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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The cattle egret: Hawaii’s elegant predator

Late summer has brought with it the arrival of a flock of cattle egrets to Horizon Guest House. These brilliantly white birds have found a summer home in the monkey pod tree in the upper pasture. Here they roost at night while during the day they follow the animals, keeping flies and insects at bay.

Cattle egrets originated from Africa, arriving in South America in the late 19th century before spreading through most of the continental United States in the 1940s.

They were first introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in 1959 by the Board of Agriculture and Forestry, in conjunction with local cattle ranchers. The birds were an attempt to try and combat the plague of flies that were affecting cattle herds. The flies were responsible for causing lower than usual weight gain in cattle, as well as causing damage to their hides.[1]

In total, 105 birds were released across the islands. By the early 1980s their population had exploded to approximately 30,000 birds.

Cattle egrets typically grow to around 20 inches and are usually seen in large flocks, within close proximity to wetlands.

Our visiting cattle egrets have quickly found a home in the pasture with the horse, donkeys and goats. The birds are content to follow the herd as it migrates about the pasture during the course of the day. Typically, you’ll find the birds perched on the backs of Sunny (the horse) and Poncho and Lefty (the donkeys).

In this way they provide a useful service to the animals, feeding on the flies that might be bothering them, as well as any insects.

Nest predators

Their impact on other endangered birds though is significant. Cattle egrets are known nest predators. In particular, they prey on the nests of the Hawaiian duck (koloa), Hawaiian stilt (aeo), Hawaiian common moorhen (alae ula) and the Hawaiian coot (alae keokeo). There are even instances of cattle egrets taking prawns from aquaculture farms![2]

The original intention of introducing cattle egrets was to use them as ‘biological control agents’.[3] Instead, these birds have joined a long line of other introduced species that, having failed to solve their original objective, have become part of a bigger problem – causing disruption to indigenous fauna.

Control order

In 2017, a control order was introduced for migratory bird species in Hawaii.[4] This control order targeted cattle egrets and barn owls. It identified them as invasive and threatening to native species. It also concluded that these bird populations could not simply be keep under control by non-lethal means. The order sanctioned the culling of cattle egrets by state and federal employees of specified agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Recognizing the fragile nature of Hawaii’s ecosystem is important to understanding why such action is necessary. Invading or introduced birds like the cattle egret have changed the habitat of some of our most precious and endangered species.[5] Controlled culling of cattle egrets may be the only way Hawaii can safeguard some of its most precious residents from the threat of extinction.

The cattle egret is an elegant bird and provides a service to cattle and other animals, but it’s relationship with endemic species remains problematic.

References

Cattle egret. (n.d). [1] Kaelepulu Wetland. https://kaelepuluwetland.com/birds/cattle-egret/

Cattle egret: Bubulcus ibis. (2012, August 13). [2] Hawaii Forest & Trail. https://www.hawaii-forest.com/cattle-egret-bubulcus-ibis/

Fish and Wildlife Service Interior. (2017, August 24).[4]Migratory bird permits: control order for introduced migratory bird species in Hawaii. Federal register: the daily journal for the United States government. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/07/25/2017-15471/migratory-bird-permits-control-order-for-introduced-migratory-bird-species-in-hawaii

Gosser, R. (2017).[5] From solution to problem: the irony of invasive species. Ke Kalahea, (4). https://hilo.hawaii.edu/news/kekalahea/the-irony-of-invasive-species-2017

Paton, P.W.C., Fellows, D.P. & Tomich, P.Q. (1986). [3] Distribution of cattle egret roosts in Hawaii with notes on the problems egrets pose to airports. ‘Elepaio, 46(13), 143-147. https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/paton/paton6.pdf

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