Yesterday I was fortunate to take Gerry, Lucy & Gwen to Hakalau Forest NWR for a day of birding. They were on vacation from Australia and Gerry's main goal for this trip was to see 3 native birds, 'Akepa, Creeper, and 'Akiapōlā'au (Aki) Gerry has been waiting for this chance since 1984 when he was visiting Hawaii as a young man hitchhiking and birding around the islands, but he was unable to see these 3 birds. During his previous visit Hakalau refuge was just getting underway and the first native Koa's were being planted. Now over 30 years later, after hundreds of thousands trees have been planted, and fence lines installed around 33,000 acres, some of the most beautiful native birds in Hawaii were waiting for him to return.
The weather could not have been better for visiting the refuge yesterday. Sunny skies and light breezes made it the best day in weeks.
With 'I'iwi and 'Apapane (our 2 most numerous and vocal birds) away feeding at lower elevations the forest was very quiet, but 'Amakihi, 'Elepaio, 'Oma'o, and even I'o (Hawaiian Hawks) did not disappoint. However, it wasn't until after lunch and a ways into the refuge before we finally were treated to a small feeding flock of 'Ākepa's and Hawaii Creepers. These two birds held 2nd & 3rd place on Gerry's must-see list. All that was left now was #1 'Akiapōlā'au (Aki for short).
'Akiapõlā'au is one of Hawaii's most critically endangered birds. It exists only on Hawaii island and nowhere else. The male and female will only produce one egg which, after fledging, will remain with it's parents for at least a year so it can learn to use it's specialized bill. There are only 3 nesting pairs in the area we are visiting. One pair near the top of the refuge, one in the middle and a third near the "bottom", making the task of finding Aki a worthwhile one.
After trekking to the "bottom" and beginning our way back up our hopes of seeing Aki were beginning to dim. Then a bird flew very close to my head. Close enough that I felt it's presence and saw it's shadow and although I suspected who it was before I could turn fully to confirm my suspicions Gerry announced we had our bird. Without a call or a song the male had swooped in to pay us a much needed visit.
He was feeding intently in a large sprawling Koa about 30 feet above our heads and just yards below where we had left our packs earlier. The look on Gerry's face was priceless and I knew nothing could beat that moment... I soon realized I was wrong.
While enjoying our views of the male, the female began calling just behind us and I was just able to get a clear look at her bill and the banding on her leg before she departed. But it doesn't stop there. Moments later as we ascended to retrieve our packs and begin our victorious march back the car, there came yet another song from a different male followed right away by the call of it's mate. They were feeding within 20 feet of us and just a few feet above our heads. We had found the 2nd family from the middle section almost within arms reach it seemed.
As we stood in silence admiring one of the rarest birds in the world for the second time that day, I overhead Lucy say to her husband "Happy birthday dear. You did it".
It was moving and I felt fortunate to have been there. Needless to say the long walk back to the SUV didn't seem so long and our tea and coffee upon getting there really hit the spot.
Mahalo Gerry, Lucy & Gwen for making the long trek to Hawaii and asking me to show such a special place. Have a safe trip home.