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Kona Pelagic

I was happy to see that a pelagic birding trip was scheduled while I was on the Big Island. It is an excellent opportunity to add some wanted lifers that I would not be able to see with feet firmly planted on solid ground.

We boarded a fishing boat in the wee hours at Honokohau Harbor. While Captain Brian was going over safety, I saw a bird that was flying over from the north: white-faced ibis! This is a rare bird in Hawaii and a good omen for the pelagic.

We headed out into the waters west of the Big Island. Looking off to the northwest looked to be another part of the Big Island but in reality was the island of Maui. To our south, fishing boats where headed off in parallel paths to the big fish fishing grounds. Five minutes out of the harbor we saw our first marine mammal, spinner dolphins.

Our first pelagic bird was a brown booby and then we where seeing a smattering of wedge-tailed shearwaters, the most common shearwater in these waters (lifer!). Within the mix of shearwaters were sooty shearwaters, the most common shearwater off of the west coast of California.

Just after 8:00 AM the bird activity started to pick up with the rare (for these waters) Juan Fernandez petrel. Our guide Lance, pointed it out as it crossed our bow heading to the starboard. This was a new bird for me and it was followed by other lifers: Bulwer’s petrel and sooty tern.

Off to the starboard, Lance called out a much desired tern for this trip: white tern (this bird is also known as common fairy-tern and white noddy). The white tern can be easily seen in Honolulu parks, where it nests in trees, laying a single egg right on a flat, horizontal branch.

A little further south and we can upon a Hawaiian petrel, resting on the water! This was later followed by a mottled petrel, both were lifers for me. I was slowly coming to a birding milestone: 1,700 world species seen. If my math was correct, which is always in doubt, I was one bird away from 1,700! I wondered what it would be and if it would even be on this pelagic.

We got great looks at the Hawaiian petrel before it flew off.

I looked up to the bridge where Captain Brian was blasting reggae. I asked Brian, “How’s the view up there?” His response surprised me, “Come on up and have a look!” Now being invited to the bridge simply does not happen on California pelagic trips. Things are just a little more looser or friendlier or both here on the islands. I climbed up and while it was much more pitchy up here (luckily I never get seasick) the view was incredible.

The view from the bridge was outstanding!

Shortly afterward we spotted a tiny bird on the water. It was like an old friend because red phalaropes are frequently seen on Californian pelagic trips.

A short time later I spotted a tropicbird flying towards our position and something looked at little different, the bird was awfully white. I called out, “Red-tailed tropicbird!” Lance got bins on the bird and confirmed it. And just like that, red-tailed tropicbird became my 1,700th species seen on planet Earth! I celebrated with a high-five from Captain Brian!

How did I identify a tropicbird I have never seen before? I did my homework. This pre-trip spread compared the three species and red-tailed really stood how with is’s all-white dorsal side. It also helps that is has a bright red streamer flying behind!
This is a white-tailed tropicbird seen on the pelagic. Note the black on the wings and the white tail.

One of the things I like about pelagic birding trips is that it’s not just about birds. Birders tend to appreciate all nature and so most boats will stop to look at marine mammals. In California I have seen different species of dolphin and porpoise and humpbacked, gray, and blue whales. The only marine mammal we had seen on this Kona pelagic were the spinner dolphins, just outside the harbor. But I didn’t think we would see a shark! In this case a hammerhead!

The menacing dorsal fin of a hammerhead shark.

This pelagic was an amazing experience and I saw many birds (eight of them lifers), some dolphins, and a shark.

I can’t image coming to the islands and not taking in it’s incredible flora and fauna.

Why sit by a swimming pool when you have the Pacific Ocean?

Note: Much thanks to our pelagic birding guide, Lance Tanino. If you are in need of a birding guide on the Big Island, I would highly recommend Lance. He really knows his Hawaiian birds and he knows where to find them! Check out his website at: www. hawaiibirdingguide.com.