Wildlife of the islands

Overview of the wildlife of the islands

We focus here on the birds of Hawaii because there are no native mammals of Hawaii except for one bat.  There are no native reptiles or amphibians.  There are of course native oceanic fish, but few visitors will see these unless they snorkel.

There are many native and endemic invertebrates, but we cannot attempt to describe these here since our knowledge of, and experience with, these is very limited.  We do state that there are many, and those interested in seeing them should prepare themselves before traveling to Hawaii.


Although birds can be seen almost anywhere, most birds seen by tourists will not be native to Hawaii and have been introduced from elsewhere in the past several hundred years.  We show some of them here, but we did not attempt to photograph many of them.

Shore and wetland birds

A number of shore birds migrate to or through the Hawaiian Islands, though they are less numerous than along the west coast of the US.


Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge

To see native birds there are several options.  Sea birds, those that might nest on islands or sea cliffs, can be seen by visiting certain locations where they are known from.  The best site in the islands for seeing (and photographing) these birds is on Kauai, at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.  Here one can see Laysan Albatrosses soaring along the cliffs, along with Red-Footed Boobies and White-Tailed Tropicbirds.

For wading birds that frequent wetlands, there are a handful of coastal marshes or lagoons where Hawaiian Stilts, Hawaiian Coots, Hawaiian Gallinules or Hawaiian Ducks are frequent.  Other wading or migratory birds frequent these locations.  On Kauai, perhaps the best location is the Kawai’ele Waterbird Sanctuary on the west coast of the island.  It is a restored gravel and sand mining site.











On Maui, there are two coastal bird refuges, the better known one is the Kealai Pond National Wildlife Refuge on the west side of Maui.  Another, Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary, is close to the airport (we did not visit it).

Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge

Native Hawaiian “non-coastal” Birds

Sadly, approximately half of the native Hawaiian forest species have become extinct in the last hundred years or so because of several factors.  The most important is Avian malaria, which came to the islands via introduced bird species that had resistance to the disease.  The native Hawaiian birds had low resistance to the disease; some had no resistance and have gone extinct.  Others exist about the elevational range of the host mosquitos – whose upper limit is approximately 5000 ft.

Another factor in the loss of native Hawaiian forest birds has been the conversion of dry forests to cattle pasture.  Most grasslands on Hawaii consist of grasses introduced for cattle grazing – they are not native.


Though today Hawaii has many strict controls on importing plants or animals into the islands, it is mostly too late.

The native Hawaiian forest birds can best be seen on trails in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve (for Palila) and especially the Hosmer Grove near the entrance to Haleakala National Park on Maui.  We describe the latter two locations because they are different and somewhat unique.

Mauna Kea Forest Reserve (Big Island)

This reserve is attempting to restore native shrubs and trees that support an endangered Hawaiian Finch-like bird, the Palaila.  The Palaila almost exclusively eats the seeds of a pea-family member, the Ma…, that can become a small tree.  Overgrazing has seriously reduced the density and range of the M… and this in turn threatened the Palaila.

A 4×4 (4-wheel drive vehicle- not the low clearance AWD’s (All wheel drive) is required to visit the reserve, though there is no one at the entrance station and no gate.  (Reminder:  Rent a Jeep 4×4 when you arrive to the Big Island – they are perhaps the most common rental vehicle anyway and any price differential is not large.  We actually were offered a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4×4 for no additional charge.)  The altitude (above 7000 ft) and the dirt road that could become slippery when wet are the reasons for the 4×4 requirement.  It is about a 4 mile drive to a very nice nature trail that takes you through the Palaila habitat.  Here you stand a very good chance of see Palaila.  The plaques describing the vegetation and environment are interesting and worth reading.  Our visit was only slightly impacted by the near constant drizzle, light rain, and foggy conditions.  This despite the reserve being in a relatively dry part of the Big Island.

Hosmer Grove (Maui)

The Hosmer Grove is named after a forester who wanted to determine which trees could grow best in Hawaii to stem the extreme deforestation he saw in the early part of the 1900’s.  He was attempting to plant trees from across the world that might grow faster than native tree species and thus more rapidly limit erosion due the then-current practices of excessive grazing and wood cutting.  Hosmer was successful and there are many non-native trees growing in this area of Maui, including in the National Park.  These trees have not been removed because of their historical importance in telling the history of the land, but they are monitored to ensure that they do not spread away from this area.  Redwoods, Eucalyptus, Pines from various parts of the world and other trees grow here to amazing heights.

A well-signed nature trail goes through the Hosmer Grove and then emerges into native vegetation.  At the boundary of the native and non-native vegetation there are several lookouts with plaques and binoculars for birdwatching.  Surprisingly, this is the best place in the Hawaiian Islands to see several otherwise hard-to-see birds like the Iwi.  One would not expect Iwi to be common in disturbed habitat but that is the main place we saw them in the Hawaiian Islands.


Introduced (non-native) birds

A book of Hawaiian Birds might have descriptions of non-native birds than native ones.  We were somewhat surprised at how widespread non-natives are in the islands.  Although some remain near inhabited areas, some have expanded and filled the available niches rapidly and are now more widespread than native birds.  In particular, the Japanese White-Eye frequents native forests and most other parts of the islands, as with Zebra Doves and Common Mynas.  In the moist forests of the Big Island the Kalij Pheasant from the Himalayan region is common, and in drier locations at low elevations we find Argentine Cardinals.  At high elevations Chukar (National bird of Pakistan) are common around the parking lots on Haleakala and Ring-necked Pheasants can be found widely.  Many game birds were introduced for hunting, while other birds were cage birds that escaped.

Many more photos of Hawaiian birds can be seen at these websites:  birds1, birds2,

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