Birding Pu’u O’o Trail

One of my first destinations on the Big Island was not the beach or swimming pool but to the southern flanks of Mauna Kea to look for endemic Hawaiian birds. This is the birding hotspot Pu’u O’o Trail.

The trail started over a lava flow and soon descended into the verdant rainforest. The trail was marked with lava rock cairns. As long as I kept the cairns to my left, I wouldn’t stray from the trail.

The forest was a riot of bird song and despite my years of birding experience and notching up almost 1,700 species worldwide, I felt like a novice again. The birds were easy to hear but much harder to see. Hearing their songs was like listening to a foreign tongue, which I couldn’t understand, despite listening to recordings of many Big Island endemics. For some reason Kurt Vonnegut’s quote about the difficulties of writing came to mind, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

I was finally able to get a decent look at a Hawaiian endemic, one of the most common endemic forest birds, the bright red honeycreeper called ‘apapane.

Butt-view of the endemic honeycreeper, ‘apapane.

On my wishlist was the most iconic Hawaiian honey creeper: the endangered i’iwi, but while I know what it looked like, I struggled to identify it by it’s voice. It doesn’t help that the ‘apapane have an series of varied and confusing calls that could have been mistaken for it’s more famous cousin.

I planned to hike the first two miles of the trail. This part snakes through a kipuka. A kipuka is an island of mature forest that has been isolated by lava flows. In these environments, bird life is intensely concentrated. Indeed it is a birder’s paradise!

In the mid canopy I heard a song that resembled the beeps and pips of R2D2. It belonged to the endemic thrush called ‘oma’o. It can only be found on the Big Island. It stayed in view long enough for me to take a series of photos. I enjoyed brief time with this Big Island endemic.

‘Oma’o, an endemic thrush only found on the Big Island.

After about two miles, I made it to the edge of the forest and the trail wound off south into the dark lava fields. I had not yet seen my number one target bird, the i’iwi, but I though I might have heard it. Or was that just another ‘apapane?

I retraced my steps, this time the lava cairns were to my right. I would have another opportunity to see the elusive i’iwi. This time I felt I understood the forest and it’s hidden fauna, just a little better but so far away from mastery. My Hawaiian birding training wheels where still firmly attached.

At the edge of a clearing I thought I heard the honeycreeper, and a few seconds later a bird appeared on the top of a tree singing. Long downturned beak, vibrant red plumage and black wings. 

The impressive i’wii was mine!

Kipuka in the foreground and the snow covered peak of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the Hawaiian Islands.

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