Field Notes: These People Are Serious Bird Watchers

Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: birders.


Photo: David Croxford 

The Background

Though bird-watching has been part of daily life as far back as humans and birds coexisted, the recreational activity now referred to as birding didn’t become popular until around the early 20th century. In 1896, outrage over the slaughter of millions of water birds for the millinery trade led to the foundation of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. In 1900, an Audubon member launched the first Christmas Bird Count: Volunteers conducted a census of early-winter bird populations, an alternative to the traditional Christmas Side Hunt, in which hunters competed to kill birds. (It’s still the longest-running bird survey in the world.) Hawai‘i didn’t form an Audubon Society until 1939, when a small group of dedicated birders got together to protect the Islands’ native wildlife and the ecosystems that support it.


The numbers 

About 85 million Americans observe, photograph or feed wild birds, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service. Birding ranks 15th on the list of the most popular outdoor activities, just below bicycling and hanging out at the beach. Local birders estimate that there are about 100 serious birders, from beginners to experts, in Hawai‘i.


Photo: Courtesy of Thinkstock


All you really need are binoculars, with at least 8-power magnification, and something to write on, to log bird sightings. Good birding binoculars, like the Nikon Monarch, start at around $250. Some brands—Swarovski, Leica and Zeiss—can be upward of $3,000.



Why bird in Hawai‘i

Photo: Jack Jeffrey Courtesy of Mutual Publishing 


“Hawai‘i is a great place for birding because we have so many unique, endemic species, some of them unique to a single island,” says Lance Tanino, a 43-year-old veteran birder in Waimea who leads private bird-watching tours and set the Big Year record in Hawai‘i in 2014 by seeing 144 bird species in the Islands in a single year. “There’s always a chance of finding something rare and unusual that accidentally made its way to the Islands.”


Easy places to start birding? 

Makapu‘u Beach Park, for ‘ewa‘ewa (sooty tern), tropicbirds, red-footed boobies and wedge-tailed shearwaters.

Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park, for ‘ewa‘ewa,  red-footed boobies and brown noddies.

Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve, for wedge-tailed shearwaters and Laysan albatrosses.


Do‘s and Don‘ts

The American Birding Association has a code of ethics with guidelines that include using artificial light sparingly for filming or photography and keeping groups to a size that limits impact on the environment. Other unspoken rules:

  • Share with others what kinds of unusual birds you see and where you see them.

  • Don’t trespass on private property, no matter what.

  • Using playback—a digital recording of a bird song to attract them—is somewhat controversial but usually tolerated, but it’s never OK to use it with any of the endangered Hawaiian birds, especially during nesting seasons. You might force the bird off its nest, leaving it and its babies vulnerable to predators.

  • Be as quiet as possible.

  • Keep a safe distance from the bird, even when you’re trying to photograph it.


Bird Watchers

Jean Campbell, 46, Kailua, Attorney 

“Birding has taken me to some really interesting places and it gives me an excuse to get out. I’ve always enjoyed hiking. This gives me one more thing to do while I’m out there.”



Anna Pickering, 26, Honolulu, graduate student research assistant

“My favorite type of bird to see here is the ‘elepaio (monarch flycatcher). They are so adorable and charismatic. And since the O‘ahu species is tricky to find, it’s very exciting to spot one.”



Abby Brown-Watson, 76, Kailua, retired social worker

“Birding can be done anywhere we travel, giving us incentive to see beautiful birds in their habitat. What’s not to love?”




Take a Tour

O‘ahu Nature Tours offers five birding tours, including one to the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge:

Read More: A Pocket Guide to Hawai‘i’s Birds by H. Douglas Pratt and Jack Jeffrey, Mutual Publishing, $8.95 Hawai‘i’s Birds Book, 7th Edition, Hawai‘i Audubon Society, $11


Did you know? There’s an app for that: Check the Apple app store for birding tools such as iBird Pro, which provides a comprehensive field guide for 938 bird species.