Hawaii is home to more than two dozen bird species unique to the Hawaiian Islands. While other regions of the U.S. boast unique species of birds, these regions can be quite spread out. In Hawaii, you’re much more likely to see the area’s unique species thanks to the relatively small square mileage of the islands.
For this reason, and for the rarity of Hawaiian birds and the utter beauty of the Hawaiian Islands, the state is regarded as a top birding location. But before you pack your bags, checklist, and binoculars, check out these 10 tips for bird-watching in Hawaii.
1. Focus On A Few Of The Islands
If you’re a realist, you’re probably not planning on spotting all the endemic birds of Hawaii in one trip, but it’s still good to do some planning to ensure you’ll check a satisfactory number of species off of your list.
Give yourself plenty of time to visit each of the islands for the best opportunity to see the most unique species. A couple of days for the two smaller islands and at least three days for the larger two are a safe bet. This will allow you to cover extra ground or make up for time lost due to bad weather.
2. Check Out The National Parks And Wildlife Refuges
There are plenty of amazing places to go bird-watching in Hawaii. Three of the four main birding islands are home to national parks or wildlife refuges that are ripe for birding. The Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park is great for just about any outdoor adventure, including bird-watching. Koolau Forest Reserve in northern Maui offers two great birding trails. Oahu has some challenging terrain but also offers great opportunities for spotting a wide variety of species.
3. Make Time For The Top Birding Trails
Sometimes you just need to get out there and do some bird-watching for the best chance at a rare sighting. There are a handful of trails that are highly esteemed for the bird-sighting opportunities they offer.
The Ke Ala Hele Makalae trail runs for 7 miles on Kauai and offers plenty of other things to see and do for the non-birders in your party. The Pearl Harbor Bike Path on Oahu is a great place to spot coastal species while learning about the area’s history. The trail features high-traffic areas as well as quiet boardwalks. Another great birding trail to spot seabirds is the Kaena Point Trail on Oahu. It closes down whenever the path is damaged, so check with the Division of State Parks ahead of time to make sure it’s accessible.
4. Take Advantage Of Bad Weather
The weather on the Hawaiian Islands can change rather quickly, and so birders in the area should be prepared for anything. The area’s shifts in precipitation and temperature can be extreme. Hawaii’s Big Island alone is home to four of the five Köppen climate types, including tropical, dry, temperate, and polar.
Birds spend most of their time foraging, but they take a break whenever it storms. Once the storm has passed, birds -- including the spectacular iiwi -- increase their activity to make up for lost time. No one can predict the weather, so don’t plan your trip around birding after storms, but keep it in mind for a chance to spot some rare birds.
5. Don’t Let Bugs Cut Your Expedition Short
Sometimes the bugs can become unbearable when you’re outdoors. Hawaii doesn’t have any killer insects to be afraid of, but there are plenty of mosquitoes. For the best birding experience, wear light, loose-fitting clothing with long sleeves and/or long pants. Treat your skin with DEET or picaridin-based formulas for extra protection before you head outside.
6. Set Reasonable Goals
It’s nearly impossible to spot all of the bird species endemic to the Hawaiian Islands due to their rarity and constantly decreasing numbers. To avoid disappointment, set a more reasonable goal, such as spotting all of Hawaii’s most iconic birds.
One bird that should certainly make your list is the nene or Hawaiian goose, the state bird. It is endangered, so it won’t be quite as easy as spot as you might think.
The iiwi, or Hawaiian honeycreeper, is another iconic bird of the Hawaiian Islands. You’ll find the stunning red bird at high elevations on all four of the popular birding islands of Hawaii. The species used to be more common, but increasing numbers of mosquitoes in the area have spread avian diseases that harm the iiwi population.
Don’t be upset if you don’t check off every bird on your list; instead, be grateful for the experience and for the birds you did see. After all, you had the incredible opportunity to look for birds in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
7. Don’t Be Afraid To Look For The Rarest Species
Some people’s idea of adventure is taking on the toughest challenges. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, once said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars,” and that particularly applies to birding on Hawaii.
If you’ve traveled all the way to Hawaii, you’re well positioned to spot some of the rarest birds in the world. If you visit Kauai, you’ll be sharing the island with the akikiki, a bird whose population in the wild is down to around 500. You may not find the rarest bird species, but you’ll spot plenty of other incredible species while you look, so you might as well try.
8. Consider Taking A Guided Tour
Visiting the Hawaiian Islands can feel like visiting another country. Many things are the same, but even more are different. Couple this with the fact that the beauty of the state can be wildly distracting (in a good way), and you may not end up with as much birding time as you had planned. You may find yourself staring at some incredible, otherworldly foliage while Maui creepers are flying overhead unnoticed.
One way to make the most of your time on the islands -- and to make sure you’re not missing the best birds the destination has to offer -- is to take a guided hike offered by the National Park Service at Haleakala National Park or a private company such as Hawaii Forest & Trail. Hawaii Forest & Trail offers several tours related to birding, and it provides custom touring options as well.
If a single-excursion birding tour won’t cut it, there are multiday birding adventures available for booking. These are perfect if you and your party are traveling to Hawaii specifically for bird-watching. Eagle-Eye Tours offers a 12-day adventure that takes you to Kauai, Oahu, and the Big Island looking for honeycreepers and other rare, endangered, and endemic species.
9. Attend The Hawaii Island Festival Of Birds
If a region is hosting a birding festival, odds are that it’s a great time to bird-watch in that area, and the Hawaii Island Festival of Birds is no exception. Unfortunately, this year’s event, which was slated to take place on the week of October 24, had to be cancelled due to road closures and other unforeseen events. The good news is that next year’s festival is expected to go on as planned, giving you plenty of time to schedule and make plans.
Going to a birding festival allows you to meet others who are as passionate about birds as you are. You’ll get to share your knowledge and experience of some of the most difficult-to-spot avian species on the planet. While the 2019 Hawaii Island Festival of Birds has been cancelled, guided tours are still available, so if you plan on being in Hawaii that week, they may be worth a look.
Hawaii is home to some of the most exciting and unique bird-watching in the world. If you’re a birding enthusiast or simply love the outdoors, take a week or two to visit the Hawaiian Islands for a chance to see rare, endangered, and vulnerable bird species in their natural habitats. The experience will create lifelong memories. Follow these tips to help make the most of your bird-watching trip to Hawaii.