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Birds of Hawaii – A Photographic Essay

May 17, 2012

Periodically I have visited the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Kauai, photographing their spectacular landscapes, flora and fauna. Kauai, sometimes referred to as the Garden Isle, is the oldest and furthest northwest of the inhabited Hawaiian islands. The most eroded of these volcanic islands, Kauai features lush vegetation and beautiful mountains, cliffs, waterfalls and beaches, providing ideal nesting sites for many species of birds. Maui, also known as the Valley Isle, is the second youngest of the Hawaiian islands and is located northwest of the big island of Hawaii, from which it is separated by a 26-mile-wide channel. Maui was formed by two volcanoes: the volcano that produced the somewhat eroded West Maui Mountains, and the giant Mount Haleakala, 10,000 feet high and about 30 miles across at its base. The two sections of the island are separated by a flat isthmus, or valley, giving rise to the island’s nickname.

Of particular interest to me are Hawaii’s birds, which include many species that are rarely if ever seen in other parts of the United States. One of the best locations to view such unusual birds is the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, on the north shore of Kauai several miles east of the resort town of Princeville. Kilauea Point is a 187-foot high promontory that juts out into the Pacific Ocean and is the northernmost point of the inhabited Hawaiian islands. At the end of the promontory sits the Kilauea Point Lighthouse (Note: you may click on any photo in this article to see a larger version):


Looking east from Kilauea Point, you can see rugged cliffs characteristic of the coastline of Kauai, which serve as nesting sites for thousands of large seabirds:

A visit to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is an experience not to be missed by any lover of the natural world and its wildlife. The seabirds that can be seen at the refuge include Laysan albatrosses, red-footed boobies, red-tailed and white-tailed tropicbirds, great frigatebirds, and wedge-tailed shearwaters. The most numerous are the red-footed boobies, which nest by the thousands on the neighboring cliffs. At the time of my most recent visit to the refuge in March of 2015, the cliffs were sheltering 1,500 pairs of red-footed boobies, all busy gathering materials to build nests, tearing out pieces of vegetation from the perimeter of Kilauea Point and flying off with them to their nesting sites. Here is a red-footed booby (Sula sula) about to grab an attractive piece of vine:

Up in the sky, they could be seen in full flight with their nest-building materials:

The job of gathering and bringing back nest-building materials is given to the male birds of the species. Their efforts are not always successful:



Red-footed boobies were also visible perched in nearby trees — note the distinctive red webbed feet and blue bill:


Here is another shot of a red-footed booby in flight:


Another seabird often seen flying by at Kilauea Point is the Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) (Mōlī, in Hawaiian). These birds have a wingspan of about 6-1/2 feet. Nearly the entire world population of this species lives in the northwest Hawaiian islands:


Hovering overhead in a strong wind were red-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon rubricauda):

In this shot, I caught a red-tailed tropicbird on a rapid fly-by:


And here is another diving over the ocean:


And here is another resident of the area: a great frigatebird (Fregata minor). These birds have a wingspan of as much as eight feet:


Male great frigatebirds are entirely black except for an inflatable patch of red skin in the throat (known as a gular sac). The females can be distinguished by their white throat and breast, as well as a red eye ring:


Numerous cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) may be seen strutting on the ground at the refuge, as well as in many other locations in Hawaii:

Cattle egrets have broad, adaptable diets: primarily insects, plus other invertebrates, fish, frogs, mammals, and birds. Here is one that is about to make a meal out of a gecko it picked out of the top of a hedge in Kihei, Maui:


Another good location to see and photograph birds is the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, located just north of the town of Kihei on Maui. You are sure to find several species of unusual birds there, including the indigenous Hawaiian black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus):


Cattle egrets also abound there:


I don’t mean to suggest that you need to visit a wildlife refuge in order to see birds in Hawaii. Colorful and interesting birds abound just about everywhere in the Hawaiian islands. For example, I found this red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronata) at the Makena Landing on the southwest coast of Maui:


Red-crested cardinals are indigenous to Brazil, Argentina and other parts of South America, and in fact are also known as Brazilian cardinals. They were introduced to Hawaii around 1930 and today are common throughout the Hawaiian islands. Here is one that I found hopping about behind our condo on the north shore of Kauai:


Despite the similarity of names, the red-crested cardinal is not a close relative of the all-red (in the case of the male) northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), which is found throughout the eastern and southeastern US, southeastern Canada and parts of Mexico. Not only are the two species not members of the same genus (Paroaria vs. Cardinalis), they are not even members of the same family (Thraupidae vs. Cardinalidae).

Laysan albatrosses nest on the ground just about anywhere they choose. Here is a pair that decided to set up house at the edge of the Princeville golf course on the north coast of Kauai:


Always graceful and majestic in flight, Laysan albatrosses can frequently be seen cruising over the north coast of Kauai, near Princeville and Hanalei:


The champion songbird of the islands is clearly the white-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus). Native to India and Southeast Asia, these birds were introduced to the island of Kauai from Malaysia in 1931, and later to Oahu. They have a distinctive, complex and beautiful song that is readily recognizable.


The Japanese white-eye (Zosterops japonicus) is a small perching bird that was introduced to Hawaii in 1929 to control insects. Today their numbers throughout the Hawaiian Islands have increased to such an extent that, by consuming a large portion of the available food supply in some areas, they have reportedly become a threat to native Hawaiian species of birds, which have suffered stunted growth and reduced populations.


Another non-native bird which is now very common indeed in Hawaii is the common myna (Acridotheres tristis tristis). These birds are native to south Asia and were introduced to Hawaii in 1865 to control an infestation of army worms. They are aggressive, gregarious, noisy and omnivorous, and are widely viewed as an invasive species and a pest.

The spotted dove (Spilopelia chinensis) is commonly seen foraging on the ground throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Originally native to the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia, it was probably introduced to Hawaii from Southeast Asia in the late 1800’s.


Seen below is the Pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulva), known in Hawaii as the Kolea, in non-breeding plumage. These birds are migratory and spend the summer months (May through August) in Alaska, where they breed. They then fly nonstop to Hawaii, where they spend the winter months. The flight to Hawaii covers about 3,000 miles and takes only about 3 to 4 days. The birds return to Alaska the following summer, for a total round trip distance of some 6,000 miles. How they manage to find their destinations while flying over thousands of miles of open ocean is a mystery.


The black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is commonly seen throughout Hawaii. This one decided to hang out on a pond at The Mill House restaurant, on Maui.

Not to be forgotten is the nene, or native Hawaiian goose (Branta sandvicensis), which is the official state bird of Hawaii:


Like many other native Hawaiian species of birds, the nene is listed as endangered, a consequence of loss of habitat and competition for limited resources from imported invasive species of birds, including some of those described above.

These photos present just a small sample of the wonders available for viewing at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, and other locations throughout the Hawaiian islands. Apart from the amazing birds, you may also spot breaching humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, green sea turtles, and rare monk seals (only 1,200 left on earth).

Other photos of Hawaii’s birds, as well as landscapes and other Hawaiian sights, may be seen in the Birds of Hawaii Gallery and the Hawaii Gallery on my photo website.  For additional information about my photography, please see my photography Facebook page.

Phil Haber

Copyright © 2015 Philip A. Haber

  1. I agree, whale season is the most azimang time of the year to visit Maui, Kauai and the Big Island. There is nothing like seeing a 50 ton animal hurl itself completely out of the water making a splash the size of a 4 story building. It is really a magical time to be in Hawaii. In Maui I recommend going on a snorkeling trip during whale season. Since there are so many whales in the water and the boats have to slow down and dodge them, you end up getting a two for one, snorkeling and whale watching.

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    What lens did you use to photograph the birds illustrated above? And at what time of the year? I am going to Maui, Kauai, Big Island and Oahu in July 2019. I will bring a 100-400 mm with a full frame body. I am debating bringing a 600 mm lens. Do you think it is worth bringing a 600 mm? It is a challenge to carry a big lens on the planes and lug it around. Your advice will be appreciated.
    By the way, great images shown above.

    • Thanks for your comment! Most of these photos were taken with a Nikon 80-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 lens on a Nikon D800 camera. The lens has Nikon Vibration Reduction which was particularly useful of course for shots of birds in flight which were mostly taken hand-held. Also the 36 million pixels of the camera’s sensor were great since I could crop the photos down quite a bit and still get an acceptable image. Mostly taken in Feb-March period. I would have loved to have a 600 mm. lens for many of these, although of course it is a lot to lug around. Thinking myself about acquiring one of the Nikon 500 mm’s. Phil

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