I have been trying to get this blog out for a few days but have had technical issues....
I went to Neah Bay, WA last week and about an hour after I arrived I spotted my chase bird, a Rustic Bunting, bird 774 for the year, a bird I have seen before and never really photographed well.
Many times this year I have been asked “what my goals for my year are?” Generally I have been loath to say or maybe better put, I wasn’t ever totally sure myself. Dang it though, I was going to do something different and have fun. I looked at the previous efforts from people, like Hayward and Komito and I did the math. 750 didn’t seem possible to me. I added up the vagrants of 2015 again, 750 looked even more doubtful even if I got every bird. I did statistics on percentage chances of birds each year giving me a 2/3 chase success ratio per bird and I came up with 735 maximum, even using 1998 birds, that made 750 look improbable (25%) and I wasn’t even going to Attu.
I thought more about it and also thought of my goal to do something different. The lower 48 record seemed even more insurmountable and I kind of felt like I wanted to work Alaska over and get my ABA lifer list to 750 and then having to reserve a place on a boat for Adak, I again decided that wasn’t a good plan to focus only on the lower 48. I thought about an AOU big year but I didn’t want to fight through Central America and Mexico. In the end I looked at what I stood for. I am an American. I may play up and write about the Scandinavian in me but I’m no more Swedish than my spaniel is English (English springer spaniel). She was born in rural Estelline, South Dakota not Essex or Northumberland. I was born in River Falls, WI. Yes many of my neighbors growing up spoke or understood Swedish and were named Johnson or Anderson but they weren’t named Johnsson or Andersson, which is the Swedish spelling. My great grandfather came across in 1909 the last time from Sweden, and my great grandmother was actually born in Minneapolis, but was maybe more Swedish than her husband in some respects.
So I am an American. To quote Bill Murray, “the loveable mutt.” So why not do an American Big Year? I looked at Neil Hayward’s 740 USA mark and as far as I could tell it was the record and he never went to Hawaii. I could do 740 easily with Hawaii so I made my plan and I made it early. I would start out ABA sort of a head fake, try my 700 in 150 days, and then work plan A. Many if not most of the Hawaiian forest birds were on the edge and I wanted to see them and maybe just maybe I could tell one person of the plight of the birds enough to save one. I don’t know. I do not believe in awareness campaigns but well, nobody seemed to know anything about it. No one that I could find had ever added Hawaii to a Big Year before. One of my birding pals, Don Harrington went in the spring with a guide John Puschock whom I could never mention my intentions to as he could give it away so I listened to Don’s trip and made a mental note and then started research.
I mentioned it to a couple of confidants later last spring and their answer….”I was insane.” Mostly as I was cutting through the ABA area list like a my dog cuts through pizza, they thought I would end up being too much out of position and miss something. It was a valid point and who cared about America anyhow. My answer in that what seeing 750 in the ABA really mattered but it went on deaf ears. I was missing little at ABAdom and I kept at it for a time, but my plan lingered. When I could I ticked off USA birds missing from my year. I had a good trip to Victoria and Newfoundland but slowly I began to eliminate bird after bird missing from my list until…shockingly, it was down to 4 birds. Only one bird that I should have in the USA remained, a sooty grouse. I had a well-meaning guy in June on my blog advise me to sneak over there to HI and rack up the score and I trashed him a bit in response as I didn’t want to give my plan away. I originally booked my HI plane tickets for the end of July but I decided to postpone my scheduled July trip to go to St Paul and gather missing birds, the wood sandpiper called me and well I later saw three of them, but I did get a mottled petrel out of that trip and didn’t miss anything else in the lower 48.
I then decided that I needed to do Hawaii in October. It only seemed to fit then and I began the painstaking process of getting permission. It was September when I got shocked by a conversation in Gambell….the ABA was voting on adding Hawaii. Many talked of going. I played dumb and was cool even though I ended up voting for the addition and had tickets already booked. The ABA stands for the American Birding Association and last I checked, Hawaii was an American state so not including it in the ABA area seemed like a big diss to me. That was my final argument before I voted yes. The idea that it would help the birds I thought the opposite. It would put so much pressure on the birding guides the few there and the infrastructure, it would backfire. Listers want to list and many of these places which I will get to, maybe more in a follow up blog are not visitor friendly.
On October 28, then, was a day that may live in infamy, the American Birding Association (ABA) changed their geographic listing area to add Hawaii. This has been a project long in the making with the membership voting against it a half decade ago but this year, this time it passed. Now my secret plan was basically everyone’s plan BUT they did not change it for 2016 which basically ruins all of our big years in 2016 as breaking whatever mark any of us achieves will be easy—just get 730 and go to Hawaii, very very easy to do, IMHO.
So now I had a problem. Of course for my USA year I would get a huge number, easily breaking Neil’s record by 80 to 90 birds, BUT I would put a “Non-official” number up for the New ABA. I would look like I did this last minute. This is about me and not a record and so in essence it would be some sort of asterisk record, but I guess I would give pause to someone crowing about putting up a 790 “New” ABA big year next year and claiming a record.
So what did that mean for me? Really nothing. I was in San Diego as scheduled for a pelagic and on October 30th coincidentally the weekend of the vote, I headed west from San Diego as planned. You can’t just show up in Hawaii and expect to get all the birds. In the end, I don’t care what the ABA says or does in regards to me. This is a personal list. Hawaii bird recovery needs to be pushed, if not by me, by someone. My record, my achievement is not about ego, it is about my sabbatical year of birding. I will never get this year again, I will not do a big year again, and I doubt I will ever so much as get an email or any message from anyone in the ABA hierarchy or past big year birders and that is okay. Who really am I anyhow? I’ve been waiting out a non-compete and decided early retirement was a great plan, so next year….I’m working on my tan, my recipes, and writing, and unless there is some sort of outcry by you the readers….I will NOT be writing about this big year. Who really cares? I mean that. I'm not even sure my family understands what I have done.
Anyway, on October 30th, filled with stupidity and throwing all caution to the wind, as I implied above, I made a break to paradise… I called this trip Operation Tiny Bubbles. For the USA record. I use the Bishop’s Museum established bird list as it is the best list available today and available in the past. Hayward could have came and used in 2013 as could Chris Hilt etc. (they didn't). Many exotics on the islands have been established for almost a century others 40 to 50 years. However the “New ABA” list is unsettled, so for my counting in the USA, I have taken ABA plus Bishop’s list and for the “New” ABA mark, I will post numbers for endemics added to my ABA total and make all exotics provisionals pending ABA sorting out the checklist next year and move exotics added down and throw out the ones not included. There is little doubt a bird like the Japanese white-eye will be excluded from the list as it was an introduction in the 1920s. Mitred parakeet and yellow-faced grassquit….both recent 1970s era introductions and not widespread may be doubtful and the Kauai’s red jungle fowl and Maui’s pea fowl, both established longer ago than our house sparrow, I don’t know what to expect.
THERE IS TROUBLE IN PARADISE, however. If you didn’t know, and most don’t. Hawaii has a very few native passerine birds, called forest birds to keep it simple. The birds all descend from a few flocks of finches and thrushes that must have been blown in centuries ago by storms and evolved to many species. Many have become extinct, many recently…the handsome and incredibly great singer the Kauai O’o’ and a similar Bishop’s O’o’ have become extinct in the late 1980s, just 30 years ago. The Bishop’s O’o’ extinction is like so heartbreaking. The story is maybe the most depressing story ever. The bird last seen in 1904, was possibly rediscovered on the flanks of Haleakala in 1981, but that discovery was never confirmed, witnessed, and the bird was never heard or seen again. The birder reporting it, I heard changed his name to something New Aga like Meadow Brook or something like that (I know his real name but just do not wish to share it, so if you know the story don;t share it). He moved to Oregon, got a second wife, a law degree then ordained, and began his own church. The Kauai O’o’ was last heard in the wild in the late 80s (87 or 89) by a male as it was said, singing to a female that would never come. Despite this (these) events, the decline continues, in fact it is accelerating.
Essentially, Hawaii’s bird life is the greatest ongoing ecological disaster, that shockingly, no one seems to hear about or even care about, at least outside of Hawaii. I do give credit to the ABA for bringing this up this year. The posters and tourist trade don’t want you to think about what is really going on in the islands. The appearance is what matters in Hawaii, but to help these birds, in my opinion, the state seems to be paralyzed or maybe it is the Federal money as I have learned, or more accurately that very little makes it for these birds. There seems to be this false idea of an island utopia here, but this is a façade. The Hawaiian Crow, now extinct in the wild, has been part of an captive breeding program for years but releases got attacked and killed shortly after their release by Hawaiian hawks, also an endangered species. The biggest issue appear to be from an outbreak of toxoplasmosis gotten from the crows playing with cat feces, which it is believed they did as it is shaped like the monkey chow that they had been fed in captivity.
It seems to me that birds that need extensive teaching by parents, like crows, and ones terrorized by hawks seeing the crows as easy pickings maybe should be released on Maui, where they don’t have hawks. Maybe they should use a food that doesn't look like cat turds...IDK. I guess the ranchers on Maui don’t seem keen on that idea and a new group is leading the recovery project. All I can say is landowners rule Hawaii so it is an uphill climb.
The US Fish and Game has been working hard to save the Mariana swiftlet on Guam, but they seem absent in Hawaii, leaving an underfunded state or private parties to handle the burden. Hawaii has 45% of the endangered species in the USA but only get 4% of the funding BTW. Oddly for reasons not apparently part of conservation (bug control), a satellite population of swiftlets were placed on Oahu in the 1960s, just before their native population was decimated. It was an accident bordering on genius but even a blind dog finds a bone…occasionally.
So why the die off? It is a long and intertwined story. Basically everything that could go wrong did go wrong. First, the native Hawaiians logged off the native trees for fields to feed the growing population and then they had major logging operations to sell sandlewood to China to line trunks with, as the wood smelled good in lined trunks. The sandlewood is now almost extinct. Then, when Americans came in the late 1800s, we essentially finished the job, exploiting everything and anything for a buck. Instead of replanting native trees, our US Forest service planted mainland trees, Mexican pines, or Australian trees, and the Japanese immigrants planted cedars because that was a sacred tree back home and they used them for temple construction. Nobody thought that none of this fed the birds. Nobody seemed capable of understanding even forestry 100 years ago. Forestry seems like an easy science to me to comprehend but time and time again, we see bad choices and neglect. Pigs and rats and overgrazing have also destroyed habitat and young birds, especially seabirds. Because hunters want to hunt things we released big game animals around and they ate things birds liked to eat and live in.
Then there came a wave of diseases—avian pox killed off many and then mosquitoes came (from ships, cargo, etc.) and then they brought in avian malaria which seems to not affect introduced birds like the myna, which serve as carriers of it. As the mosquitoes expand in population and move up the elevations, destruction of all the native birds has happened. Low islands like Molola’i and Lana’i are basically native bird free now, and this problem has taken decades, it has basically been only in the last few years that it has became worse. Population drops of 25% a year in some species has happened. The mosquitoes have reached nearly five thousand feet in Kaua’i and they have only a few hundred feet left on the tallest peaks to be free of the killers. Unable or unwilling to use genetically modified mosquitoes to drop the numbers of bugs, the end on that island is basically assured. No one cares about saving birds. Maybe to control Zika...but not birds. The director of the Forest Bird Recovery Project calls the response on this matter “intolerably slow.”
Hawaii also has this issue of many introduced birds, like the myna, but why so many? Concerned parties in the 20s and 30s introduced birds to fill the void left by extinction and decline. People like birds in their gardens. Also, many hunting game birds were introduced later in the 50s and have become established. Some introduced birds like the red-vented bulbul, were introduced in a misguided attempt to control insects. These birds have become an even bigger agricultural threat than what they were introduced to help. The bulbuls like eating the crops and they did well in the islands and are now everywhere.
This trip—I called this secret project, Operation Tiny Bubbles (sorry Mr. Ho), I figured what I was up to wasn’t anyone else’s business but my own. I would put out this blog in December. I planned on hitting the smaller islands for a four day blitzkrieg of Maui, Kauai, and Oahu. I got lucky when I decided to go as one of the access roads to Kauai’s native birds last hold out location closed November 6th for 6 months, blocking access to anyone after me. They were taking out a bridge and even when I went down that road on November 1st, with a guy named David Kuhn, expert local birder, the road was almost impassible due to mud.
In not making this trip widely known, I figured everyone needs an edge. I put out a newspaper article in mid-November in my regular column in the Watertown Public Opinion so it wasn’t like it was secret and those same people who called me insane knew I was “off the grid.” Nate Swick of the ABA blog figured it out but I ignored it. But birds were being found, like the Amazon kingfisher found when I was landing in Honolulu, and a ruddy ground dove and a gray-headed chickadee (which I have never seen a photo of) were reported two days later, so I needed to get in and get out, and well, it was intense birding. I saw 39 new species of birds including all the three introduced francolins, a grouse like bird that is hard to find. All but a handful, lifers (I had birded Maui a little in 2000, but my wife was expecting my youngest, my birding buddy L, so I only had a quick day to bird).
This was no “vacation.” I raced around the island, then the next island, went to sea to get the endangered Newell’s shearwater and tropicbirds and spent every daylight hour birding, repositioning to another island after dark. I spent a minute on a beach in Kaua’i trying to check out a river mouth. The only time I put my toes in the sand.
I found a Hawaiian Black necked stilts (not a full species above), then turned around and founf Hawaiian duck and African silverbills and bolted to the next spot. I ate on the run if at all. I hiked more miles than I slept, 28 versus 18, it was a tiring 4 days. I even sacrificed seeing the 7th game of the World Series. “Cub’s win!” My son Allwin called me unsure of even what state I was in. I was in Maui waiting on a plane to Oahu.
I had three major bird memories of the year here. One was finding an akikiki, on Kaua’i now critically endangered, the population has declined from around 3000 in 2012 to less than a thousand now. I suspect this little forest bird on Kauai only has a few years left to go and it will be gone for good. It feeds by probing bark for insects and is restricted to Alaka'i swamp area.
The Amiamiau was another bird I desired to see. Luckily, I found a gorgeous yellowish male or it found me as I was taking my only rest off of my feet during the day that involved hiking twelve miles through mud, stepping in quicksand, and in places climbing hand over hand using roots to go up and down a steep incline. A male amiamiau appeared near me as David and I sat there. It popped out and gave me a look just like it was a bird saying good bye to me forever, I just watched the creature unable or willing to spoil the moment trying to grab a camera. Small and very yellow, the yellowist bird on the island, I will carry the vision of this bird to my grave. It was like a vison from a time long gone or nearly so. It was our second bird or second look at the same bird. Populations have declined, maybe not as bad as akikiki or akeke'e, but well, David Kuhn, who as I said led me into this morass of forest thinks it is only a matter of time, like a few years....sadly.
Not a lifer memory but the Kaua’i elepaio will undoubtedly be the last Kauai forest bird extirpated, but its numbers are only slightly holding up better. Split in 2010 from the other island elepaios, which I didn’t learn had happened until after I passed on the Oahu bird when I was there, it is the only Monarch flycatcher on the island, acts a lot like Taiga flycatcher from Asia and its allies. AS I said there are similar species on Oahu and Hawaii. They are cute and showy birds.
My third memory is of the Akeke’e—a very difficult bird now to find, no doubt a population crash from 4000 to around 800 in 3 years has added to that. The Akeke’e has a large bluish bill with a mask. We saw about 5 or 6 individuals of this extremely critically endangered bird and this was the last forest bird I saw on Kauai as I walked out of the forest and it also acted like it was saying good-bye. As I write this tears are coming to my eyes. Sadly, I doubt I will ever see ANY Kauai forest birds again. This bird will not last the next Presidential term and all I can say to the world is no one really seems to care. I’m glad to see Neil Hayward promoting a cause to help these birds, way to go Neil. So, okay someone cares, but not enough. Here we just voted and I don’t remember anyone worrying about these birds.
I tried and missed to get a puaiohi, a small Kaua’i thrush. David and I struggled through roots and mud in the most difficult ordeal physically I have yet tried this year. He wanted me to describe the route we took...intense and demanding I thought. Frightening would be a better word. Unfortunately, the near extinct bird was nowhere to be found. Sigh, I fear I lost my one chance to ever see the bird and despite hanging onto trees heading back up the mountain, I was not disappointed that I tried. David surmises that there is a few hundred now, he gives them a few years, then….no more. Sobering, when one thinks of the shoulder shrug of the best local biologist in finding these birds when I ask if anything can be done. It was like this trip, it seemed and felt like going to visit a terminal relative for the last time. What has been done is done.
That amiamiau seemed to want for me to remember it when It came to be seen by me. I have never cried writing a report before but I have tears in my eyes thinking of these birds. I didn’t go to write an obituary but I think I just did.
I fear paradise is lost here on Hawaii, at least in the battle for these birds lives. Now I have been reading there is concern over snakes, released from owners and I won’t even get to this terrible fungus on the Big Island, I will save that depressing tale for another time. I don’t know what to tell anyone to do, or even who to tell it to. Maybe the ABA adding Hawaii will help…I doubt it, the die seems cast long ago, but I guess it can’t hurt.
So there you go, this was a monumental and once in a lifetime trip tears and all, I have not often cried myself to sleep but I did on November 1st 2016, It was a sad day and I saw 8 lifer birds It was somewhat cut short by an Amazon kingfisher and was only actually three days.
Although after pouring my heart out in this blog, many will wonder what totals does this yield? As of December 12, 2016
My real totals are as follows:
ABA 774 (+2, +2)
New ABA 793 (+22, +2)*
*will always be unofficial, to them,
USA, The American Big Year, 809 (+1, +2)
Second number in provisional is awaiting correct ID, first number waiting checklist addition
There is a question? Is 850 the new 800? I guess I’m an ABA guy so the new ABA territory, that is my list. No classic for me...
White tailed tropicbird in North Carolina….got it in HI, no chases there as is the great frigatebird…..maybe I’ll get to 850 soon, it is going to be close.
Some pictures and thoughts of what I found…..in order I found them
OPERATION: TINY BUBBLES
Date: Oct 30-November 2, 2016
Location: Oahu, Maui, Kauai, HI
HP= Hawaii Provisional exotic
H= Hawaiian endemic
HP1 Common Waxbill
First appeared in late 70s on Oahu, now widespread to most islands. Tough to separate from black-rumped waxbill which actuallly has a white undertail cover
HP2 Zebra Dove
HP3 Red-vented Bulbul
HP4 Yellow Fronted Canary
first brought to Oahu from Africa in 1960s and established shortly afterwards. Handsome birds
HP5 Red-crested Cardinal
Here with Pacific golden plovers, brought from South America way back in the 1930s, widespread not on big island.
H1 White Tern
HP6 Rose-ringed parakeet
The first parrot species to become established in Hawaii, from escaped cage birds
HP7 Red-billed Leiothrix
Noisy little buggers. Introduced over 100 years ago from Asia, actually extirpated on Kauai for unknown reasons, but on most other island.
Probably will survive for longest as it is flexible to habitat and has some mosquito borne illness resitance, but who knows?
HP8 Mariana Swiftlet
Cool bird, one of my goal birds to find. It was a challenge. Endangered in home range of Guam and Saipan, where pesticides, rats, tree snakes etc have decimated the population. Extirpated on Rota from pesticide use in 1970s, populations hit hard on other islands as well. Unlike native forest birds, USFW working hard to keep this bird from extinction. Established on Oahu in 1962 and 1965, a very small population exists. It could be said that it was bright to establish an emergency population from Guam back then but it was only for easthetic reasons and to control insects, and had nothing to do with a later decline in the population in its home range. Seeing one (and I either saw one 6 times or up to six individuals) was a highlight of the year.
H3 Oahu Amakihi
Seems to be holding its own and populations are not being reduced so has some resitence to avian malaria.
HP9 Japanese White-eye
brought to island in 1927 from Japan. Pretty widespread.
Fairly widespread and along with Apapane, seems to be holding its own. A bird I first saw in 2000, my first Hawaiian honeycreeper I ever saw
H5 Maui Creeper "Alauahio"
Endangered and restricted to sides of volcano on Maui, small, and stays in underbrush
H6 Hawaii Amakihi (Maui SSp.)
Found on eastern islands, seems to be holding tis own currently in race for survival. Maybe a bird that will be split off from the Hawaiian spp.
The melodious laughingthrush, been present from China for over 100 years. We had one in bush singing six feet from us, after we jumped it on trail, and despite all kinds of efforts, it would NOT show itself. As they say, frequently heard but not seen. One local birder who is in the field 200 days a year sees this bird only once a year
H7 Hawaiian Goose (nene)
Once almost extirpated they have made quite a comeback in 50 years.
H8 Hawaiian Coot
Fairly widespread species of coot.
HP11 Gray Francolin
brought to the islands as a game bird in 1957, it has established since then. I had been trying to photograph one all day as they flush and scurry worse than anything I have encountered but this bird just stopped thinking I couldn't see it.
HP12 Chestnut Munia
First reported in 1941, they have flourished and after I staked out a waterhole, it seemed the entire local population came in to bathe.
HP13 Orange Cheeked Waxbill
first seen in the 1960s in Oahu, now a very tough bird to find as restricted to pockets on a few islands
HP14 Java Sparrow
Sort of becoming the house sparrow on Hawaii, been around for a long time, I do not have a date of introduction.
HP15 Common Peafowl
I ran into one of these around a wildlife pond nearing dark on Maui, brought to islands in 1860, wild populations exist as was the one I ran into but we'll see what the ABA does, will keep this provisional. I never thought about taking a picture until it ran away.
HP16 Red Junglefowl
Believed to be descendants from birds brought with native polynesians when they came to the islands for food and then escaped....however, populations increased after Iniki devestated Kauai two decades ago. It is always said the they a "wild" near Koke'e, and I saw them there but will take this as provisional as I have grave doubts that despite this being on the Bishop Museum list, the ABA will certify this species.
HP17 White-rumped Shama
Introduced in 1931 and 1940 from Malaysia. Neat bird was impressive upon first sighting
Critically endangered, population has declined from around 3000 in 2012 to less than a thousand now, suspect this little forest bird on Kauai only has a few years left and it will be gone for good. It feeds by probing bark for insects and is restricted to Alaka'i swamp area.
H10 Kauai Amakihi
These were around dancing high in the trees here and there, seen briefly but unable to get a camera on one...and then I forgot I hadn't got a camera on one
H11 Kauai Elepaio
This will undoubtedly be the last Kauai forest bird extirpated, but its numbers are only slightly holding up better. Split in 2012 from the other island elepaios, the only Monarch flycatcher on the island, acts a lot like Taiga flycatcher from Asia and its allies. Originally I didn't know they were split.
Gorgeous yellow males, we were taking our only rest off feet during the day and then a male appeared near us. It popped out and just like it was a bird saying good by to us forever, I just watched the creature unable or willing to spoil the moment trying to grab camera. Small and very yellow. It was our second bird or second look at the same bird. Populations have declined, maybe not as bad as akikiki or Akeke'e, but well, David Kuhn thinks it is only a matter of time....sadly
A very difficult bird now to find, no doubt a population crash from 4000 to around 800 in 3 years has added to that. Has large bluish bill with a mask, one of the three year highlights was seeing this bird along with swiftlet and Akikiki. We saw about 5 or 6 individuals and this was the last forest bird I saw on Kauai as I walked out like it was saying good bye. As I write this tears are coming to my eyes. I doubt I will ever see ANY Kauai forest birds again. This bird will not last the next Presidential term and all I can say to the world is no one seems to care.
HP18 Erkel's Francolin
Brought in in 1957. Largest Francolin, I saw two at dusk along road driving down from Kokoe.
H14 Wedge-tailed Shearwater
H15 Newell's shearwater
Endagered, local breeder. Immatures coming off nests when I was there. Seen them right away in the morning in the boat and then mostly replaced by Wedge tailed shearwaters
H17 Red-tailed tropicbird
HP19 African Silverbill
Arrived in the 1970s, has expanded from the Big Island, from Africa
Of these 39 of these birds 19 are endemic and will have to be added to list, so I will add 39 to my USA list and my ABA plus Hawaii list (subject to revision) of 19 plus the 20 prov.
Part one of the clandestine operation completed, maybe there was a part two, as in the second ticket to paradise....maybe not, back then, I hurried home to collect 2 rare birds seen as of November 4th--
the Amazon and the ruddy ground dove