Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge Site of Rare Hawaiian Waterbirds

Set beneath the flowing waterfalls of the picturesque Hanalei mountains in the alluvial soils of the fertile valley of Hanalei are the lo’i kalo (taro patches) stretching from the Hanalei River to the base of the hills.

A Hawaiian Moorhen.

The Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge was created under the Endangered Species Act to protect five very endangered native Hawaiian birds: the stilt, coot, moorhen, Hawaiian duck and Hawaiian goose. Forty-five other bird species are also seen on the Refuge, eighteen of which are introduced (non-native) species.

Kauai’s Endangered Bird Species

The five endangered bird species in the Hanalei taro patches were once abundant throughout the Hawaiian Island. However, due to diminished habitat, hunting, predation by domestic animals and a variety of other causes their populations have dwindled and they have all been declared as endangered species.

Kauai is unique among all of the Hawaiian Islands in that the mongoose, which preys on eggs and small birds, is not established and thus many birds have survived on Kauai while going extinct on other Hawaiian Islands.

Overview of Endangered Waterbirds of Hanalei

Here is a quick overview of the endangered birds that can be seen in and around the wetland taro patches of Hanalei.

Ae‘o—Hawaiian Black-Necked Stilt – Look for the bird with long and skinny pink legs and a black and white forehead. Stilts are perfectly suited to a wetland environment and you can almost always see them wading around in the Hanalei taro patches poking their beaks down to probe the shallow water mud flats for fish, worms and aquatic insects.

Note that the stilt’s legs are jointed and bend in the opposite direction of human legs. There are less than 2,000 Hawaiian Black-necked stilts in all, many of them in Hanalei. Listen for their distinctive chirping sounds that sounds like “keek, keek”.

‘Alae Ke‘oke—Hawaiian Coot – The coot is often seen in the Hanalei taro patches where you will notice its distinctive ivory white bill and bulbous white frontal shield (ke‘oke means white).

Coots are about 14 inches long, mostly very dark gray on top, almost black, with white feathers underneath. Very rarely a coot will have a red or brown frontal shield.

The coots are sometimes seen flying low over the taro patches but really don’t fly that much. They would rather scamper about under the big taro leaves (luau) hunting for small fish and tadpoles as well as insects and plant seeds.

The coot uses plant matter to build a floating nest that goes up and down with the changing water levels. Coot chicks are downy black with a black-tipped bill and reddish-orange head and neck. The total Hawaiian coot population is probably less than 4,000.

Koloa Maoli—Hawaiian Duck – This rare bird was declared endangered in 1967 and today has a population probably less than 2,500 birds with more than 80% of them on Kauai and many in Hanalei.

The Koloa is related to the North American mallard, which is also found in Hawaii and has interbred with many native koloa. Hanalei’s koloa population is considered one of the most genetically pure (the least hybridized).

You can identify the koloa by its mottled brown color with a greenish head and olive-colored bill. Koloa feet and legs are orange, and some females have orange-tipped bills. Female koloa are about 17 inches long while males are a few inches longer and have a slightly darker head.

‘Alae ‘Ula—Hawaiian Moorhen – This is one of the easiest Hanalei waterbirds to identify due to its bright red forehead which is known as the frontal shield.

The moorhen is about 13 inches long with mottled gray plumage and looks very similar to the Hawaiian coot except the moorhen’s forehead is red while the coot’s is white. The moorhen’s neck and head are black and the feathers on its back may be somewhat iridescent varying from bluish-black to slate-gray with white under-tail feathers.

This critically endangered species may number less than 1,000 birds, mostly on Kauai and Oahu and many in the taro patches of Hanalei where they are seen regularly.

It is said that the moorhen held the secret of making fire. The Hawaiian god Māui caught the ‘alae ‘ula before it could hide and thus brought fire from the gods to the Hawaiian people. When this happened the bird was scorched by the flames creating its red forehead.

The moorhen has a red bill with a yellow to very light green tip. The legs are yellowish-green and the feet show some red on the top. Since the moorhen like to hide in the taro patches the best time to see them is morning and evening when they walk across the floating taro tops feeding on insects, mollusks and aquatic plants (e.g., young taro shoots).

During breeding season – which is generally from March to August but can occur year round – the moorhen’s frontal shield may become an even deeper red color, and there is much arching and bowing in their courtship behavior.

Nēnē—Hawaiian Goose – While the four birds described above are classified as waterbirds, the nēnē is considered an open country bird. In 1951 the nēnē was on the verge of extinction with only about 30 nēnē left in the wild but today the nēnē population is growing again.

Nēnē are often seen in the Refuge along the banks of the Hanalei River and the grassy areas between the taro patches. The nēnē is about 2 feet long with a black head and face. The back of the neck is black but the sides are light tan with distinct horizontal bands. The nēnē’s lower body is light brown while the top is darker.

Descended from the Canadian goose, the nēnē is a unique Hawaiian species having changed quite a bit in appearance and also losing much of the webbing on its feet. The nēnē is also Hawaii’s official state bird.

In flight the nēnē makes a “ney ney” sound though on the ground it often makes quite a different noise which has been compared to a cow’s moo. Nēnē eat grasses, seeds, flowers, leaves and berries.

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