ARTICLES ON HAWAIIAN
BIRDS AND BIRDWATCHING
Hawai'i Birding Hotspots No.1 - Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Kaua'i.
Kilauea Point is the northernmost point in the main Hawaiian Islands, with Mokuaeae Island just offshore being the most northern site outright. The point itself and the nearby Mokolea Point and Crater Hill are all part of a collapsed volcano and formed the southern rim of the crater, the northern edge collapsed into the sea millions of years ago and has been flattened by years of pounding by waves and storms and now forms a low-lying reef area.
A lighthouse was erected at the site in 1913 as a navigational aid for commercial shipping between Hawai'i and the Orient. In 1927 the Kilauea light played a key role in the first trans-Pacific flight from the American west coast to Honolulu by reorienting the two lost pilots of the Bird of Paradise, which had overshot the Main Islands. The pilots spotted the Kilauea light just at the last moment and no doubt saved them from certain death in the seas to the NW of Kaua'i. The Fresnel lens is the largest "clamshell" lens in the World and the picture, right, was taken in 1912 alongside one of the French craftsmen who built it. The site was managed and maintained by the United States Coastguard until 1976 when the lighthouse was deactivated and replaced by an automated beacon. the area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The area was transferred to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, under whose control and management the site has been ever since. The waters surrounding the Point were designated a National Marine Sanctuary in 1992. The offshore islet, Mokuaeae Island is under the jurisdiction of the State, although may be transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife when a more understanding and conservation effective management is put in place. Mokuaeae translates from Hawaiian as "fragment rising from the frothing tide".
The refuge covers about 300 acres of coastal cliffs and hillside and is home to many species of seabirds, and is undoubtedly the best location in the Main Islands to observe nesting seabirds. Re-introduced Nene also provide interest and there is a wide variety of introduced species too. The refuge is open to the public every day from 10am until 4pm, except on public holidays, and visitors have access to the lighthouse and surrounding promontory. The rest of the refuge including Mokolea Point and Crater Hill are out of bounds as they are sensitive to disturbance. A guided hike is offered several times a week and this starts at the visitor center and includes a visit to the Red-footed Booby colony and two overlook points on Crater Hill. The tour is very popular and bookings should be made early to avoid missing out on a superb trip. Although the refuge is c.300 acres in total, the area visitors are allowed on only covers a few acres.
In 2004 Congress approved an application for the Refuge to expand eastwards to encompass more land, including the Kilauea River and Estuary. H.R. 2619 authorizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire up to 234 acres adjacent to the current refuge and encompassing a key habitat of Hawaii's state bird, the nene, and several species of native seabirds, as well as a pristine ecosystem at the lower reaches of Kîlauea River, more-or-less doubling the size of the Refuge. Article on the Kilauea Point NWR expansion: http://www.bizjournals.com/pacific/stories/2004/12/06/daily32.html
It is important that visitors do not try to gain access to the refuge out of opening hours as this can jeopardize the successful nesting and feeding of endangered species, as well as resulting in a citation from a Fish and Wildlife official. Staff members live and patrol on the refuge.
Probably the most visible species on the refuge are the Red-footed Boobies, of which over 3000 pairs nest, and these can be easily observed from the Point/lighthouse and visitor center, as many birds nest on Crater Hill opposite. Although birds are present all year the best time to observe them is in the spring and summer, when adults are busy feeding chicks. The majority of adults at Kilauea Point are of the white form, but with a little patience it is easy to pick out some of the other color morphs, such as all brown, brown with white tails and heads or brown with white tails. Once the immature birds leave the nest it can be more tricky to spot the color morphs amongst the hundreds of young birds, but can be identified by their brightly colored legs, adult bill markings and smoother-looking plumage tones. Most young Red-footed Boobies depart the refuge fairly quickly after fledging and remain at sea for several years before returning to nest, although it is evident from the numbers returning that either not all birds return to their birth place or survival during the first few years at sea is far less than 100 percent. In the 1960s (and before proper protection of the habitat) the population at Kilauea Point was estimated to be between 60 and 75 pairs!
Kilauea Point is also home to the largest concentration of Laysan Albatrosses in Hawai'i outside of the Northwest Islands, and up to 100 birds return to nest most years, although unfortunately most do not nest successfully, a trend which seems to have worsened in recent years, resulting in just a handful of successful fledglings each year. Adults return to the Point each year in November and lay their eggs within a couple of weeks and then take turns in incubating the single egg for a couple of months, each bird spending up to a week or two on the egg, whilst the other bird feeds at sea. Once the chick hatches the visits to the nest site become more frequent until the chick is large enough to be able to withstand the weather and being left on its own. Once the chick is big enough to be left alone the adults both go to sea to fish and return every couple of weeks to feed the chick. Adults have been recorded wandering as far as Alaska and California in search of food for the growing young. The adults continue to feed the chick for five or six months before it is finally left to fend for itself. Once the chick leaves the nest site it does not return to land for five or six years but wanders the North Pacific looking for food.
Sub-adults also occur at Kilauea Point and usually arrive a little later than the adults and although they go through the motions of courtship display and nest building, and even egg laying, it will be a few more years before they return to nest successfully. Albatross are absent from Kilauea Point from late summer to mid November.
Occasionally a Black-footed Albatross will put in an appearance around the Point, and occasionally even land, but no nesting has yet occurred.
Great Frigatebirds are often highly visible over the refuge and large roosting concentrations can sometimes be observed. Most of the birds occurring at the refuge are females or juvenile birds, but males are frequently seen too, especially during the pre and post migration times, when birds appear to gather in the Main Islands in small groups before heading to the nesting sites in the Northwest Chain. Although Frigatebirds have not yet nested at Kilauea birds have been seen displaying and there is the possibility that they may one day breed, after all up to 600 have been seen roosting inside the Crater on a single evening.
During the evenings especially, although observable at any time, Frigatebirds will harass incoming Red-footed Boobies for their food. Single birds or small groups will harass a selected Booby until it finally disgorges its meal, which they will often catch in mid-flight or scoop up from the waters surface.
Probably the most numerous breeding bird on the refuge is Wedge-tailed Shearwater, of which in excess of 4500 breed. Birds return in mid to late March, when they inspect burrows and re-acquaint themselves with their partner, before most birds depart once again for a couple of weeks. After this short break the birds return and lay a single egg, usually in an underground burrow, although many birds at Kilauea nest under vegetation, no doubt due to the lack of available or suitable underground sites. One adult remains with the chick whilst the other feeds at sea before swapping shifts. Once the chick is large enough both adults go to sea to collect food until the chick fledges after five or so months. Once the chick leaves it does not linger, instead going far from land for a couple of years before returning to nest.
In the evenings impressive numbers of birds can be observed offshore, sometimes in rafts of hundreds or thousands of birds. Most individuals at Kilauea are pale-morph birds, but there is also a good scattering of dark-morph individuals. During the summer it is often possible to see chicks on the edge of their burrows right alongside the public footpaths on the refuge.
Two species of Tropicbird nest at Kilauea Point - Red-tailed and White-tailed. Red-tailed usually number about 40 or so nests and tend to be located under vegetation or on cliff ledges, making the observation of chicks more likely than White-tails which nest in crevices or small burrows in the rock face. Numbers of White-tails are hard to ascertain due to the difficulty of finding and observing the nests, but probably average about 15 or so each year. Due to lack of protection in the past the species eldom nested at Kilauea Point, with no nesting recorded in (at least) the 1960s.
White-tailed Tropicbirds are present all-year round but are more conspicuous during the spring and summer, whereas Red-tails are usually absent from the Point between November and February. During the nesting season Red-tails are usually more easily seen than White-tails due to the fact that they perform a highly visible and noisy aerial courtship display, often just a few feet from visitors heads, where they circle backwards over one another. White-tails tend to display higher in the sky and it usually consists more of chasing each other. During the springs of 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002 a Red-billed Tropicbird was observed at Kilauea - only the second or third record for Hawai'i and and a unique chance to see all three species together, as it is extremely rarely that the three species paths cross. The individual present was probably a male as it was seen displaying to Red-tails as well as giving its courtship calls.
Three other species of seabird have nested at Kilauea Point, although they are not annual nesters and their success rates are not particularly good. The first is Brown Booby which has nested on Mokuaeae Island on several occasions. The species is also present at the Point on a regular basis as a non-breeding bird throughout the year, and roosts of up to 50 birds have been recorded, particularly on Mokuaeae. Birds can often be seen joining the Frigatebirds in chasing Red-footed Boobies, and it appears that they swoop in to steal food from the sea before the Frigatebirds can reach it.
The second species is Bulwer's Petrel which has nested on Mokuaeae in at least one year, although unfortunately predation (probably by Barn Owls) resulted in total failure and no chicks survived, and at least 5 adult birds were picked up dead. No surveys had been carried out in the next few years to determine whether the species had returned, but it is hoped that eventually the species will gain a foothold here. Interestingly there are very few records of Bulwer's Petrels off the Point and none were observed in almost daily observations for the years 1998-2001, even when birds were nesting offshore - this is obviously a very elusive species at its nesting sites!
The third breeding seabird species is Newell's Shearwater. This species is actually a mountain nester but several pairs were translocated to the refuge to try to develop a further population. Although birds returned each year nesting only occurred on a couple of occasions between 1997 and 2001 and although it is unknown if any chicks fledged it is thought that none did. Adult birds can sometimes be seen offshore in the evening, but tend to be rather distant and usually return when the light is too poor to observe properly. Birds can be heard (and sometimes seen) though from the refuge entrance after dark, when up to four birds call and display over the refuge. If you think you hear a demented donkey you're hearing Newell's Shearwater!
Hawaiian Petrel is recorded daily during the summer months when birds fly over at dusk heading towards their mountain nesting sites. Occasionally individuals can be seen over the sea but it is far easier to locate them flying high over the entrance gate against the sun, where they can be picked out by their fast-flapping, direct flight.
Nene were re-introduced after an absence of many years to the refuge in the 1970's and today (2001) a large and thriving population exists, with up to one hundred birds being present in the area. Large flocks can be observed during a pre-breeding build up during the late summer/early fall when large groups can be seen resting and feeding on the grass below the lighthouse. Adults nest and raise chicks from late October to early November and the family remains together until the following nesting season. Although Nene often appear tame at the lighthouse and it can be tempting to try and get close to the chicks it is important to remain a little distance away so as not to disturb the birds or make them too used to humans and danger.
Non-breeding Pacific golden Plovers are found at the refuge during the winter months, when several take up residence on grassy areas. Larger flocks can be observed in the evening when birds gather to roost on Mokuaeae Island. Sanderling and Turnstone also occur in the winter and can be seen roosting on the Island or flying over. Turnstones can often be found on Albatross Hill, where they search for abandoned Albatross eggs which they will feed on. Wandering Tattlers are present in small numbers. All four species can sometimes be encountered during the summer months.
Rarely Bristle-thighed Curlew is recorded, although birds seldom stop for long if they land, and most are just fly-bys. Spring or fall is probably the best time to spot one as birds are moving to or from their wintering areas.
Pueo or Hawaiian Short-eared Owls and the introduced Barn Owl are both present on the refuge, although the Pueo is far more readily visible as it is crepuscular and hunts during daylight hours too. Most birds are seen on Crater Hill, but can also be seen near the lighthouse and soaring high over the refuge or along the entrance road. Barn Owls usually come out after dark and are thus hard to spot but can sometimes be seen over the tree tops or gliding along the cliff edges. They are often easier to hear than see, giving their presence away by their loud screeching call.
Night Herons are an unlikely species to see at the refuge but occasionally one or two visit to feed in the evenings and at night in the rock pools and beaches below the lighthouse or in the East Cove. Cattle Egrets are an introduced species which is easily seen at Kilauea, although numbers are smaller than once here due to the eradication of a Heronry on Crater Hill, which was carried out to prevent chick loss.
Other introduced species recorded on the refuge on a regular basis are Japanese Whiteeye, Chestnut Munia and Nutmeg Mannikin, Northern and Red-crested Cardinals, Common Myna, House Finch, House and Java Sparrow and Spotted and Zebra Doves. On Crater Hill Ring-necked Pheasants are often seen and occasionally Black Francolin may be observed. Northern Mockingbirds are rather scarce but at least one pair seems to be resident on Crater Hill/Mokolea Point and birds seen now and again at the Point probably originate from there. In recent times a few feral Rock Doves have taken up residence on the cliffs, although they are surprisingly elusive and seldom seen from the Point or lighthouse area itself, sticking mainly to the East end of the refuge.
Melodious Laughing-Thrush, or Hwamei, is usually a shy and retiring species and can be hard to observe. At Kilauea Point birds are anything but and they will often sing from exposed branches in the parking lot or can be seen running and hopping along the lawns and paths around the refuge - probably the easiest place to see the species in Hawai'i.
White-rumped Shamas are a colorful and prominent species at the refuge and can be seen singing in Plumeria trees or hopping around the lawns looking for insects. Western Meadowlarks are seen most days, although they tend to depart for the pastures along the entrance road once too many visitors arrive at the refuge.
African Silverbill has been recorded very rarely and in the past Red-billed Leiothrix has been recorded, although the latter species is now extinct on Kaua'i.
Not surprisingly, as the northernmost point and with the attraction of so many resident seabirds, a fair selection of migrants and vagrants have occurred. Some species have occurred only once such as the aforementioned Red-billed Tropicbird (on several consecutive years) and Kermadec Petrel ( for three or four consecutive years), and Glaucous Gull (just flying over). Others have occurred rarely such as Christmas Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Pomarine Jaeger, Ring-billed Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull and White Tern, whilst other species occur quite regularly such as Black and Brown Noddy, Sooty and Gray-backed Tern and Masked Booby.
Other non-seabird vagrants recorded have included Northern Harrier, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon and a probable Arctic Warbler, although only the Peregrine could be regarded as anything but an extremely rare vagrant.
As well as birds several marine species can be observed from Kilauea Point including Hawaiian Monk Seal, Humpback Whale, Green Sea Turtle and Spinner Dolphin. Also several endemic and indigenous plant species (some re-introduced) can be seen around the refuge such as Naupaka, 'Ilima, Pandanus, 'Akoko and the rare and unusual 'Alula.
A trip to Kilauea Point is a must for any birder visiting the Islands as it will provide one of the best bird spectacles in the State and it is certainly the best value-for-money location in Hawai'i, and it is a site where almost any seabird could turn up.
Useful information about Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
|LOCATION||North Shore of Kaua'i reached off Highway 56 and by driving through Kilauea town down Lighthouse Road to its conclusion at the refuge gate.|
|OPENING TIMES||Every day from 10am - 5pm except public holidays, including Thanks-giving, Christmas and New Years.|
|ENTRANCE FEE||Adults and children over 14: $3 each.||Reductions for Federal recreation passes, Federal Duck Stamp and similar passes.|
|GUIDED HIKES||Guided hikes onto Crater Hill.||Contact the Visitor Center on telephone: 1 808 828 0168|
|U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE OFFICE||P.O. Box 1128, Kilauea, Kaua'i, Hawai'i 96754||Telephone: 1 808 828 1413|
|KILAUEA POINT NWR INFORMATION CENTER & BOOKSHOP||P.O. Box 1128, Kilauea, Kaua'i,
|Telephone: 1 808 828 0168|
|VOLUNTARY GROUPS||Kilauea Point Natural History Association.||P.O. Box 1128, Kilauea, Kaua'i,
|BIRD SPECIES OBSERVED||At least 67 species (approximate), excluding Endemic Forest birds in non-historical times and extinct species.||41 species recorded annually, 26 breeding annually.|
|MARINE ANIMALS OBSERVED||At least 12 species (excluding fish species)||Humpback Whale, Spinner Dolphin, Green sea Turtle and Hawaiian Monk Seal recorded regularly.|
|REFUGE MANAGER||Michael Hawkes||P.O. Box 1128, Kilauea, Kaua'i, Hawai'i 96754
Telephone: 1 808 828 1413
|USEFUL READING||Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific by H.D. Pratt et al.
Seabirds of Hawaii by Craig Harrison
Link: Kilauea Point Natural History Association
Link: Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
Link: Directions to Refuge
Link: U.S. FWS Refuge checklists
Kilauea Point, Kaua'i as it looked in 1924.
Christian Melgar, Worthing, West Sussex, England.
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©Birding Hawaii 2001