For the Birds Radio Program: Hawaii!

Original Air Date: Feb. 8, 2000 (estimated date)

Laura is going on a family vacation to Hawaii, and all she can think about are birds.

Duration: 4′41″


This month, Russ and I are bringing our three kids to Hawaii for winter break. Joey’s 18, soon to graduate from high school, and so this may well be our last real family vacation. We’ll spend 5 days on Maui, 3 on the Big Island, and several hours in Honolulu on Oahu before flying home.

As thrilled as I am to be traveling with my kids on their first airplane trip, visiting three tropical islands, going on a whale-watching cruise, seeing a real live volcano, and snorkeling in the Pacific, the thing I am most thrilled about is getting to see some Hawaiian birds. Our itinerary is planned as a family vacation rather than a birding trek, but I will still get to see a lot of birds. And best of all, I’ll probably see three birds I’ve dreamed of for years—an albatross, a tropicbird, and a Fairy Tern, now more dryly called a White Tern.

The albatross has always seemed wondrous to me since I read an encyclopedia article about it when I was a little girl. I marveled at its enormous wingspan, elaborate bill snapping courtship rituals, and ability to live at sea for months at a time. When I was in seventh grade, I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ballad coined the phrase, “Water, water everywhere,/ Nor any drop to drink.” And there was that familiar encyclopedia bird here in the poem, flying along as a friendly companion to the ship until the ancient mariner shot it with his cross bow. The mariner’s shipmates hung it around his neck as punishment for killing the gentle, inoffensive bird that had brought cheer to all the sailors, and now the mariner was telling his sad tale to a guest at a wedding. I loved the lines:

Farewell, farewell! But this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding Guest!
He prayeth best who loveth best
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Ever since reading that poem, I’ve been in love with the thought of albatrosses, and now I’ll finally have a chance to see them in reality.

The first time I noticed a tropicbird was when I was browsing through my first field guide on Christmas, 1974. These graceful seabirds have a beautiful if bizarrely long, streaming tail, and handsome faces with yellow or red bills and a striking black eyeline. They were so pretty and unusual that they stood out as one of the species I really yearned to see.

Fairy Terns [Note added in 2024–these are now called White Terns] are beautiful—as white as angels and probably more graceful and buoyant, though I’ve never seen a real angel to know for sure. I’m just basing this on a careful comparison with Clarence, the angel in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. These are the world’s only all-white terns with glistening white plumage. In my imagination, they’re heartbreakingly beautiful against a blue sky.

But the coolest thing about Fairy Terns is their wonderfully improbable habit of laying a single egg on a bare branch, precariously balanced on a tiny indentation. This seems impractical at best, but is probably why White Terns still nest on Oahu. When the ancient Polynesians arrived at Hawaii long ago, they brought pigs on purpose and rats accidentally, which destroyed the eggs of virtually all the ground-laying birds, rendering many Hawaiian birds extinct. But the Fairy Tern was saved by the fact that it nested out of reach of these voracious egg-eaters. As soon as hatched chicks dry out, they’re adorable balls of white fluff, with long claws and strong toes to hang onto their perch. There’s a wonderful photo of a baby Fairy Tern gobbling down a fish almost as big as itself on the cover of this month’s National Wildlife magazine—a timely tidbit to whet my appetite for seeing these wonderful birds. I can’t wait!