WAIMEA, Hawaii — Bird calls ricochet among the trees in a patch of native forest on Mauna Loa's lower slopes, but the birds themselves are so evasive we sometimes spend minutes scanning the towering koa canopy to glimpse even a flicker of their small shadows.
A phalanx of binoculars goes up as a far-off silhouette wings closer and lands on a high branch overhead. The bright red bird with a slender, curved bill, an i'iwi, matches the coloring of the pom-pom-shaped lehua blossoms whose nectar it sips. The i'iwi perches for less than a minute, then launches off the branch and flits out of view on its black-edged wings.
I'iwi birds are common during winter when lehua blossoms flower on the ohia trees in this kipuka, a tract of Hawaiian forest protected from marauding herbivores by an old lava flow, said our birding guide, Garry Dean.
"In winter there are so many of them flying around, that's when they become 'trash birds,' " Dean said. "But today they are one of our target birds."
Dozens of bird species once filled the formerly thick forests of the Hawaiian Islands before logging, cattle ranching and feral animals introduced in the past two centuries — such as European boars, sheep and goats — razed and uprooted most of the birds' habitat.
But now 28 percent of Hawaii's 93 native bird species are extinct and another one-third are listed on the federal threatened and endangered species lists, according to figures released in 2000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Hawaiian Islands harbor 317 of the nation's 1,264 endangered and threatened plants and animals, according to the agency's latest figures from this year. More than half of the 31 avian species on the list from Hawaii are small forest birds.
Today the novice Hawaii birdwatcher is wise to use a guide to search for these rare and hidden soloists. Fumble with a birding guidebook and you risk missing the multihued creatures, many of which stand just a few inches high and tend to hop quickly and sporadically among the leaves.
Dean has led birdwatching groups for about four years with Hawaii Forest and Trail on the Big Island. He recognizes a variety of Hawaiian bird calls and can identify a species by its characteristic movements, talents that come in handy when a bird is backlit by the midafternoon sun or partially blocked by foliage.
The nature tour company's Rainforest and Dryforest Birdwatching Adventure begins at the western end of the serpentine Saddle Road, so named because it traverses the saddle between the massive volcanic peaks of Mauna Kea (white mountain) and Mauna Loa (long mountain).
Our first "target species," Dean tells us, will be the pueo, or Hawaiian short-eared owl, which is found throughout the islands. The diurnal owl likes to sit on fence posts or the rocky outcrops of old cinder cones now domed and covered with tall grass.
"There's one!" someone in the van yelps. Dean brakes and reverses to line us up with a pueo sitting straight-backed and stoic on a fence post. Later we see another flapping in the distance, searching for rodents in the yellowed grass. I end up seeing 11 pueo over the course of the day. I was born and raised in Hawaii, but having spent most of my life in urban Honolulu, these are the first native owls I've seen. Spotting them is almost worth the tour's $155 price.
We pass old cowboy housing and drive through the U.S. military's training site at Pohakuloa, spotting introduced game species of francolin, wild turkey and pheasant.
The road crosses from Mauna Kea to Mauna Loa's hardened old lava flows. A thick mist bears down on the jagged a'a and ropy pahoehoe, the two types of lava produced by Hawaii's volcanoes.
We reach the trailhead that heads into a forest low on Mauna Loa's northeastern slope. There, Dean hands out rain jackets, sweatshirts, pre-ordered sandwiches and walking sticks. The trail, lined in sections with scraggly ohia lehua trees, leads over the lava field toward the oasis of native forest. Ferns and lichen, normally the first colonizers of cooled lava, grow in clumps where the trees thin out.
Our group picks its way across the cracked lava, stopping occasionally as we near the kipuka to examine bird specimens in distant trees.
As the shade of the koa trees closes over us, Dean, who also expounds upon geology, plants and Hawaiian lore, says we are entering a place Native Hawaiians call the "wao akua" or "realm of the gods."
We tramp the winding path through the forest. Browned sickle-shaped koa leaves (which are technically stems, Dean says) pad the trail.
Dean, a tall, energetic guide who's originally from Canada, stops us every few minutes to scan the trees. I squint dutifully into the forest canopy, but see only a shadowy mat of koa and ohia blocking the sky.
The quick eyes of Dean and tourist Meade Cadot, who leads bird treks in New Hampshire, pick out many native birds over the next couple hours: the grayish oma'o, which feeds on berries; the brown elepaio, trimmed with black and white; the bright red i'iwi and like-hued, but shorter-beaked apapane, found often near lehua blossoms; the yellow and fairly common amakihi; and the endangered Hawaii creeper, one of the plumper forest birds.
But a reminder of our trek was a checklist of Big Island birds provided by the tour company, which I admittedly enjoyed filling out on the flight back to Honolulu.
BIRDWATCHING TOURS ON THE BIG ISLAND: Hawaii Forest and Trail does two birdwatching trips:
The Rainforest and Dryforest Birding Adventure takes birders into dryland forest on the west side of Mauna Kea and through misty forest on the northeastern slope of Mauna Loa.
Hakalau Forest Wildlife Refuge was the first National Wildlife Refuge established in the United States for forest birds. The tour is offered 18 times annually as the refuge requires an access permit. See also, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: www.fws.gov/pacific/pacificislands/wnwr/bhakalaunwr.html
Price: Adults: $155. Limit 10 people per tour.
On the Net:www.hawaii-forest.com/
Phone: 800-464-1993 or 808-331-8505.
ON YOUR OWN: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for most of the Big Islands's native forest birds, plus black noddies nesting along Chain of Craters Road. Check out the volcanoes too. Call 808-967-7311.
Aimakapa Pond near Kona for water birds such as pied-billed grebes, Hawaiian stilts and Hawaiian coots. Call Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park at 808-329-6881.
Puu Waa Waa along Mamalahoa Highway between Kailua-Kona and Waimea for the Hawaiian hawk, Pueo and Hawaii's state bird, the endangered nene goose.
Puu Laau on Mauna Kea, off the Saddle Road between Waikii and Pohakuloa is the only place to see endangered palila.
GETTING THERE: Most major domestic airlines fly into Honolulu and from there you can take a connecting flight to Kailua-Kona or Hilo on Aloha or Hawaiian Airlines.
WHAT TO WEAR: Sturdy hiking shoes, a windbreaker or poncho for upper elevations.
EQUIPMENT: Binoculars, birdwatching checklist from Hawaii Audubon Society.
REFERENCE BOOKS: A Pocket Guide to Hawaii's Birds by H. Douglass Pratt; Hawaiian Birdlife by Andrew J. Berger; Hawaii's Birds from Hawaii Audubon Society; Seabirds of Hawaii by Craig Harrison; A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific by H. Douglass Pratt.