There are two sides to birding Kauai: The birds you can see with little to moderate effort around the beaches and attractions of Kauai and those you can see with moderate to difficult effort by ideally hiring a bird guide and trekking into the rain forest. The latter are the endemic forest-dwelling birds such as the Hawaiian Honeycreepers that are unfortunately on the decline.
I will mostly focus on the first group of birds as those are the ones I saw, but I will also provide information for those who want to delve further into Kauai’s birding scene.
What you’ve seen and heard about Hawaii is absolutely true: It’s an amazing paradise filled with endless beaches, beautiful scenery and a plethora of outdoor adventures. I chose to spend most of my time in Hawaii on the island of Kauai because I told it was more rugged, more beautiful and more off the beaten track than some of the other islands. It did not disappoint!
Pre Trip Planning
Every birder can benefit from reviewing the types of birds you are likely to see on Kauai before arriving. I made the mistake of not doing any research and then trying to figure things out on the fly.
I did download an app for my phone called iBird Hawaii & Palau Guide to Birds which helped immensely. It has really beautiful drawings as well as photos that users have submitted. You can also add birds you see to a “favourites” list which I used to keep track of my sightings. I’m a big fan of downloading location specific birding apps when I’m visiting somewhere new (who wants to lug a heavy book around with them while traveling!).
I also recommend looking at eBird to review the recent sightings and bird hotspots around Kauai.
Kauai Birds You Can’t Help But See
The first thing that struck me when I drove out of the airport and headed north towards the town of Kapa’a were the roosters everywhere! I’d never seen “wild” roosters before, especially not ones in every field along the side of the road.
I soon learned these roosters, or Red Junglefowl as they are officially called, are iconic in Kauai. You will see them on the roads, at the beach and everywhere in between.
Seabirds: Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
This is the place on Kauai to get views of hundreds (even thousands) of seabirds who stop here to breed or rest. Different birds can be seen at various times of the year, so check this website to plan your visit if there is something in particular you want to see. Laysan Albatrosses, Red-footed Boobies, Brown Boobies, Red-tailed and White-tailed Tropicbirds, Great Frigatebirds, and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters can all be seen at the refuge.
I was there in July and I saw everything except for Laysan Albatrosses and Brown Boobies.
In terms of photography here, your best bet is to take shots of birds in flight overhead. At any given time, I had 10-40 birds flying around above me! The cliffs across the water are covered in birds, but they are a bit far for decent shots. Unfortunately one downside of superzoom cameras is they aren’t generally that great for flight shots so please bear with these photos!
Also, you must check on the ground under trees and plants around the parking lots and viewing areas, as some birds will nest there hidden in plain view!
You can also see some of these seabirds at beaches and as you’re driving around Kauai, so keep your eyes peeled overhead while you’re touring around the island.
The Kilauea Wildlife Refuge is currently open from Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-4pm and has a $5 entry fee. There is an interpretive center and washrooms.
I was surprised to find out that songbirds are fairly few and far between on Kauai. Once I started doing some research I learned that this is sometimes how it is on islands. You have the few endemic species (which in this case are either extinct or declining) and you have the introduced species.
In my case, I was only able to see the introduced species. This is what I saw and what you can expect to see with some moderate effort:
I absolutely loved these birds! They are striking and remind me of the warblers we get in North America.
I was lucky enough to discover there were young being fed on the grounds at Kapaa Sands, the accommodation where I was staying.
I saw my one and only White-rumped Shama near the parking lot for the Kalalau Trail. I would highly recommend this hike for stunning scenery. The entire hike is a big undertaking, but you can hike to the beach and back as a half-day excursion.
Another adorable species that I discovered on Kauai – they remind me of little clowns! Again, I was lucky enough that these were on the grounds where I was staying.
I found a couple of these feeding on the grass near the beach at Poipu.
Kauai’s Native Birds
Unfortunately the endemic forest-dwelling species on Kauai are in serious decline and some are already extinct. Saying that, it is possible to head into the forest and see some of these species still. I regret not having done so while I was in Kauai and I hope to get back there one day before these species cease to exist.
I’ve done some research into how to go about doing this so I’ll share with you what I know.
Firstly, check out the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project website that has photographs and descriptions of all 7 of the endemic forest birds as well as information about conservation work.
I’ve read several websites that recommend hiring a bird guide to take you (for seriously increasing your chances of seeing these birds). This is a great article that describes the experience of having a guide and it offers tips of where to go if you do it alone.
I’ve also come across these options for birding guides/tours in Kauai:
Kauai also has endemic water-based birds that are also endangered (although none have become extinct yet like some forest-dwellers).
The wetland birds you can see are the Hawaiian Stilt, Hawaiian Coot, Hawaiian Gallinule, Black-crowned Night Heron, Hawaiian Duck and the Nene (Hawaiian Goose). This website has photos and descriptions.
Of all of these, I just saw the Nene which is easily spotted at the Kilauea Point Wildlife Refuge.
The Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge is another option you may hear about, but it’s closed to the public. This is one you need a bird guide to take you to.
Regardless of whether you stick to the introduced species, or venture further into Kauai’s birding scene, Kauai is an amazing place to visit with endless opportunities for bird and landscape photography. You can also take your camera underwater for snorkeling photography or check the beaches for Green Sea Turtles!
Kauai has beaches for everyone’s tastes – whether you want your beach secluded and off the beaten track, full of roaring surf or with excellent snorkeling you will find something here you like. Many of Kauai’s bird species can be found at and around the beaches so they are a good place to start.
I hope this guide helps with some of the leg-work if you are planning a trip to Kauai and want to enjoy the local bird-life. Or maybe it will inspire you to book that plane ticket! If anyone has been to Kauai and wants to share their experiences, please comment below ↓