Wetland Birds

Wetland residents and wetland visitors: Wetlands provide a habitat for many species including birds, a wetland may have resident birds, and it might also host migrating birds. 

Many birds will visit wetlands to eat and drink and shelter. So they do not have to be a wetland-specific species to enjoy the benefit of wetlands. Some bird species are opportunistic and will take advantage of ephemeral wetlands and other water sources as they become available. 

Birds being birds, they will usually fly to where the conditions suit them best, Even the favorite Hawaiian Stilts (Ae’o ) will fly across the island morning and evenings, to find the best conditions. They will often fly from one wetland to another, and they will definitely seek out the ephemeral wetlands when they appear. 

All species matter: When watching for birds in the wetlands we take note of all species, and their behavior. This helps us to tell the story of not only the birdlife but of the wetland also.

Types of Birds: There are Water dependent birds, water-loving birds, and dryland birds that may just use wetlands as a hunting ground for example. There are swimming aquatic birds, wading birds, and even diving birds that can swim underwater.

Waterbirds: Waterbirds were categorized as: waterfowl, shorebirds, large wading birds, seabirds, and gulls/terns. (Source: Waterbirds on different wetland types – Wildlife)

What types of birds will you find in Hawaiian Wetlands?  There are many types of birds that can be found in Hawaiian wetlands, including waterbirds, shorebirds, and forest birds. Some examples of waterbirds that can be found in Hawaiian wetlands include the Hawaiian coot (Fulica alai), Hawaiian stilt (Himantopus mexicanus knudseni), and Hawaiian duck (Anas wyvilliana). Shorebirds that can be found in Hawaiian wetlands include the Hawaiian moorhen (Gallinula galeata sandvicensis) and the Hawaiian stilt. Forest birds that can be found in Hawaiian wetlands include the Hawaiian thrush (Myadestes lanaiensis), Hawaiian hawk (Buteo solitarius), and the Hawaiian goose (Branta sandvicensis).

Maui is home to several endemic waterbirds, including the Hawaiian coot (Fulica alai) and the Hawaiian stilt (Himantopus mexicanus knudseni). It’s worth noting that the Hawaiian coot is an endangered species and the Hawaiian Stilt is considered a species of Special Concern. The protection and conservation of these species are critical to maintaining their populations.

Ae'o Habitat Pi'ikea Wetlands
Ae’o Habitat Pi’ikea Wetlands Photo: S. Dorn

Indigenous, endemic, endangered, introduced, and invasive: These are some of the terms used to describe birds (and other species). These terms really describe the home locations of the birds and do not really describe the birds themselves. All birds, like people, have an original homeland, and they will also be considered a visitor when they travel to other lands.  

Indigenous, means Indigenous means naturally found there. Occurring naturally there, but maybe in other places as well. Sometimes the term native is used to mean indigenous. One example of an indigenous bird is the Hawaiian goose; nēnē

Endemic, means only found in one place. Many birds for example are endemic to Hawaii. Meaning that they can only be found in Hawaii. One example of an Endemic waterbird found on Maui is the Hawaiian stilt, aka “Ae’o” (Himantopus mexicanus knudseni).

Endangered, means its population is so low that it is in danger of becoming extinct. These specimens require special attention. And their survival depends on things like habitat restoration, protection, and sometimes, breeding programs. Right now some native forest birds on Maui (Hawaiian Honeycreepers) are endangered, due to avian malaria that is carried by mosquitoes, so now they are actually releasing some genetically modified mosquitoes to combat the problem.  

What is the difference between Endangered and Threatened? Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), plant and animal species may be listed as either endangered or threatened. “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. (Source: What are the differences between endangered, threatened, imperiled, and at-risk species?  https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-are-differences-between-endangered-threatened-imperiled-and-risk-species)

Introduced,  means that someone deliberately brought them here from somewhere else. A great example is the chicken, which was first brought here by Polynesian voyagers hundreds of years ago. Chickens have been naturalized meaning they have become naturally adapted to this place, and they are a natural part of the environment. In this case, the chickens, and introduced species, will also be classified as “beneficial” species. Although not everyone would agree with how beneficial it was, perhaps they were key to the survival and success of Hawaii’s original settlers. 

Invasive, means that they have a negative impact on the local ecosystem. Perhaps because they out-compete the local species or they prey on a specific food item, for example, an endangered insect.

Alien Species: Introduced and Invasive species might be categorized as “Alien” species. But this term might be used in a negative way to undermine the status and standing of some of the many long-term, naturalized, residents. Everything and everyone comes from somewhere else. Except perhaps the lava which the islands are made from. But even the lava came from somewhere else (meaning the earth’s mantle some 400 KM beneath our feet in Hawaii). 

The First Birds: Scientists believe that the first birds in Hawaii were of the finch species, they came from somewhere else, but over time evolved into over 50 distinct species.  (Source https://www.royalhawaiianmovers.com/hawaiian-native-birds-species-only-found-on-islands/)

Extinct Birds: let’s not forget the extinct birds. They were several species of birds here before any human set foot on the islands, some of them died out before mankind arrives, and many species died out after western contact. Some birds might have died out from being overeaten, and some others probably died out because of the rats that accidentally arrived along with the first humans. It is estimated that over 35 species of birds died out after the Polynesian migration to Hawaii.  It is a good reminder that any of us can become extinct at any time. There is a lot we can learn from the extinct species of the past, even though they are not here now. Learning the lessons from the past can help us to avoid similar extinctions in the future. 

One example of a long-extinct bird is the Moa-nalo: Moa-nalo are a group of flightless birds that lived in Hawaii for over 3 million years until humans arrived. Ptaiochen pau (small-billed moa-nalo) from Maui. and the Thambetochen chauliodous (Maui Nui large-billed moa-nalo) from Maui, Lānaʻi and Molokaʻi (Maui Nui). These species did out long before the arrival of westerners. (Source, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moa-nalo) 

A recently Extinct Species: The Kauaʻi ʻŌʻō was the last surviving species in its family of nectar-eating songbirds; the entire bird family is now extinct. The Kāmaʻo, a dark brown fruit-eating thrush closely related to the mainland Townsend’s Solitaire, was considered extremely abundant in Kauaʻi’s wet forests in the early 1900s. It was last sighted in the late 1980s. (Source https://www.audubon.org/news/wave-hawaiian-bird-extinctions-stresses-islands-conservation-crisis)

For more information go to the Hawaii State Waterbirds ID Chart, and check out the Hawaiian Wetlands Bird Poster.

Nene-birds-pair-Kalama-Wetlands-Kihei-Photo S.Dorn
Nene-birds-pair-Kalama-Wetlands-Kihei-Photo S.Dorn


List of Hawaiian animals extinct in the Holocene https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Hawaiian_animals_extinct_in_the_Holocene

Extinct birds of Hawaii, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Extinct_birds_of_Hawaii

06/08/22 – MOSQUITO CONTROL TO SAVE HAWAIIAN HONEYCREEPERS DOES NOT INVOLVE GMOS,  https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/blog/2022/06/08/nr22-077/

BEFORE MAN, HAWAII WAS BIRDS’ PARADISE https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1991/07/03/before-man-hawaii-was-birds-paradise/b9eac3da-3a6e-4cc7-9932-e7bae2c35885/

“Wetlands of Hawaii” by Mark Merlin and Mark D. Reynolds, in “Wetlands of the World: Inventory, ecology and management”

“Waterbirds of the Hawaiian Islands” by J.A. Engbring, Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii.

“Hawaii’s Birds” by H. Douglas Pratt, Jack Jeffrey, and Phillip L. Bruner, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii.