“He’s close.” On the trail of a rare Hawaiian Honeycreeper

Our Palila stops for just a moment on the branch of a mamane tree. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

We heard the sweet, staccato song of Hawaiian Palila on and off all day as we roamed the range of this golden-yellow bird, one of the most endangered and treasured species on the islands. 

But the Palila always seemed to stay just out of sight, living up to its status as one of the rarest of the islands’ birds, found only on the upper reaches of the Big Island’s highest mountain.

We were visiting with Chris Farmer, the Hawaii program director for the American Bird Conservancy. Chris has spent so much time working with this and other native birds that he’s kind of a Palila whisperer. Sometimes he alone would hear the unique song, usually coming from the other side of the stands of mamane trees that dominate the dry forest.

Hawaii is a magical and complicated place for birds, particularly forest birds like the critically endangered Palila. The native birds face unrelenting pressure from habitat loss, invasive species, diseases and changing climate. They evolved in an era of few predators but now face them at every turn.

We’re closing the year by publishing the most popular posts of 2021 — which was our year of travel across the country. Each weekend, we’ll run an updated version of the original story, a kind of tour of the birdscape from North Carolina to Hawaii, Florida to Wyoming. We’ll feature Snow Geese, Sandpipers, Hummingbirds, Tree Swallows, Pileated Woodpeckers and Palilas. We hope you’ll come along with us on the tour. But if you’d like to skip ahead or go back and read one you missed, click on the links on these birds. Wishing you a wonderful year of birding ahead. 

We spent two weeks in Hawaii, interviewing specialists like Chris, studying the avian history of the islands and traveling to the key spots for the birds.

Chris Farmer

That’s what put us on the mountainside of Mauna Kea, and well within range of the Palila’s seductive song. Once you hear it, you don’t want to stop searching until you’ve seen this bird. We heard his song a half dozen times, (here’s a link to a recording of its song), and it was almost time to head home when Chris stopped suddenly in an overgrown field of hip-high grasses and hidden, uneven lava rocks.

“He’s nearby,’’ he whispered. “He’s close.’’ Chris took a few steps then froze for a moment in mid-listen. “This way.’’ 

We half-walked, half-ran uphill, around the clumps of trees where we’d first heard the bird, and into a small clearing. At one point, I stepped in some kind of hole and tumbled onto the ground in what would have been an embarrassing moment had Chris himself not fallen a few minutes later. 

And then we saw it: Straight ahead in the fork of a mamane, scouring the tree’s leaf buds, was our Palila. Its head and chest are made all the more yellow by its intensely dark eyes and contrasting white and grey plumage. It also has the blunt, black beak of the finches from which all the honeycreeper species descended.

The Palila moved quickly from one branch to the next, hardly stopping long enough to allow a clear photo. That’s when Chris’ tone raised a notch. “Try to get a shot of the bands on its leg,’’ he told me. “It would really be good if you can get its bands.’’

We were still 25 feet away, which meant that even through binoculars and a telephoto lens it was hard to make out his legs at all. But Chris thought he might have glimpsed a combination of band colors that could mean this bird had come from the other side of the monstrous, 14,000-foot mountain. That would have been a surprise and an important development in the bird’s shrinking territory, he explained later.

A key part of protecting the Palila is tracking the populations, breeding, offspring and range. This is where the series of leg bands come in. Through the bands’ color combination and a unique, engraved ID number, each bird is individually identified. If you get a good look at the bands on both legs, you immediately know when and where the bird was tagged, and how far it’s traveled.

Paul Banko, a veteran with the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the Big Island’s elder statesmen of bird research, said that the bands are a crucial part of understanding the birds. “They are essential for demographic studies,’’ he explained.

Two bands were visible

The problem, Banko said, is that the birds live in a brutal environment that also has intense, high-elevation light. That means the tags will sometimes fall off. Other times, the birds get annoyed and pull them off. Chris checked the banding history for the Palila and concluded our bird was either banded last year in the vicinity of where we saw it, or as long as 15 years ago in a far earlier banding. I sent Chris all my the photos, which showed clear white and blue bands on the Palila’s left leg, but no bands on its right leg. Thus the search ended inconclusively. 

But the brief excitement reflected how researchers use these tools in the difficult job of tracking the birds in an effort to protect them and their habitat.  “The bands allow you to understand each individual bird,’’ said Farmer. “Otherwise, it’s hard to know what’s happening.’’ 

The Palila dines on the mamane buds.

The species is now down to about 1,000 birds. It’s not as low as some of Hawaii’s endangered birds, but these birds live on the brink. “A couple of bad seasons and they could wink out,’’ Farmer said. “A thousand is not a lot of birds. They remain in a precarious position.’’ 

Hawaii’s bird scape consists of a few remaining native birds, most of them at higher elevations. Plus there’s an assortment of non-native birds, some of which were purposefully imported to the islands by people anxious to add diversity to the dwindling natives. Over the years, occasional migrants and a couple of wandering species  have made their way to the islands by their own devices. The result is that most of the birds that visitors see in Hawaii are imports, and the true natives are so hard to find they are largely hidden away.

We felt lucky to get a glimpse of one of Hawaii’s original birds and to get a sense of the work it takes to protect these precious species. We’ll always savor the sight of that Palila.

Here are a few of the other birds, native and non-native, we encountered in Hawaii. Click on the photo for the species.
Notes:  The captions for our photos draw from an excellent pocket guide book by Helen and Andre Raine and Jack Jeffrey called “The Birds of Hawaii.” Also, a disclosure: Anders serves on the board of directors for the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). We make it a point to write about all the organizations and players working on behalf of birds. We don’t shy away from writing about ABC, but disclose the relationship and maintain our independent approach



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