I hiked the rim of Kilauea Iki Crater on Hawaiʻi Island to look for and photograph native forest birds in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.
At the crack of dawn I pushed-off from my friend’s home in Puna and drove towards Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park on Highway 11. After entering into the park, I turned left to make my way down the Chain of Craters Road to Kilauea Iki Crater.
Blue skies and popcorn clouds greeted me when I arrived at the ʻōhiʻa forest (Metrosideros polymorpha) on the rim of Kilauea Iki. Kilauea Iki was formed during an eruption in 1959 — just a babe in geologic time. It is adjacent to much larger and older Kilauea Caldera and Halemaʻumʻau Crater, the fire pit of Kilauea — traditional home of Pele, goddess of volcanoes and fire.
Since I pulled a tendon in my knee a few days before my vacation, my plan was to take it easy by doing short easy hikes before the backpacking trek planned for the weekend. I pushed-off from the parking lot and made my way through a rainforest dominated by ʻōhiʻa trees and hapuʻu ferns on the Kilauea Iki Trail.
Large hapuu tree fern fronds — Cibotium glauca — extend 15 feet into the air and are a sight to see when backlit by sunlight.
Openings in the trees along the crater rim provided a clear view of volcanic gases — mostly water vapor, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide — emerging from Halemaʻumaʻu Crater.
Native birds can often be heard before they are seen. In addition to their melodious calls, their wings make an odd whirring sound — a dead give away of their presence. Whenever I hear the distinctive sound I prepare to snap the camera shutter!
‘Apapane (Himatione sanguinea) are the most abundant of the Hawaiian honeycreepers. and can be found in ʻōhiʻa trees flitting from one lehua flower to the next.
‘Apapane subsist primarily on nectar — although they eat insects and other things — and are important pollinators of ‘ōhi‘a.
DNA studies suggest that the 56 known species of Hawaiian honeycreepers evolved from finches who found their way to the Hawaiian Islands between 4 million and 2.5 million years ago, after the formation of Kauai-Niihau, Oahu, Maui-Nui and Hawaii. Unfortunately, more than half of the honeycreeper species are extinct today, and most of the honeycreeper species that remain are endangered.
‘Apapane were once found at low elevations on all the main islands. Avian malaria — carried by mosquitoes — is a major killer. Today birds can only be found at high elevations where mosquitoes cannot venture. ‘Apapane can be found in the native forests above 4,000 feet on the islands of Hawai‘i, Maui, and Kaua‘i. On O‘ahu, the birds are much less numerous but can be found from 1,000 t0 3,000 feet elevation. The birds are rare on Molokai and Lanai.
The feathers of ‘apapane were highly prized in ancient Hawaii and were once collected and fashioned into cloaks, helmets, and feather leis for ali‘i (chiefs). The brightest and reddest feathers were collected from adult ‘apapane.
The plumage of juvenile birds are much less red — some are almost chestnut brown in color. It takes multiple molts before adult scarlet feathers emerge.
Population surveys of ‘apapane taken from 1976-1981 estimate 1,080,000 ± 25,000 birds on the Big Island, 110,000 ± 9,000 birds on Maui. The Kaua ‘i estimates were unreliable due to the hurricanes that affected the island during the survey period.
The ‘apapane at Kilauea Iki were a delight to see and I had a great time photographing the beautiful birds. I hope to return during nesting season to see their chicks. What amazing birds!
‘Apapane, Himatione sanguinea, The Birds of North America, No. 296, 1997 By STEVEN G. FANCY AND C. JOHN RALPH
Kilauea Iki Trail, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Summit Eruption of Kilauea Volcano, in Kilauea Iki Crater, November 14 – December 20, 1959, Hawaii Volcano Observatory, United States Geological Survey