Thursday, March 3, 2011

Birdwatching the Alakai Swamp

Ever since I lived in South Africa, I have had an interest in birds.   Today, we went on a beautiful and exciting birding walk in the high Alakai Swamp area of Kauai, led by a local bird photographer and expert, Jim Denny.

The birds we hoped to see were the famous forest passerines, endemic to the island.   Jim is the author of a number of books on Hawaiian birds, his most recent being A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Hawaii (2010).  As he writes in the introduction:
Serious birders often include Hawai'i in their list of "must-go" places because these Islands are home to a wonderful assortment of brids, some of which can be seen nowhere else.  .... The most sought-after species, of course, are Hawaii'is endemic forest birds."
 These forest birds are sought after indeed.  They require seeking, most existing only at high altitudes where invasive species have yet to destroy native forests and invading species such as feral pigs and mosquitoes have yet to decimate bird populations.

The Alakai Swamp is the last outpost for many of Kauai's endemic forest birds so we met up with Jim at the Koke'e Museum parking lot at 8am for a walk in the woods.  We were very lucky with the weather - pale clouds misted the high peak Waialeale - the wettest place on earth - but lower down on the old caldera the forests were sunny and green.  Despite the sun, signs of wetness were abundant:  ferns and moss, mud dried footprints, slippery planks, dense green slopes plunging into valleys wreathed with moss and damp.

At first we didn't see many birds but learned from Jim about local plants and some of their uses.  Further into the swamp the vegetation changed and there were increasing numbers of Ohia trees with red flowers reminiscent of banksias.

Ohia trees against the far forest canopy

We followed the boardwalk to the intersection with the Pihea trail and the path to the lookout down to Hanalei Bay.  Instead of following that route, we retraced the path to the left towards Koke'e and saw an abundance of endemic birds:

Kaua'i Elepaio
Kaua'i Amakihi
Akeke'e  (Endangered)

I'iwi by Jim Denny

Japanese white-eye
Hwamei - Melodious Laughingthrush
White-rumped Shama
Red Junglefowl
Erckels Francolin
White-tailed tropic-bird

The most brilliant and exciting bird was undoubtably the I'iwi but the Akeke'e was probably the rarest.  Before I sleep, let me leave you with some pictures from the walk.  On the walk home we passed many other hikers with binoculars who had hoped to see and identify some of the birds we had found with Jim's help.  I would highly recommend him for a walk like this, without his keen eye and experience in the area we would have not had half the 'luck' we enjoyed today.

Natasha, Shannon and Mum off the Pihea Trail

Me, with the introduced and invasive ginger

First snack, second snack, Snickers... they all blur when you're outdoors
(Natasha, Jim and I on the trail)

The moss and ferns abound
Mum, happy to be seeing birds

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