Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Japanese White-Eyes at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park: Sometimes it's the Point of View

What's the most populous bird on the Hawaiian Islands? Visitors might suspect Mynas or Zebra Doves, given their ubiquitous presence in the tourist areas of the islands, but it's quite possibly this one, the Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicas). They are pretty little birds, but tend to be hard to see in the vegetation given their green color. There may be hundreds of thousands of them on the islands, and they can be found from sea level to 9,000 feet, and in both dry and wet forests.
It would be nice if they were one of the native species of the islands, but alas they are not. They were introduced in the late 1920s to help in agricultural pest control, but in a sense they themselves became pests. They may be a vector in spreading avian diseases, and they have been documented exploiting food sources in the higher altitude forests at the expense of native species.

Still, as with many of these invasive species, they are colorful and fun to watch. I saw this pair while walking through the "Bird Kipuka" (Kipuka Puaulu) in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. My previous post on the species had the better pictures (see it here), but this pair was doing something that was unusual looking. It appeared that one was grooming or picking lice off the other. I don't know for sure, but I'm sure there's someone out there who can tell me what they are doing.
I shot a short video to provide some more context. Enjoy!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Established and Spreading Fast, the Kalij Pheasant on the Big Island

Once again, in the category of "it seemed like a good idea at the time", someone decided to release a few dozen Himalayan pheasants at the Pu’u Wa’awa’a Ranch on the Big Island of Hawai'i. I'm guessing it was for hunting purposes. They didn't do much for a decade or so, but they reached some kind of population tipping point and began to spread. Their range has expanded across most of the forestlands of the Big Island, and a few have been seen on Maui and Oahu. These are the Kalij Pheasants (Lophura leucomelanos).
 I've seen them most often at the Bird Kipuka (Kipuka Puaulu) in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. They certainly add a splash of color to the forest floor, but their role in spreading disease or disrupting food sources for the native bird species is not clear. They sure are a shock when you are walking along a trail looking up and practically trip over them.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Saffron Finch at the Hawai'i Volcanoes Observatory

I'm continuing our discussion of the invasive birds of Hawai'i. Some have more or less replaced those species that have gone extinct, but others are helping prompt the extinction of the few that are left. It's a mixed bag with no easy answers. What one can say is that many of the invasives are beautiful birds. That makes sense, as many of them were caged pets that were released or escaped into the wild.
That's probably the story with the Saffron Finch (Sicalis flaveola), a member of the Tanager family. They are native to South America, and were popular cage birds. They first appeared on Diamond Head in 1965 and spread throughout Oahu. They appeared on the Big Island about the same time and spread across the lowlands. They've ranged into higher elevations and by 2000 they were noted in the village of Volcano next to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. That's where I saw them on one of my first trips to the islands in 2002. When I was there last month, they were still living in the same trees adjacent to the Hawai'i Volcanoes Observatory. I've previous posted on some I saw last year on the coast north of Kona.
At the end of the day we returned to the observatory in the midst of a rainstorm. It was still in the same set of trees, and was busy preening. They add a real splash of color to the scene, but their effect on the native birds is not well-known. It's probably not too serious, as they are generally a lowland bird, but I could be wrong.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

An Active Bewick's Wren on the Tuolumne River Parkway

I was walking the Tuolumne River the other day as I often do. Some days the birds are out and sometimes not. This outing I saw three bird species in one tree, some Starling nestlings, an Oak Titmouse, and a wren working out its wings.

With the lighter breast, I'm guessing it is a Bewick's Wren (Thryomanes bewickii), but I never got a good look above the eyes to see the white eyebrow to be absolutely sure (experts, I appreciate correction).
It got a good look at me apparently! It flitted around the branches for a bit, and then settled into a flapping display that I guess was either a food begging habit, or a territorial display. I got a short video, which you can see above. Again, those who know such things are welcome to comment!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Northern Hawai'i? The Very Definition of Non-native Species're walking down a tree-lined street in St. Louis, Missouri, and you see a flash of red in the branches. It's a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)! You could have the same experience walking through the desert around Phoenix, Arizona. You see them on sports monograms. It's all normal stuff if you live in such places. That's where the bird occurs naturally.
But what if you are walking through an ancient kipuka (an island of unburnt vegetation within a lava flow) on the Big Island of Hawai'i? Well, that becomes strange. What is a bird of the eastern US hardwood forests and the desert southwest doing on an island more than 2,000 miles from the mainland? In the last few posts I've been exploring some of the non-native bird species of the islands, and how they have upended the original ecosystem. The alterations and changes began more than a thousand years ago, but the rate of change increased exponentially after European colonization of the islands. New bird species were purposely brought to the islands more than 150 years ago, and they brought new diseases that the natives had no resistance to. Bird species continued to be introduced throughout the 1900s, sometimes as cage releases of pets, but sometimes on purpose. The Northern Cardinals arrived about 1928, and they spread quickly to all of the main islands, and many of the minor islands as well.
It's always a shock to see a Northern Cardinal flitting through the rainforest. The bright red color really stands out against the vegetation. I saw this individual in a tree no more than 30 feet or so from the trail I was walking through the kipuka. Kipuka Puaulu is a unique place, an ancient forest of Ohia and Koa trees that managed to miss being overrun by a fairly recent basalt flow from Mauna Loa. I recently told the story of this kipuka and one other, and to me the story is absolutely fascinating; it even includes what may be the rarest plant in the world (at least for the couple of years when none existed).

It's unclear the effect the cardinals might be having on the native birds. They spread farther and higher than some of the other introduced species. In the meantime, they are beautiful birds in a spectacular setting, even if it is far removed from the original home of the species.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Red-crested Cardinals on Oahu

In 1928 or so, the coastal towns and farmlands of Hawai'i were bereft of native bird species. Non-native species brought to the islands for a number of reasons had carried in their blood the parasite that caused avian malaria. Mosquitos transferred the disease to the native birds, and they were largely extirpated from the coastal lowlands. Most of the natives only survive above 4,000 feet where it is too cold for the mosquitos to thrive.
It wasn't that there were no birds at all in the lowlands. The Common Myna, introduced in the 1850s to control pests in the sugar cane fields, was...uh...common. There were also Spotted Doves, House Finches, and European Sparrows. But these weren't enough for some of the residents. In the 1930s, a bird club called Hui Manu devoted itself to introducing colorful and interesting birds to the islands. The effort was well-meaning, but misguided as one could imagine. Some of their introductions spread well beyond the coastal forests and spread into the higher forests where the native birds struggled to hang on. The new competition didn't help matters.
In any case, a number of the introduced birds were naturalized, and have spread widely. These are the birds most likely to be seen by tourists who stay in the coastal cities. And some of them are very colorful, literally a delight to the eye. Among them most be counted the Red-crested Cardinals (Paroaria coronata). The red head and crest seem to throw off the color balance on my camera sometimes. I saw them all over Oahu, but got the closest when we visited Waimea Valley on the North Shore, and at Kualoa Regional Park west of Kailua. Kualoa is one of the most beautiful shorelines on Oahu.

The Red-crested Cardinals rarely venture above 1,200 feet, so they probably can't be regarded as one of the "bad" invasive species that threaten the livelihood of the native species of Hawai'i. They certainly add a splash of color to the urban and developed areas of the islands.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

And Here's the Grown-up Shama Thrush at Waimea Valley

The Shama Thrush (Copsychus malabaricus) is native to southeast Asia, but was introduced into the Hawaiian Islands in the 1930s-1940s. It has spread widely through the coastal forests of Oahu and Kauai, and would have competed against the native species, except that the natives had been extirpated by avian malaria and lost habitat. Some of them have in fact spread into the higher altitude forests where they may cause problems for the natives.

Thus it is that I have ambivalent feelings about the non-natives. I deplore the destruction of the original habitat and the loss of so many native species, but I also couldn't wish for the silent forests that led some well-meaning people to release their caged birds as a way of repopulating the coastal forests of Hawai'i. And certainly many of the new birds are colorful and interesting.
We saw this male Shama Thrush while we strolled through Waimea Valley on the North Shore of Oahu (we saw the juvenile and a female in yesterday's post). Like the bird, Waimea Valley is not exactly natural either. It's a botanical garden, filled with plants from all over the world. In an odd way, that makes the presence of the Shama Thrush a little less out of place. In any case, it is a beautiful sight.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Juvenile Shama Thrush in Waimea Valley on Oahu

A visit to the Hawaiian Islands for birding-type people can be an exercise in frustration. Hawai'i is well-known as an example of evolution in action: isolated islands that were colonized thousands or millions of years ago, producing myriads of new and fascinating species, including birds. For instance, the honeycreepers, small finch-type birds, diverged into at least four dozen new species. Most are extinct, but some are left, and finding them can make or break a trip, depending on how focused your goals are. The problem is that mosquitoes were introduced to the islands in the early 1820s, and they brought avian malaria. The disease wiped out the native birds in the coastal areas. The species that survived found refuge in the forests above 4,000 feet, where it is too cold for the mosquitoes to thrive, but the coastal forests became silent.

Invasive species were introduced for a variety of reasons. In some cases, such as with the Myna Birds, they were brought as a method of controlling pests in the sugar cane fields. In others, caged birds escaped from their owners. In at least one case that I heard of, a pet shop went bankrupt, and the owner simply let all of his birds go. There were even well-meaning people who released birds on purpose to repopulate the coastal forests with songbirds. Overall, these new species put even more pressure on the natives, as they often competed for the same food sources.

So birding on the islands is a mixed bag. As a rule, one will not see native species unless a special effort is made to visit their habitats. And yet, the invasive birds are often quite beautiful speciess that have become naturalized in their new habitat. They are colorful and are often easy to photograph in heavily visited tourist areas. As such, they'll be the focus of my next few posts. While we were on Oahu, we made sure to get out of Honolulu and explore the wilder parts of the island, including the Waimea Valley on the North Shore.
Waimea Valley is not exactly a native Hawaiian habitat. It was once an adventure park that has since been converted into a botanical garden with species from all over the world.  It therefore almost makes sense that exotic bird species would be common here as well. As we walked down the pathway, I saw an unfamiliar bird on the basalt boulders and got some pictures. I was starting to thumbing through the bird guide to identify it when I realized it was a juvenile, mainly because momma showed up to feed the hungry teenager. It was a Shama Thrush (Copsychus malabaricus), sometimes called the White-rumped Shama. It's a native of Asia that was introduced in the 1940s. The guidebookss share the collective opinion that it has one of the finest songs on the islands.
There were male Shamas in the park too. They'll be in the next post.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Black-chinned Hummingbird in the Backyard

I'm not done with my posts on Hawaiian birds; I finished with the natives, but there are lots of other birds to see there. But in the meantime, in the immortal words of Dorothy of Oz, "There's no place like home". I was told in no uncertain terms by the birds in the backyard to refill the birdfeeders. There was noise all day, but the most insistent individual was a little female Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri). It quite literally flew by my face, landed on the mostly empty feeder, then perched in the nearby Crepe Myrtle tree and stared at me. The message was clear...

The Black-chinned Hummingbird is a western species with a range extending from Washington to southern Mexico and eastward as far as Texas. They do well in urban settings (they love feeders) so their population has been increasing. I've seen quite a few of them along the Tuolumne River.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

‘Alae ‘Ula in the Waimea Valley of Oahu

What, you may ask, was the rarest bird that I saw on my recent sojourn on the Hawaiian Islands? It was most likely this one, the 'Alae 'Ula, or the Hawaiian Gallinule (Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis). It is considered to be a subspecies of the Common Gallinule of the Americas. Endemic to Hawai'i, and found today only on Kauai and Oahu, there are probably no more than 750 individuals in existence. It is most definitely considered an endangered species.
The problem for the 'Alae 'Ula is that it is primarily a denizen of freshwater marshes, and of all environments in the Hawaiian Islands, these are perhaps the most completely altered by development and human incursions. It didn't help that it was the size of a small chicken and was hunted for food. It disappeared completely from the Big Island and Molokai, and reintroduction efforts failed. At one time it is thought that only 57 individuals remained.
They are usually rather secretive, but at Waimea Valley on Oahu there are several individuals who are used to crowds of people, and one or two wandered by while we waited at the entrance to the botanical gardens. It's always a good clue that a bird is endangered when it has a variety of leg bands.

The bird plays an important in Hawaiian mythology, being regarded as a deity that brought fire to the humans (the red shield is considered to have been caused by the scorching of the flames). Hearing one call at night was considered a bad omen.

Monday, May 29, 2017

‘Amakihi, One of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers, at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

I'm making no claims whatsoever that these pictures are up to my own basic standards, but to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld's statements about armies, "As you know, you blog with the bird pictures you have. They're not the bird pictures you might want or wish to have at a later time." And these are the only ones I have of one of the unique Honeycreeper species of the Hawaiian Islands, the Hawai'i ‘Amakihi (Chlorodrepanis virens). They don't have the bright red color of the 'apanane, and thus aren't as obvious to me in the field. Their olive-green color is also very similar to the Japanese White-Eye, so I'm sure I've missed a few in the past.
There are populations of the 'Amakihi on the islands of Hawai'i, Molokai, and Maui, and they were considered subspecies, but recent genetic studies have caused them to be classified as separate species. They are common because they can survive in habitats ranging from sea level to 8,000 feet, and they have shown somewhat more resistance to avian malaria that has wiped out so many other species. Along with the 'Apanane, they are considered to be the least endangered of the remaining Hawaiian Honeycreepers (they evolved into around four dozen species in Hawaii, but only a third of them have survived to the modern day).

I saw the bird along the Byron Ledge trail near Kilauea Iki near the summit of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. It was perched in the upper branches of a dead Ohia tree (they often feed on the nectar of the flowers).

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Just a Bit of Searching and There They Are...'Apanane at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Redux

So...the other day I was all excited about FINALLY seeing and catching pictures of an 'Apanane (Himatione sanguinea) at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The thing is, I wasn't birding at the time. I was participating in a geology field studies trip, and any birds I saw off in the distance were icing on the cake. I didn't have the time to watch quietly and carefully, nor was I in the best place to see them. But the other day was different. We headed up to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park for the expressed purpose of checking out some of the best birding spots in the park, particularly the Moana Loa Road and the Kipuka Puaulu, the "bird kipuka". And the 'Apanane were quite evident! I probably saw a hundred or more, and some were close enough to capture some images.
What do you think these two are arguing about? One shouting and the other with its nose in the air!
To the extent that most people are not birders, and that the native birds of Hawai'i mostly live above 4,000 feet because of avian malaria spread by mosquitoes at lower elevations, and that only a small part of the human population of the islands live at that elevation, I suspect that even most Hawaiians don't get many chances to see these colorful birds. But in the right circumstances they are fairly common. Kipuka Puaulu is an ideal choice, as it is an isolated island of mature rainforest surrounded by young lava flows (that is the basic definition of a kipuka, an area missed by lava flows). The isolation helps to keep out the mongooses and feral cats who have destroyed many a bird population. Fencing has also kept out cattle and goats that would destroy the underbrush that supplies food and shelter to the birds.
I walked to the upper end of the loop where some ancient "grandfather" Ohia trees had died but left tall snags and I realized that dozens and dozens of birds were flitting around. I finally got some of the close-up shots I had been hoping for, and more.
There was another bird I got a couple of pictures of, but I was totally unsure of what species I was seeing. I downloaded the images and went to work with my bird guide, and came up empty. There was nothing that looked like the bird in the picture below. After I while I looked at the beak again and realized it was the same curving beak as the 'Apanane. This was a juvenile! They don't look very much like their parents...

Monday, May 22, 2017

'Apapane (at last!) at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Several million years ago, a small finch species, either pregnant or part of a small flock, got blown off course and somehow survived a tortuous passage over two thousand miles of ocean to land on the newly emergent Hawaiian Islands. The circumstance seems unlikely, but it only had to happen once. The birds discovered some kind of food that kept them alive, but over time, the populations became isolated as they searched for different food sources. Some were scattered on other islands. Over time they evolved, eventually diverging into four dozen or more species. These so-called Honeycreepers were more diverse than Charles Darwin's celebrated Galapagos finches. Time (and human intervention) was not kind to most of the species, and many went extinct. Today there are only a dozen or so left, and some of them are exceedingly rare (as in less than a dozen birds remaining). The reasons are many, but the biggest cause in recent time has been the spread of avian malaria, caused by introduced species of mosquitos. Today, most of the Honeycreepers survive in high-altitude forests where it is too cold for the mosquitos.

I've only seen a few of the Honeycreepers, perhaps just three species, and I've captured decent shots of none, which explains their absences from these pages so far. I'm on the Big Island this week, however, and I spent the last two days in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. We were exploring the edge of an intriguing pit crater called the Devils Throat when I saw a bird soaring on the far side. It landed for a few moments and I was able to confirm: it was a Honeycreeper called the 'Apanane (Himatione sanguinea). These are the pictures I got, at extreme zoom from about 150-200 meters away.

The bright red plumage of the 'apanane found its way into many robes of royal Hawaiians, but the birds were prolific enough to escape extinction when the islands were colonized. They are considered secure for the time being as long as an "island" of cooler air remains above the 4,000 foot level where mosquitos can't thrive (some of the birds may be developing resistance to malaria as well). Their current population on the islands is estimated to be just over a million individuals. And I finally photographed one of them!
The Devils Throat lava pit. I love my camera; the pictures above were on a bird in the shrubs on the opposite rim several hundred feet away.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

'Auku'u, the Black-crowned Night Heron in Hilo (the Return!)

I'm back in the Hawaiian Islands this week! It explains the relative lack of blogging anywhere, and I have precious little time for hunting birds (the topic of the week is geology, and the excuse for being in the islands is a conference and conference-related field trip). But still, I watch for them when I can, and I had a good opportunity early this morning.
I was last here about a year ago, and I had a short post showing the 'Auku'u (Black-crowned Night Heron; Nycticorax nycticorax) at night searching for fish in Hilo Bay in front of the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. I never got a good luck of the bird in the daytime. That changed this morning. I spied him from my window hanging out with the fishermen along the shore, and went downstairs to see if I could get a closer look. It didn't seem too concerned about humans, given that some were standing just a few yards away.
The 'Auku'u is of a special breed, that of a bird that is native to the Hawaiian Islands.  The ancestors of this bird arrived by chance thousands of years, maybe tens of thousands of years ago and established populations here. Unlike other species which have undergone intense evolutionary change, the Heron is more or less indistinguishable from its mainland relatives. If you have good adaptations, you stick with them!