Encounters With the Birds of Hawai’i Volcanoes

This chart indicates that of the 16 species of birds known to inhabit Kipukapuaulu, only six are native. Photograph by David Braun.

KIPUKAPUAULU–Within an area Hawaiians hold sacred, the realm of the gods thousands of feet above the ocean on Big Island, a spectacular biodiversity hot spot known locally as “Bird Park” is an excellent place to observe and hear the avian species of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

Our group reporting for the early morning bird count during the National Park Service/National Geographic BioBlitz on Saturday was escorted through the area by Dale McBeath and Cindy Granholm, volunteers who spend a lot of time with the feathered species in the park.

Kipuka is the Hawaiian term for an “island” of old-growth trees surrounded by recent lava flows. Kipukapuaulu is a fine example: lush forest of towering trees, grasses, and plants of every kind to feed and shelter birds and insects.

Kipukapuaulu has not been without serious environmental setbacks. At one time the area was used to ranch cattle. That was stopped decades ago, but the legacy is many introduced species of plants, animals, insects and birds that still impact the area today, in spite of valiant efforts by the park authorities to bring them under control.

Bird Extinction Capital

Tragically, Kipukapuaulu is the “bird extinction capital,” Cindy declared once we had participated in the oli komo (traditional Hawaiian chant to ask the elements for permission to enter the area and for the blessing of learning from what we might see and hear). “There were about 140 native species of birds here,” she explained as we set foot on the 1.2-mile circular trail. “Now the list is down to about 43, of which 33 are endangered. The others have not been seen for a long time, so they’re probably extinct.”

A hundred species of native birds have apparently disappeared from this holy place on the lower slopes of Mauna Loa, the planet’s biggest mountain when measured from its —> Read More