Pelagic Birdwatching (Seabirds)

 Wildlife Tours with Integrity, O’ahu

Seabirds spend most of their life feeding and living on the open ocean, coming to land only to breed or nest. Hawaii has productive, food-rich waters that make it a major foraging area for thousands of seabirds such as albatross, terns, boobies, shearwaters, petrels, tropicbirds, and other offshore species.

An estimated 15 million seabirds of 22 species are either flying over Hawaiian waters or breeding on Hawaiian islands at any one time. Still, these birds can be hard to spot because their true home is the open ocean. Get out to sea them on our small group Oahu, Full Day pelagic birding tours.

Seabirds are made for life on the ocean, gliding on the wind, drinking sea water and eating fish and squid. Some birds remain at sea for years at a time, spending most of their time on the wing. The majority mate for life and return to the same area each year to raise their young. Males and females of most species look similar. Both share parenting duties.

Of Hawaii’s 22 species, two are found only in Hawaii. These seabirds — the dark-rumped petrel and the Newell’s shearwater — breed only in the main islands and are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Most of Hawaii’s other seabirds breed in the predator-free islands of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands chain but may still be seen on our pelagic birding tours.

Love on the Rock…

Laysan Albatross on Oahu nature tour

We are nearing the end of mōlī / Laysan Albatross season! Fledglings taking the first flights and leaving the nest in July. Since November when the adults returned from sea, we’ve viewed the mōlī nesting site at Ka’ena Point from our boat tour (often under their flight path!). Only a couple more months (through July) to view these endemic “Goony Birds” on one of the very few nesting grounds here on the main islands of Hawaii. The Hawaiian Monk seals (highly endangered and also endemic) are also hauling out and giving birth in the area.

Offshore pelagic birding

Seabirding can be productive year-round, but certain species are more prevalent during specific seasons. For example, albatrosses are more commonly seen during the winter through spring months, while summer can bring a different mix of shearwaters and petrels. Our experienced guides significantly enhance the birding experience, helping spot and identify species and providing information about the birds’ behaviors and habitats. For best sightings, we recommend our wildlife in depth six hour tour. Bring your good camera, we have plenty of dry areas onboard.

Oahu Seabird Sanctuary, seen by boat

Ka`ena Point

One of the largest seabird colonies in the eight main Hawaiian Islands is found here. Recent surveys have estimated approximately 2,000 seabirds use Ka‘ena Point as their breeding grounds, and many more than that use the area as a place of refuge. Home to nesting seabirds, monk seals, and other native coastal species. One of the rare places the Laysan Albatross (mōlī ) nest on the main islands. Other nesters included the Wedge-tailed Shearwater (‘ua ‘u kani) and the White-tailed Tropicbird (koa‘e ‘ula).

In Hawaiian, kaʻena means ‘the heat’ – and reportedly named after a brother or cousin of Pele who accompanied her from Kahiki. The State of Hawaiʻi has designated the point as a Natural Area Reserve to protect and encourage the nesting of the Laysan Albatross and the native strand vegetation (11 federally endangered species!). Within the reserve is leina a ka ‘uhane (Spirit Leap), which is considered to be a wahi pana, a celebrated legendary place. Early Hawaiians used Ka‘ena Point for fishing and feather collecting.

It can be reached by foot, though commonly either hot in the summer (aim for late afternoon), or muddy (stick to your slippers kind) during cooler winter months. We can easily view this area by boat, but be sure and mention that it is ‘on your list’ as we may head off a different direction depending on what all is going on that day, or what guests are interested in.

Seabirding can be productive year-round, but certain species are more prevalent during specific seasons. For example, albatrosses are more commonly seen during the winter months, while summer can bring a different mix of shearwaters and petrels.

Culturally Speaking

kalihi of bird feathers

Kalihi of Bird Feathers; held over Princess Ruth

Hawaiians watched the flights of seabirds to locate schools of fish, to help forecast the weather, and to locate islands when out at sea. Birds such as the Manu o Kū, (White Tern), are sometimes referred to as the navigator’s best friend. They occur in higher densities closer to islands, leading a weary navigator home.

Hawaiian mythology includes stories of Tropicbirds and ‘Iwa being used as messengers for their gods. Feathers of Tropicbirds and Frigates also adorn Hawaiian kāhili (feather standards) and ‘ahu ‘ula (feather capes), and lei.

Hawaiians once relied on seabirds as a food source. Seabird eggs were eaten and the birds were prized for their oily flesh, which tasted of squid. To catch the young petrel and shearwater chicks in their burrows, Hawaiians used smoke to disorient and disable flocks of adults flying to and from the nesting colonies.

Although seabird numbers on the main Hawaiian islands are far lower than they once were and they have lost most of their nesting grounds, there are signs of hope. Small populations of ‘ua‘u recently have been found on Lāna‘i and Hawai‘i, and mōlī have been successfully nesting on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu for the last 25 years – at sites where mammals are excluded and controlled. All seabirds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Nearby islands and small atolls also create important nesting habitat for the many migratory and resident bird species.

Mānana Island is a 63 acre volcanic tuff cone island. It is about 2300 feet long and 4200 feet wide. rises to about 360 feet at its highest point. There is a small beach on the southwest side of the island that is approximately thirty feet wide.

Today the island is a protected bird sanctuary and during the spring and summer the island is a breeding area for thousands of sooty terns, brown noddies., wedge-tailed shearwaters, bulwers petrels, adn red-tailed tropic birds. Mānana Island is a protected bird sanctuary and therefore it is not legal to land there unless you have permission from the Hawaii Department of Land Natural Resources.

Moku Manu Islets Seabird Sanctuary consists of two islets that totals 16.6 acres located off of Mōkapu Peninsula. Moku Manu is home to the most diverse and one of the densest seabird colonies in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Seabird species such as Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (ʻUʻau Kani), Black Noddy (Noio), Brown Noddy (Noio kōhā), Bulwer’s Petrel (ʻOu), Red-tailed Tropicbirds (Koaʻe ʻula), Sooty Terns (‘Ewa ʻEwa), Great Frigatebird (ʻIwa), Christmas Shearwater, Grey-backed Tern (Pākalakala), various Booby species, and various common shorebird species.

It has a relatively flat top, averaging about 165 feet in height but running up to 202 feet. The cliffs of Moku Manu drop directly into the sea around more than half of the island. Moku Manu is difficult to access and is closed to the public due to its status as a Seabird Sanctuary. However, activities like scientific research, conservation management, or subsistence, traditional, and customary practices by Native Hawaiians consistent with the long-term preservation of the wildlife sanctuary resources may be possible with a permit.

Nā Mokulua are part of the Hawaii State Seabird Sanctuary and activities on them as well as off-limit areas on them are regulated by law. Specifically, the smaller islet, Moku Iki, is off-limits to visitors, as is the interior of Moku Nui. Also, no pets are allowed. Many birds nest in ground burrows on the islands.

Mokulua Islets Seabird Sanctuary is composed of two islets, the larger northern islet, Mokulua Nui and smaller more southern islet, Mokulua Iki. Both islets are home to Wedge-tailed shearwaters (‘Ua’u Kani) for nesting. Along with that, other shorebird and seabird species can be seen there. These offshore islets are accessible to the public, but visitors are encouraged to stay below the high water line to reduce the chance of trampling seabird burrows.

Popoia, also known as Flat Island, is 4 acres in size and reaches a maximum elevation of 10 feet. True to its common name, the limestone islet is like a tabletop, although the surface is pitted with sink holes often used by nesting seabirds. It lies about 350 yards offshore from Kailua Beach Park in Kailua Bay on the windward coast of Oahu. The north, west, and south sides of Popoia are surrounded by a jagged reef. Visitors frequently land at the sandy cove on the southwest side. The ecosystem of the islet is vegetated coral which is utilized primarily by ʻuaʻu kani or Wedge-tailed shearwaters, ʻou or Bulwer’s Petrel, and pigeons. ‘Opae‘ula can also be spotted on this islet.

Bishop Museum Offshore Islet Project There are at least 54 islets that lie offshore of the main Hawaiian Islands. These islets are uninhabited and mostly located within 10 km of the coast. They act as preserves for species and ecosystems that have been lost or are disappearing from the main islands. Although Hawaii has only 0.2% of the land areas of the U.S., 75% of the species historically documented to have gone extinct in the U.S., and 33% of the nation’s endangered species are endemic to Hawaii.

The Birds of the Hawaiian Islands: Occurrence, History, Distribution, and Status from the Hawaii Biological Survey

Black (Hawaiian) Noddy or noio
Anous minutus melanogenys
Endemic subspecies

Black Noddy – Photo: E VanderWerf
The Hawaiian subspecies of Black Noddy is endemic to the main Hawaiian Islands, with A. m. marcusi occurring in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands east of Nihoa. Hawaiian Noddies nest from March-August along rocky coasts of the main islands and on several offshore islets. Nests are usually located in sea caves or on high ledges. Hawaiian Noddies can be distinguished from Brown Noddies by their smaller size, gray rump, whiter cap, and longer, thinner bill. Hawaiian noio often forage closer to shore than Brown Noddies.
Brown Noddy or noio kōhā
Anous stolidus

Brown Noddy – Photo: E VanderWerf
Brown Noddies are common in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and also nest on several of the offshore islets, including Kaula, Moku Manu, Manana, and Mokolea. They were extirpated from Lehua Islet, probably by predation from introduced Barn Owls. Noddies feed by diving for small fish. They often prey on the same fish as aku (skipjack tuna), and can be used to find tuna schools, leading to the common name “aku bird”.
Bulwer’s Petrel or ‘ou
Bulweria bulwerii

Bulwers Petrel – Photo: E VanderWerf
This small seabird is found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and on some of the offshore islets, particularly Lehua, several islets around Oahu, and Molokini, but it is not often seen due to its nocturnal habits. A single egg is usually laid in a small rock crevice. This species is still numerous on some remote islands like Nihoa, but its small size makes it particularly vulnerable to predation by rats and Barn Owls, and it has disappeared from several islets where rats have been introduced. It is hoped that removal of introduced rats and Barn Owls from Lehua will allow the numbers of this species to increase there. Bulwer’s Petrels will often respond to an imitation of their soft, barking call.
Great Frigatebird or ‘iwa
Fregata minor

Great Frigatebird – Photo: B Flint
Frigatebirds roost on several of the offshore islets, including Lehua, Moku Manu, and Molokini, and can be seen flying high in the sky almost anywhere in the main islands, but they are not known to nest on any of them. Frigatebirds have tiny feet and can barely walk on land, but in the air they are graceful and acrobatic. As their name suggests, frigatebirds obtain food by piracy- chasing down other seabirds and forcing them to relinquish their catch.
White Tern or manu-o-Kū
Gygis alba

White Tern – Photo: D Ledig
This graceful seabird is common in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and in the main islands it occurs in urban and suburban areas around Honolulu. It prefers to nest in trees, which are scarce on the offshore islands, and thus does not occur on any of the offshore islets.

The Hawaiian name for the bird is manu o Kū, meaning bird of the war god Kū. (Bird names are not capitalized in the Hawaiian language, but god names are). No one knows why Hawaiians named this bird after a war god. In 1941, a leading Hawaiʻi ornithologist wondered in an article if the bird’s original Hawaiian name might have been manu ‘ohu, meaning bird of mist or fog.

Red-tailed Tropicbird or koaʻe ʻula
Phaethon rubricauda

Red-tailed Tropicbird – Photo: E VanderWerf
This species is common on most of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and smaller populations occur near Kilauea Point, Kauai, Manana Islet off Oahu and Paokalani Islet off Hawaii. A single egg is laid in a small cave, under a ledge, or under dense vegetation. Tropicbirds dive to catch small fish and squid. The thin red tail streamers of this species are difficult to see at a distance, when its unmarked white back and wings are the best field mark.
Black-footed Albatross or ka’upu
Phoebastria nigripes

Black Footed Albatross – Photo: E VanderWerf
Almost all of these albatross are found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and rarely around the main Hawaiian Islands. Lehua Islet supports the only nesting colony in the main islands, consisting of about 20 pairs. The status of a reported nesting colony on Kaula Islet requires verification. Due to its restricted breeding distribution and relatively small global population size of approximately 50,000 pairs, the Black-footed Albatross is regarded as a species of conservation concern by the USFWS (2002) and as endangered by the IUCN (2003). Adults return to nesting colonies in November, eggs are laid in December, chicks hatch after an incubation period of approximately 60 days, and fledge in June. This species forages mostly at night, and feeds on fish, squid, and flying fish eggs. Females lay a single egg each year, and may not nest in some years.
Laysan Albatross or mōlī
Phoebastria immutabilis
Indigenous Species of Concern

Laysan Albatross – Photo: C Swenson
Laysan Albatross are found almost entirely in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where there are more than 300,000 breeding pairs. It is uncommon at sea around the main Hawaiian Islands, with small nesting colonies at Kaena Point (Oahu), Kilauea Point (Kauai), Lehua Islet, and possibly Kaula Islet. The Laysan Albatross went through a severe population decline and was extirpated from several breeding islands in the early 1900s due to feather collecting. In the last 20 years, small population increases have occurred at Kilauea Point and Kaena Point and new breeding colonies have been established recently in the Ogasawara Islands near Japan and on islands off the west coast of Mexico. Nesting occurs slightly later than in Black-footed Albatross, with some young birds not fledging until July. Albatross have a long lifespan (up to 50 years) and do not begin breeding until at least six years of age. Females lay a single egg each year, and may not nest in some years.
Newell’s Shearwater or ‘a’o
Puffinus newelli
Endemic Threatened Species

Newells Shearwater – Photo: B Flint
It is an ‘a‘o, a bird that lives in a
burrow and cannot be caught even
when the arm is thrust into the hole.”
Said of a person who is too smart to be caught.
‘Ölelo No‘eau by Mary Kawena Pukui. Bishop Museum Press, 1983That said – this endemic species is listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and Critically Endangered by Birdlife International – they’re in big trouble, a real conservation concern. Most of the population nests on steep, densely vegetated mountain slopes and steep cliffs on Kauai, with smaller numbers at Ka’ena Point,  on the Big Island and possibly Molokai. Birds leave for most of May to forage at sea, then return to lay their single egg in June. The parents incubate in alternating shifts until the egg hatches after about 51 days. Chicks fledge from late October-November, when they can become disoriented by streetlights and other bright lights. Fledglings may circle these lights until they strike a building, utility line, or some other obstacle, or become exhausted and fall to the ground, where they are vulnerable to predation by dogs and cats, and being run over by vehicles on roadways. Most streetlights on Kauai have been fitted with shields to direct light downward and reduce light pollution. A few pairs nest on Lehua Islet. It is hoped that efforts to remove introduced rats and Barn Owls from Lehua will allow the number of Newell’s Shearwaters to increase.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater or ‘ua’u kani
Puffinus pacificus

Wedge-tailed Shearwater – Photo: D Ledig
This is the most widespread seabird in the Hawaiian Islands, with nesting colonies on all of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, many of the offshore islets in the main islands, and even on Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, and Maui in small numbers. Birds return to nesting areas in late March and April to find mates and select nest sites. Nests are located in underground burrows, rock crevices, small caves, or under dense vegetation such as naupaka. Birds leave for most of May to forage at sea, then return to lay their single egg in June. The parents incubate in alternating shifts until the egg hatches after about 53 days. Young birds fledge in late October-early December.

As with Newell’s Shearwater, fledglings are attracted and disoriented by street lights and other bright lights. This “fall out” problem is particularly severe in the Waimanalo area on Oahu, directly inshore from Manana and the Mokulua Islets, which support large nesting colonies. Lights in coastal areas of Oahu should be shielded to prevent light pollution and potential harm to seabirds. The weight of a human can crush shearwater burrows, killing or trapping the bird and/or its egg, so people should avoid walking through nesting colonies.

White-tailed Tropicbird or koa’e kea
Phaethon lepturus

White Tailed Tropic Bird – Photo: E VanderWerf
This species can be seen easily in Waimea Canyon, Kalalau Lookout, and Kilauea Point on Kauai, and in Waimanalo and Mokuleia on Oahu, and is rarely seen on the offshore islets. It can be distinguished from the large Red-tailed Tropicbird by its white tail and black marks on the back and wings.
Masked Booby or ʻā

Sula dactylatra

Masked Booby family – Photo: E VanderWerf
This is the rarest of the three booby species in Hawaii. The only currently confirmed nesting colony is on Moku Manu Islet off the windward coast of Oahu, where there are about 20 pairs, but it may also occur on Kaula. It can be distinguished from the more common Red-footed Booby by its larger size, black tail, more extensive black coloration on the wings, and its dark face or mask. The Masked Booby usually forages far out at sea and is not often seen from land except near breeding colonies.
Brown Booby or ʻā
Sula leucogaster

Brown Booby family – Photo: E VanderWerf
Brown Boobies are commonly seen on the coasts and at sea off the main Hawaiian Islands, but most of these are probably non-breeding birds. The only nesting colonies in the main islands are located on Kaula (although this requires confirmation), Lehua, and Moku Manu. Males have a bluish face and a high-pitched call, while females have a greenish-yellow face and a deeper, honking call. One to three eggs are laid in a nest on the ground. Nests often contain fresh green vegetation, which may help control parasites. All boobies catch fish by spectacular head-first dives from up to 100 feet high.
Red-footed Booby or ʻā
Sula sula

Red-Footed Booby – Photo: E VanderWerf
Red-footed boobies are common on several of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Three large colonies occur in the main islands, on Kaula (probably), Lehua, Kilauea Point, Kauai, and Mokapu Peninsula, Oahu. Unlike other boobies, the Red-footed prefers to nest in vegetation a few feet off the ground. Young birds are a mottled brownish and white, but can be distinguished from Brown Boobies because they lack the sharp line on the belly separating the brown and white.
Sooty Tern or ʻewaʻewa
Sterna fuscata

Sooty Tern – Photo: E VanderWerf
This is one of the most abundant seabirds in the world, with some colonies containing over a million birds. In the offshore islets, colonies are found on Kaula (historically reported to support 15,000 birds), Manana (50,000 birds) and Moku Manu (30,000 birds). Sooty Terns are highly gregarious and colonies and densely packed, with nests separated only by pecking distance. Terns are sensitive and may abandon nests in response to human disturbance.