Text by Le‘a Gleason | Images by Josh Esteban
On the slopes of Hawai‘i Island’s majestic Maunakea sits Pu‘u La‘au Trail. Here, in the native, high-elevation dry forest, low clouds often engulf the surroundings, and cool temperatures raise hairs on the skin. Hikers can stroll past plants such as māmane, naio, and ‘iliahi. But the real draw is the chance to hear the spectacular chirps and to spy colorful glimpses of the native birds that live here.
The presence of these birds make Pu‘u La‘au one of Hawai‘i’s Department of Land and Natural Resource’s Nā Ala Hele Trail and Access Program’s most beautiful and popular trails, and contribute to it being a top pick among the legs of the Hawai‘i Island Coast to Coast Birding Trail. Along the two-mile loop, which is marked by a dirt and gravel road traveling uphill and west of Ahumoa, hikers can encounter native birds such as ‘amakihi, ‘elepaio, and most specially, palila, which are endangered Hawaiian finches found only on the upper slopes of Maunakea. Also known as the Palila Forest Discovery Trail, Pu‘u La‘au Trial is designated as a critical habitat for the palila, and it features signs with barcodes that visitors can scan with their phones to learn more about it.
Several years ago, such widespread information about the conservation and preservation of native bird species on Hawai‘i Island might have been hard to find. But thanks to a nationwide birding movement, public access trails across North America are making birding both accessible and educational. And on Hawai‘i Island, the new Coast to Coast Birding Trail spans 90 miles, thanks to public support and dedicated conservationists associated with Hawai‘i Forest and Trail and DLNR.
The Coast to Coast Birding Trail stretches from Kaloko-Honokohau National Park, on Hawai‘i Island’s northwest side, all the way to Lokowaka Pond on the southeast shore. It consists of a network of sites rather than a physically connected trail, so hikers can pick and choose which parts of the trail they want to see, getting on and off at various points.
Down by the shore, trekkers are likely to spot cattle egrets balancing carefully on long legs while eyeing fish swimming nearby, or Pacific golden plovers walking circles in grassy fields to mark their territories. At higher elevations, such as the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō Trail, the stage is set with an ‘ōhia forest, native vegetation, and lava fields. Through the mist, Native Hawaiian honeycreepers, such as the i‘iwi and ‘apapane—which have finely curved beaks for harvesting nectar and bright red feathers as adults—can be spotted. Often, if you are quiet enough, you will hear the birds first: Through the hush of the forest comes the rustling of leaves, the gentle sound of tree trunks creaking and knocking together, and then, the unmistakable, high-pitched chirp of the honeycreeper. That is the art of birding.
In its early stages, this island-wide trail was supported by a dedicated group of tourism and birding professionals, and was spearheaded by Rob Pacheco, an avid birder and the owner of tour company Hawaii Forest and Trail. Pacheco also founded the Hawai‘i Island Festival of Birds—now in its second year this September—to publicize and raise funds for the Coast to Coast Birding Trail, which was then in its initial stages. For the first time, birders were given maps that detailed the incredible 90 miles that are prime for bird sightings.
Hawaii Forest and Trail’s Conservation and Community Coordinator, Bridget Walker, who heads publicity and community outreach for the company’s second annual Festival of Birds, is thrilled to see a continued awareness in bird conservation. A portion of the proceeds from this year’s festival, hosted by the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay, will go to Hawai‘i Wildlife Center, and another portion will be used to purchase more signage for the birding trail.
Last year, people traveled from all across the United States to attend the event alongside local birders. “It’s cool to see something that promotes the native birds so much,” Walker says. “The best part of it is getting people out there and connected to this amazing natural world we have here.”
For Walker, fostering the community’s interest in “something bigger than them” was an exciting opportunity. “In Hawai‘i, we have these extremely rare birds … that you can really only find here,” Walker says. “You see these birds, fall in love with them, and want to protect them.”
The Hawai‘i Island Festival of Birds takes place September 15 to 18, 2017 at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay. The two day event will include field trips, a film festival, a birding walk across hotel grounds, vendors with bird-specific flora- and fauna-related products, art installations, and educational talks by industry professionals. Registration for special events is open to the public, and daytime events during the festival are also free and open to the public. For more information, visit birdfesthawaii.org.
The Coast to Coast Birding Trail, which includes both the Pu‘u La‘au Trail and the Puʻu ʻŌʻō Trail, is free and accessible to the public. Directions and maps can be found online at hawaiitrails.org.