Birding Koke’e State Park


It’s pronounced “ko-kay-ay.” It’s a state park at the headwaters of the Waimea River on Kauai Island, 4,000 feet above sea level on the upper slopes of the heavily eroded remnants of the central Kauai volcano. It holds the largest part of the remaining native forest that formerly covered most of the island. That forest is mostly above 3,300 feet, which is the approximate highest elevation at which introduced mosquitoes are presently found. It is too cool at higher elevations for the skeets to breed. So the mosquitoes aren’t present, and avian malaria isn’t transmitted. For now, at least, the native song birds can survive. The numbers are scarce, and mostly declining, but they are still present. Which makes it a birder’s mecca.

It’s also a real challenge to bird. The area gets 510 inches, on average, of rainfall each year, about 42.5 feet of rain. The trails are a muddy mess; there were sections of the trail WC and Mrs. WC birded that weren’t ankle-deep mud, but not many of them. The rain has transformed the volcanic ash and rock into extremely slippery, extremely steep terrain. The vegetation is as dense as any place WC has attempted to bird. The primary native tree species are the endemic O’hia trees. They are flowering trees, but the blossoms are mostly on the tops of the trees, making them nearly impossible to see. And a lot of Hawai’ian birds are nectar eaters.

'Apapane feeding on O'hia blossom nectar, Koke'e State Park, KAuai

‘Apapane feeding on O’hia blossom nectar, Koke’e State Park, KAuai

You cannot imagine how much fun WC had birding there earlier this week. Despite some pretty hard work, WC was only able to photograph three of the endemic species, and none of the photos are going to win any prizes. But it was still a delightful experience. If only because it never rained while WC was there.

‘Apapane, Koke’e State Park, Kauai

‘Apapane are easily the most common of the native birds remaining on Kauai. They are noisy, very active and bright red with black wings and a grayish belly. Their foraging habits make them a big challenge to photograph. WC saw more than two dozen ‘Apapane. But didn’t get a decent photo. A single day’s visit was simply not long enough. Ah well.

Kauai 'Elepaio, Koke'e State Park. Kauai

Kauai ‘Elepaio, Koke’e State Park. Kauai

‘Elepaio are likely the easiest of Koke’e State Park’s birds to approach. Mostly insectivorous, they probe bark and leaves for bugs, and a fairly tolerant of people. WC saw three or four ‘Elepaio.

'Amakihi, Koke'e State Park, Kauai

‘Amakihi, Koke’e State Park, Kauai

The least common bird WC and Mrs. WC found was the ‘Amakihi, another insectivore, but much shier than the ‘Elepaio. It also blends in a lot better. The view of the bird is partially obstructed because it is jungle and most species of birds that come out in the open don’t survive, although there are few species that prey on songbirds in Hawai’i.

Other species we encountered in Koke’e included Northern Cardinal, Red-crested Cardinal, large numbers of Zebra Doves, Common Myna, Cattle Egret and distant views of White-tailed Tropicbirds. And the ubiquitous feral chickens.

But the Kauai songbirds are probably doomed. As global temperatures climb, mosquitoes will be able to access the higher elevations around Koke’e State Park, carrying avian malaria and avian pox – other mosquito-borne virus fatal to Hawai’ain birds – to the remaining birds. The birds can only retreat to the summits of the mountains; it’s what University of British Columbia ecologist Ben Freeman calls “the escalator to extinction.”

And there’s a second threat. Two different species of fungus have arrived in the Hawai’ian Islands, most recently on Kauai: Ceratocystis huliohia (changes the natural state of ʻōhiʻa), and Ceratocystis lukuohia (destroyer of ʻōhiʻa). The latter is the more dangerous: It chokes off the water supply to the tree quickly – often causing the entire crown of the tree to go brown almost all at once. Both are considered causes of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death. Any scratch in the bark or roots of an O’hia tree allows the fungus to enter, dooming the tree. O’hia are important, possibly critical, to the remaining native Hawai’ian songbirds. The two fungi were almost certainly transported to the Islands by human activity.

Sometimes it’s really, really hard to like humanity.

But, for now, it’s a delight to bird in Koke’e State Park, to encounter a piece of nearly unaltered Hawai’i. Yes, there are introduced bird species. Yes, we saw wild pig tracks in the mud, and places the pigs had torn up the ground. Yes, in addition to O’hia trees we encountered introduced eucalyptus (Australia) and sequoia (California). Nearly unaltered.

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