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9/7-18/2009 - Waikamoi Rare Bird Search

Posted Saturday 19th September 2009 at 03:56 by bkrownd
Updated Thursday 1st October 2009 at 22:32 by bkrownd
I just finished two weeks of bird surveys in The Nature Conservancy's Waikamoi Preserve on East Maui, part of Haleakala Ranch, just below Haleakala National Park. We were searching the area between Waikamoi Gulch and Pi'ina'au Gulch for 'akohekohe and Maui parrotbill, and noting foraging group sizes of 'alauahio. We walked transects daily in a small section of the Waikamoi Preserve between Ko'olau Gap and Waikamoi Gulch. In the evening I spent the last hour of daylight searching for interesting plants in the subalpine scrub of the National Park. It will take me a while to get caught up with data, photos, etc. Our crew was half volunteers and half staff of the Maui Forest Birds Recovery Project (

The native bird habitat on Maui is very small. My impression of the size of the habitat changed a lot one day when we found ourselves on a ridge in Waikamoi with a clear view of the coast, which was depressingly close - there wasn't much native forest bird habitat down there, as most of what we could see below us was the lower elevations now inhospitable to the native birds.

The upper edge of Waikamoi is mostly conifer plantations installed 100 years ago to catch water and reduce erosion after decades of grazing damage. ("Hosmer's Grove") There is some remnant native vegetation in steep gulches within the conifer plantations which the native birds use. There are a small number of 'alauahio in the conifers themselves, but for the most part they're quiet. The conifer forest has a very alien feel, and some of it reminded me of the southern edges of the boreal forest that I visited in Minnesota last year. (aside from the lack of birds) They are trying some small projects to progressively re-introduce native plants in places where gaps have been cut in the conifers, but not on a large scale yet.

The native forest directly below the plantations is surprisingly weed-free. Bracken fern, Florida blackberry and a few grasses and small weeds are the most common alien weeds, but none of the big nasty weeds are established in the areas we studied. TNC has probably been working to remove them for a while. This part of the preserve is mostly fenced to keep out pigs, deer, etc. The edges of the Waikamoi preserve and the forest reserves below it are still weedy, but we did not get near them during the survey.

Native birds are abundant in Waikamoi's native forest. Our study area was between 5400 and 6400 feet elevation, covering a rectangular area just 2.5km across by 1.1km downslope. We were trying to make a map of the Maui parrotbill population, including home territories of individual birds. On average we would detect one parrotbill per day. 'Akohekohe numbers varied greatly, from 0-30 birds per day, though some were repeat counts of the highly mobile 'akohekohe on the afternoon return trip. 'Alauahio were numerous and very conspicuous in their humorously talkative little foraging groups.

I got a lot of interesting plant photos for my galleries. The character of the forest in Waikamoi is very different than I'm used to on Hawai'i. The biggest difference was that there are very few tree ferns in Waikamoi, whereas tree ferns are a major or dominant component of the forests on Hawai'i. I was fortunate to find flowers and fruits on many plants that make the photos more interesting and will aid identifications. I also made a day trip to Waihe'e Ridge Trail on West Maui to see some rare plants over there. Most people would never find the rarities on this short boring trail, but I know a fellow native plant geek on Maui who searched them out over the years. I was also able to visit the greenhouse next to our cabin at Haleakala National Park, where they grow many rare and wonderful native Maui plants.

One night we went up to the rim of the Haleakala crater to listen for petrels coming in to nest. In about 30 minutes of sitting on a boulder on the rim of the crater I heard 4 birds fly by me, but was unable to see any silhouettes against the stars. There was also something that sounded vaguely like a bumblebee, which may have been some sort of large moth, or perhaps turbulence buzzing the feathers of a bird like I've heard with tropicbirds.

I got a proper send-off from Waikamoi on the final day of the survey, which was cool and a little misty, and quite peaceful since we were monitoring small areas instead of walking a full transect. There were a pair of 'akohekohe moving around my area all morning, one of which occasionally came down close to peer at me from the edges of the 'alani trees. On the way out, just after we called it quits, I ran across a trio of parrotbills, including a juvenile who cautiously inspected me from nearby branches for a good 10 minutes. The adults were busy working and singing up in the nearby trees. The little guy eventually joined one of the adults to beg for a bit, and then they finally moved along. Perhaps
when we return in the future the curious 'akohekohe and the little parrotbill will look down at us again and remember us as the big funny-looking creatures
who came to visit Waikamoi the previous year.

The Saturday after the end of the survey I participated in a volunteer work day at the lower northwest corner of Waikamoi Perserve. Much of Makawao Forest Reserve is actually a giant weedy alien tree plantation, and there is an incredibly thick infestation of Himalayan ('kahili') ginger. From the forest reserve we followed 'maile trail' up to the lower edge of the Waikamoi preserve and crawled around under the tangles of ferns, maile and 'akala to find and uproot little gingers that are trying to invade the protected native forest of the Waikamoi Preserve. Along the way I saw several of Maui's common to endangered native plants. The forest is mesic koa-'ohi'a canopy with a sparse understory of 'alani, pilo and 'oha wai trees. I wasn't paying much attention to the birds while tunneling under the foliage to find gingers, but I did recall hearing i'iwi, 'amakihi, Japanese white-eye, hwamei and red-billed leiothrix. Along the way we were passed by a State truck loaded with rare cyanea duvalliorum plants headed to outplanting sites, and I later found out that it was driven by Maui plant gurus and cyanea duvalliorum discoverer Duvall and Oppenheimer.

I have a photo gallery from my trip to Maui at

Welcome to Waikamoi:

Friendly 'Akohekohe:

Baby Parrotbill:
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