hike is an experience that will stay with me a long time.
'Apapani, singing a goodbye song


  1. Jealous! What a great place to hike. Beautiful photos

  2. Sounds great Dave, again a very detailed post, It seemed you had fun.

    Why didn't you shoot the D3? It's weatherproof, no worries there.
    I've shoot a wedding in the rain, no issues.

    You must do it again sometime and get the knowledge learned in practice.

  3. And perhaps bringing an under-water camera? :-) I was told by a bird photographer at our first Eagle Days that if you can get that small dot of light in the eyes of the birds that's one way to tell they are alive and not stuffed and staged! Beautiful shots Dave! Looks like you had a lot of fun!

  4. I did shoot with the D3 actually, but just wasn't comfortable getting it soaked. And wiping water off of the front of the lens would have been challenging too. Nothing on me was even remotely dry. :)

    I'm putting a Think Tank rain hood higher on my wish list. It's been there for a while, but this would have been the perfect time to have one!