Kauai: Waimea Canyon and Alakai Swamp

We had been super excited to spend one of our days in Kauai exploring Waimea Canyon and hiking the trail to Alakai Swamp, a high elevation bog on the north side of the island where several endemic honeycreepers are found.  Our first stop before we even made it to the canyon road was for my first Hawaii owl:

It was cool to see an owl, though on Kauai this is a non-native predator that is not exactly welcome.  We made our way west and found the road that would take us up into Waimea Canyon.  Quickly Jacob spotted yet another owl, this time the native and A-OK Short-eared Owl.

Unfortunately this is when something else rather memorable occurred:  the car door shut on Jacob's thumb.

He was not psyched but he sure as heck wasn't going to let that stop him from going to check out the owl.

While we were watching the owl there was a steady stream of Rose-ringed Parakeets flying overhead.

As we made our way up the canyon road Jacob spotted a Black Francolin, which quickly disappeared into some shrubs.  Despite our best efforts we could not refind it and I never saw it well enough.

At Waimea Canyon Lookout there are amazing views of the canyon, as expected.

 And from a vantage point further up the road:

 Finally we got to the end of the road, Pu'u O Kila Lookout, where a Pacific Golden-Plover waited in the parking lot because that's what they do.  This is where the trailhead for the Pihea trail is located which would take us to the swamp.

The beginning of the trail is wide and open and a little slippery but not bad.  It rained a bit on us but most of the day was dry, which made the hike much easier than it is for some folks.  The views at the beginning were pretty amazing.

 Ocean side

 Forest side

About 90% of the time if we were able to locate a bird we heard or glimpsed it turned out to be an Apapane, our first honeycreeper and a big fan of the ōhiʻa lehua trees


If it wasn't an Apapane it was probably a Japanese White-eye most of the time.

The Pihea Trail eventually led us down a slippery muddy hill to a boardwalk where we had been instructed to look for the milepost sign 1.5, and that between there and 1.75 was the best birding.

That boardwalk was built in the 90's to help keep people from getting lost and stepping on native plants.  It's covered in a wire mesh that helps with traction, but can also be a tail slicer if you step on it when a little salamander or skink or something is on it.

 This is not the one whose tail I accidentally chopped off

We ended up spending about two hours in that quarter of a mile, constantly hearing birds and only rarely finding them.  One in particular was driving us nuts.  The sound was crazy, starting low and inside my brain (I swear) and ending with a chirp.  We caught sight of it a couple times, a small grey bird with a white eyeline, but our abbreviated views did not help us ID it quickly.  It wasn't till we got back to our condo and listened to the call of the Japanese Bush Warbler and it all made sense.

It was cool to finally get that spooky call squared away.  Another bird we encountered several times on the trail was the Kauai Elepaio, a flycatcher we had been looking forward to meeting.  It did not disappoint and even once took a bath right by the boardwalk, then flew up onto a branch to preen.

Much of the time we were searching for yellow and red birds, hoping for more endemic honeycreepers.  Twice a small yellow bird with no black on its face landed briefly near us giving us enough of a view to identify it as an Anianiau.  Too fast for photos but awesome to see!

Amazingly at one point a yellow bird that wasn't "another fucking white-eye" perched up on a dead branch and started singing for a wonderfully long time.

Although I had tried to study the yellow birds I still wasn't sure if this was the more common Kauai Amakihi or something else.  Once it was lower we got even better views of it.


It wasn't till we were back at the condo that we consulted all our references and confirmed we had seen the critically endangered Akekee!  I will probably never see this bird again (its headed for extinction in the next decade) and I am so grateful it perched up high and sang its heart out for us.  Still kicking myself for not recording it.

The American Bird Conservancy mentions avian malaria (and the mosquitoes that carry it), fowl pox, habitat loss, and rats as the main contributers to its decreasing population.  At this high elevation the Akekees were once able to escape mosquitoes, but climate change has allowed the mosqitoes to get higher than before.  It's only a matter of time.

After spending a couple hours in this area we decided to walk a little further and found this:

Whoa, whoa, whoa wait a minute.  We thought we were already on the Alakai Swamp Trail.  Maybe we had been birding the wrong spot for two hours!  A friend of a friend that lives in Kauai and whose job is predator control in this area had given us specific directions to turn right on the trail, then go to milepost 1.5.  What if we were still 1.5 miles away from a bounty of honeycreepers?  We turned right and hiked on.

Turns out this trail only goes 1.2 miles before ending in a muddy parking area.  This was definitely not correct.  We hiked back and went the other way on the Alakai Swamp Trail, down a billion wooden steps to a stream crossing.  We pondered what to do and decided to head back, hoping we had birded the correct spot after all.

As we made it back to the paved walkway at the beginning we saw a large bird sitting in the grass.  Erckel's Francolin!

This was a very welcome surprise after a long hike where we were still unsure of what we had even seen.

On the way back down the canyon we saw quite a few more Erckel's, including a family that seemed to be mourning one that had been struck by a car.  The local that had told us where to bird at Alakai had also mentioned some ball fields you see when you come back down the canyon, fields that hold Java Sparrow and Saffron Finch.  Well, we found some fields and boom, Java Sparrow.

They had been an easy bird for me in Honolulu years ago but Jacob had never seen one and this turned out to be the only place we had them on Kauai.  We walked across the field towards the sprinklers where more birds were gathered and boom, Saffron Finches.

Again, this was the only spot we had them on Kauai, and they might not have even been the right fields.  A lifer for me but not for Jacob.  After that we stopped for dinner and headed back to the condo where we happily identified the amazing birds we had seen.  Turns out we were in the right spot after all!  Even if we weren't.

Good times and more to come from Kauai!!  eBird checklist for Waimea Canyon here and for the Alakai Swamp here.


  1. I'm so glad you could seen some of those lovely endemic birds before they disappear. It's so sad that, like you say, it's only a matter of time :(

    (and I hope Jacob's thumb and the skink have recovered ok!)

    1. I can't speak for the skink but the thumb has improved!

  2. Thanks for sharing your enthusiastic post and some birds I've never seem before.

  3. Huge bummer about the Akekee, but it's pretty incredible that you saw it.
    I wouldn't feel too bad for that skink. Don't their tails come off pretty easily as a defense mechanism, and then grow back? He probably would have relinquished it with or without the wire guillotine.

    1. Yeah, I didn't lose sleep over the skink, but it was one of those things where I realized what was happening and it was too late to stop it and it felt like slow-mo.

  4. Another great blog post and pictures! I really hope that I will someday get to see at least a few of the honeycreeper species in Hawaii! So sad that they are going extinct, as so many other amazing birds have in the past few decades. :(

  5. So sad to think of all the species that are disappearing/disappeared from this planet...
    ouch on the crush injury hope it's healing up now...and a love shot of the newly weds, really a fine post of your finds!!

    1. Thanks, Sondra. Super sad that so many are going extinct but I am glad to have seen some of them. Hope you make it out there one day!


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