Birding Kauai: Oceanic Birds


As a penultimate birding post from the Hawai’ian Islands, WC offers some photos of some native bird species. WC has already reported on the native passerine – songbirds – still hanging on at the highest elevations on Kauai. The remaining birds are migrants, seabirds and shorebirds, who long ago decided Kauai was a good place to come ashore to breed.

The largest of those birds by weight is the Laysan Albatross.

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With a body length of about 32 inches and a wingspan in the range of 80 inches, this is a big bird, although it’s only a mid-sized albatross in comparison to its cousins. There are about 15-20 active nests on Kauai, centered on Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the population nests on the northeastern islands in the chain, especially on Midway Island. What’s striking about this big bird is how effortless its flight is. It rarely flaps its wings, instead using the prevailing winds to maneuver.

Every bird has to feed itself. The Greater Frigatebird is a mooch, a thief, a robber. Almost all of what it eats and feeds its young it steals from other birds. It also steals eggs and hatchlings. Hard to like. Technically, it is an obligate kleptoparasite, which is a lot of fun to say, at least.

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While it is a lighter bird than the Laysan Albatross, it has even longer wings, 90 inches wide. It’s highly maneuverable, as you’d expect in a bird that makes its living by thievery.

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You have to be pretty maneuverable to delicately scratch the top of your head in flight.

The star of the show at Kilauea NWR, though, is the Red-footed Booby. They were actively nest building while we were there, and it seems passing strange that a bird that spends most of its life flying over the ocean nests in trees. But it does.

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Boobies are plunge-divers, but there weren’t any feeding close enough to the refuge for WC to capture them in the act. It’s the smallest of the three species of Booby that nest in the Hawai’ian Islands, with a wingspan of about 40 inches

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The nests aren’t close enough to the areas of the refuge where people are allowed for good photos, but a few birds landed (or at least started to land) along the edge of the walkway, showing of those famous red feet.

The Brown Booby is a much bigger bird, with a wing span of about 54 inches. They seemed more ponderous is the air than even the Albatrosses.

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Unlike its Red-footed cousins, this is a ground nester and is less clearly a colonial nester. There were only a handful of Brown Boobies present.

The most unusual bird WC photographed at Kilauea NWR was a very early-arriving Red-tailed Tropicbird.

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This is a seabird, like the others in this post, but an elegant bird with a buoyant, beautiful flight. They don’t normally breed around Kilauea NWR until April or so, but this bird apparently wanted to beat the rush. He – it’s likely a male by size – made two or three loops around the Refuge and then vanished.

The more common tropicbird at Kilauea NWR is the White-tailed Tropicbird.

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The species was a lot less cooperative than its Red-tailed cousin, never coming close enough for a decent photo. This image is heavily cropped and image quality suffers as a result.

All of these species are seabirds, species that spend their life out on the oceans, only coming to land to breed. WC was too early in the year for the Shearwaters and Petrels that also breed in and around Kilauea NWR. But it was immense fun to spend parts of a couple of days at this amazing refuge, getting some quality time with these amazing birds.

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