In the cattle grazing lands and ranches further upcountry from Waikoloa Beach Resort and Waikoloa Village, the pueo, or Short-eared Owl, is frequently seen at dawn and dusk. Whether sitting on a fencepost, gliding on a breeze, or gracefully winging in wide circles hunting for mice in the tall grasses, the pueo is instantly recognizable. They are often spotted on the old Saddle Road near Waiki’i Ranch, their white faces and brilliant yellow-green eyes glaring back as you slow your car to take a picture.
The pueo plays a special role in Hawaiian mythology, and is considered an ‘aumakua, a spirit guardian, by many families in the islands.
It is always amusing to see a tall, slender white bird standing on the back of a horse or cow. These are Cattle Egrets, common in the green ranchlands of Hawai`i Island’s upcountry. Originally from Africa, these birds were brought to Hawai`i in 1959 specifically to control the insect population, a job they do very well.
Other birds commonly spied in the middle elevations of Hawai`i Island are several species of Francolin Quail, wild turkey, California Quail, the Kalij Pheasant, and Ring-necked Pheasant, all introduced for sport hunting in previous centuries. Common songbirds include the lovely Saffron Finch, and the bright red Northern Cardinal.
If you are a dedicated birder, you might want to check out the new Palila Forest Discovery Trail, recently opened on the western slope of Mauna Kea mountain by the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife. The trail is accessed from the Kilohana Hunter Station checkin area off the old Saddle Road. A four-mile 4-wheel-drive road leads to the trailhead, and from there signage points you to a mile-long hike through old-growth sandalwood trees and a yellow-flowered māmane forest to a habitat where the Palila, as well as several other species of birds, can be seen and heard.
Significant because the Palila are the last of the finch-billed honeycreepers found in the state, these highly endangered birds sport yellow head and chest feathers. Their numbers have been decreasing in recent years due to extended drought, invasive species, and habitat degradation. Only about 2,000 birds remain, all in this unique habitat on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
Image above - pueo - courtesy of Big Island Visitors Bureau (BIVB) / Kirk Lee Aeder