Top 7 native birds on the Big Island

Hawaiian Owl 2020
Photo credit: Jack Wolford

The Big Island is a great place to whip out the binoculars and get to bird watching. Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry, we’ve profiled seven of our favorite Hawaiian native birds so you’ll know them when you see them. From the striking Hawaiian hawk to the brilliant colors of the ‘Akekeke, these seven represent some of the most unique birdlife you’ll see in Hawaii or around the world!  

We’ve also included a helpful link to where you’ll most likely be able to see these birds on the Big Island.

1. Hawaiian Owl (Pueo)

Hawaiian Owl 2020
Photo credit: Pride of Maui

The pueo is endemic to Hawaii and is commonly found in upland forest and woodland areas on the Big Island. The owl is one of the physical forms taken by ‘aumākua, the ancestor spirits in Hawaiian culture. The pueo tend to nest on the ground, making them easy prey for their eggs and their young. The Asian mongoose is one of their main predators.

They are also attracted to car headlights which they mistake for prey. As a result many are killed in vehicle accidents. Recently they have also been found in large numbers in a confused state on public highways. This phenomenon has been called ʻsick owl syndromeʻ, or SOS. The cause of this syndrome remains unknown but may be related to pesticides.

Where to see them: https://hawaiibirdingtrails.hawaii.gov/birding_hotspot/puu-waawaa-halapepe-and-ʻohiʻa-trails/

2. Hawaiian Hawk ('Io)

Hawaiian Hawk 2020
Photo credit: Jack Jeffrey

The Hawaiian Hawk, known as the ‘Io, is only found in Hawaii and is a symbol of royalty in Hawaiian culture. It is considered taboo to harm or kill this bird. The ʻIo have a shrill, high-pitched call, almost like an echo of their name!

Deforestation has caused the biggest changes to the habitat of the Hawaiian hawk, and the ‘Io remains the only native member of the hawk family in the Hawaiian Islands. The ‘Io is sometimes seen on Maui, Oahu and Kaua’i but they breed only on the Big Island. The ‘Io often nest in native ‘ōhi’a trees. Their small population, as well as ongoing threats to their native habitat, mean they remain endangered.

Where to see them: At Horizon! We see the ‘Io on a regular basis here at the property. Otherwise, another popular location is https://hawaiibirdingtrails.hawaii.gov/birding_hotspot/honuaula-forest-reserve-makaula-ooma-section/

3. 'Apapane

Apapane
Photo credit: Owen Deutsch

The ‘Apapane feed heavily from the ʻohiʻa flowers and have special brush-tipped tongues in order to get to the nectar. Itʻs the males that have the distinctive calls. They have at least six different calls, composed of a variety of squeaks, whistles and clicking sounds, all interwoven with melodic sequences. 

Key to the future protection of the ‘Apapane is protecting the native forest from development, whether itʻs conversion to agriculture or suburban encroachment. The ʻApapane is found on the Big Island, Maui, Lanaʻi, Kauaʻi, Molokaʻi, and Oʻahu. But the Big Island is where the bulk of the Hawaiian population is situated.

Where to see them: Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

4. Hawaiian Goose (Nēnē)

Photo credit: Jack Jeffrey

A local favorite, the nēnē is endangered but has had a remarkable journey from near extinction in the 1940s. The nēnē are found on the Big Island as well as Maui and Kauaʻi. They are related to the Canadian goose, although the nēnē are smaller in size and are white with black streaks across the neck.

The nēnē population is currently 2,500, making it the world’s rarest goose. It is likely that there were about 25,000 Hawaiian geese living in the islands when Captain James Cook arrived in 1778. Subsequent hunting as well as the impact of introduced predators, such as the Asian mongoose, pigs, and cats, reduced the population to 30 birds by the end of the 1940s.

Where to see them: https://hawaiibirdingtrails.hawaii.gov/birding_hotspot/puu-waawaa-halapepe-and-ʻohiʻa-trails/

5. White-tailed Tropicbird (Koa'e Kea)

The Koaʻe kea have long white tail feathers allowing them to gracefully glide over the ocean. They have a wingspan of three feet and are white with black streaks around the eyes and on the edges of their wings. They feed from the ocean on a diet of fish and squid, and at night they nest on cliffs and in rocky crevices. 

Originally their long tail feathers were used in the making of kahili, the feather standards that surrounded Hawaiian royalty.

Where to see them: https://hawaiibirdingtrails.hawaii.gov/birding_hotspot/keahole-point/

6. Hawaiian Petrel ('Ua'u)

The endangered ‘uaʻu have a 36 inch wingspan and are usually seen near land during their breeding season which is between March and October. This oceangoing bird was originally valued as a source of meat when populations were abundant. 

The ‘au’u are a sooty color on their head, wings and tail, while the underside remains white.

The ‘au’u remains vulnerable to loss of habitat from development and predators such as feral cats, the Asian mongoose, and rats. The Hawaiian petrel was at one time considered to be the same as the Galapagos petrel, and both were known as the dark-rumped petrol. In 2002 the two species were considered to be independent of each other based on genetic and morphologic distinctions.

Where to see them: https://hawaiibirdingtrails.hawaii.gov/birding_hotspot/keahole-point/

7. Ruddy Turnstone ('Akekeke)

The ʻakekeke, or ruddy turnstone, visits Hawaii from August to May. For the rest of the year they live in the arctic. They measure about 9 inches and are brown with white undersides as well as black markings on their heads and chests. During breeding season their bright orange legs and distinctive plumage are hard to miss.

They feed along shorelines and fields when in Hawaii, often turning over rocks, shells and other debris – hence their common name, turnstone! And donʻt forget, their call sounds exactly like their name, ʻakekeke!

Where to see them: https://hawaiibirdingtrails.hawaii.gov/birding_hotspot/kaloko-honokohau-np/

There are plenty more birds to discover on the Big Island. For more details on birdlife on the island check out Hawaii Birding Trails.

Let us know in the comments if you sighted any of our listed birds during your Big Island adventure!

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