Bird Watching Tour:  Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge Adventure

General Information

Schedule: Morning trips departing daily. 11 - 12 hours round trip, departs from Waikoloa Queen’s Marketplace, Highway 190/Waikoloa Road Junction and Hawaii Forest & Trail Headquarters.
Rated: Moderate; ages 8 and over.
Included in the Tour: Continental breakfast including fresh local fruit, baked goods, 100% Kona coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Deli style lunch, with assorted soft drinks, juices and bottled water.
Gear Provided: Walking sticks, binoculars, day packs, warm wear and rain ponchos.
Prices: Adult: $189.00, plus tax.
Group Size: Tour limited to a maximum of 12 guests.
Restrictions: Guests should be able to hike on uneven or rocky terrain. We sometimes encounter cool, wet or muddy conditions. Other tour restrictions may apply.
What to Bring & Wear: Sturdy closed-toe shoes or boots, long pants, and a light rain jacket.

Full Description

Named by Hawaiians long ago, Hakalau means “many perches” and is still considered critical bird habitat today. Once part of large cattle ranch, it was the first National Wildlife Refuge established in the United States for forest birds. It is home to some of the rarest plants and animal species on earth.  Hakalau Forest is a fascinating example of conservation in action. The forest you’ll access is recovering from a hundred years of grazing by cattle and damage from pigs. Our permit allows us to bird the Pua Akala meadow.  It is exciting to see the native plants sprouting through the old pasture grass. Giant koa trees, ohia-lehua trees estimated to be a thousand years old, ferns, and rare lobeliads are just some of the native plants encountered. Like our Rainforest and Dryforest Birdwatching tour the forest here is filled with the sounds of Hawaii’s rare birds. Often, we will encounter researchers or resource managers on our walks who are always willing to share up-to-date information.  Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, because of the history of grazing, has a park like setting in the higher elevations, and is densely forested below.  Our trail is a four-wheel drive road that bisects the meadow, and there is an elevation gain and loss of about 650 feet. It’s a beautiful place with lots of birds.

We will head up to Mamalahoa Highway heading north towards Waimea and the Saddle Road. Once on the Saddle Road there will be opportunity for some car-birding primarily for game birds and the Pueo or the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl. We stop in route on the Saddle Road for a restroom stop and a continental breakfast with juice, Kona coffee, and an assortment of teas. After the breakfast stop we follow the unpaved Keanakolu Road 11 miles to the Pua Akala tract of the Refuge. Plan on two and a half hours of driving each way.  Don’t worry about the drive time; you’ll be amazed at the constantly changing scenery and fascinated by your Guide’s interpretation of Hawaii’s remarkable natural, cultural, and geologic history.


  1. How much hiking do we do? Expect to cover approximately 2 to 4 miles in 4 hours.
  2. Is there elevation gain? Over the course of the hike we gain approximately 650’.
  3. What is the difference in the birds seen on Hakalau vs. Rainforest & Dryforest? The Akepa and Hawaii Creeper are found in Hakalau Forest, while the Palila is found on the Rainforest & Dryforest Adventure.
  4. Is it possible to use a spotting scope? Due to the behavior of Hawaii’s endemic birds, the use of a spotting scope can be challenging. If you feel up to the test, we do encourage you to bring your own birdwatching gear. We do provide binoculars on the tour for guest use.
  5. Is it possible to get photos of the birds? Typically, there are many opportunities to photograph the birds along the way for the determined photographer.


We appreciate your comments! If you've taken a tour and would like to share your feedback, please leave a comment. If you have questions regarding tour specifics, like times, reservations or other details prior to your tour, please use the contact form.

By Kris Ness on 2015/01/03

Highly recommend. I took this tour several years ago, as a novice birder, and someone recovering from a long illness. It challenged me to keep up with the 70 something gentleman who was along, but for anyone in decent shape, it’s a pretty easy day. This trip is what converted me into a bird-addict. We had two guides that day (one in training to help take over the route), so we probably heard more info than a normal group would. There was a great amount of information shared beyond birds: history of Hawaii, plant life, feral animals, how life comes back from lava flows, etc. Really fascinating. This is still one of my most memorable experiences…when I get back to Kona, I will take it again and be able to take even greater joy from it, as someone who is healthy and a much more experienced birder.

By Molly Farkas on 2014/11/13

Fantastic tour with a great guide, Garry, who was knowledgeable in all aspects of the tours from the geology and history to the plants and animals including, of course, the birds.  His passion for this is obvious.  His passion for the guests is also obvious.  I am not a bird enthusiast (love birds though) but had a great time hiking and seeing both the dry side and the rainforest.  The birds were great and colorful!  A trip I would repeat!

By julie cohn on 2014/04/15

thank u federal and state governments for the chance 2 see this echo beauty rain or shine

By Martin Tilson on 2014/01/17

Is this the best island to see the Nene?  Does season make a difference?

TIA,  Martin

[Hawaii Forest & Trail:] The Big island does have the largest population of Nene, followed by Kauai.  Nene are active and visible all year, with goslings being born December through February.  Look for them on the Saddle Road areas, in and around Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and also on the upland golf courses such as Big Island Country Club and Waikoloa Village Golf Course.

By Charles Johnson on 2013/12/12

Is there a problem with carrying a fairly heavy lens for birding.  I mean a Canon 100-400mm lens on a DSLR.  My backpack has another DSLR body and a couple of other lenses.

Would it be better to bring my 70-200mm lens instead?

[Hawaii Forest & Trail:] We do have anough room for each guest to bring a backpack, and as long as you’re ok carrying it, it’s fine to bring along.  We’re not photograhers, but a good friend and world famous bird photographer, Jack Jeffrey, shoots primarily with a Canon 400 f/4.  Lighting conditions in the forest can be poor and some species do tend to move around, so we recommend balancing magnification with speed.

By Marianne Granoff on 2013/12/10

We will be staying in Hilo from Dec 29th to Jan 7th.  Is there somewhere we can meet you closer to Hilo than the Highway 190/200 Junction?  Perhaps at the turnoff to the Keanakolu Road?  I realize we would miss some of the 2.5 hour drive each way, but it seems much more convenient for us? [Hawaii Forest & Trail:] Yes, you can meet the tour at the Puuhuluhulu Hunter Check In Station across the street from the Mauna Kea Access Road.  The area is unsecured, so if you choose them option please remove all valuables from your rental car.

By Hari Viswanathan on 2013/10/07

Which tour would you recommend for bird photography? Is the dry forest less dense and therefore easier to photograph (also probably less likely to rain)? On the other hand, I’ve read Hakalau is the best birding location on the big island (so maybe more species here?). I’m visiting in Feb and I have a 400 mm f4 lens. Thanks.

[Hawaii Forest & Trail:] Species diversity is about the same for both tours.  We’ll get the Palila on the Rainforest & Dryforest Tour, and Akepa on the Hakalau tour.  Regarding the dryforest portion, we typically get Palila there, and maybe Amakihi and Elepaio.  Everything else will be in the rainforest.  The honeycreepers can be challenging to photograph, as they can be quite active.  You’ve got a good fast lens which certainly helps!

By Natasha and Andrei on 2013/08/25

We had two fantastic tours with ‘Forest and Trail’, one of them to this refuge. It was the best trip—a real adventure. 16 bird sightings . We saw all the birds we were hoping to see and more. We had a fantastic guide. Highly recommended!

By Jo-Anne, Mike, and Nick on 2013/08/08

Thanks for a wonderful day, Mark! You helped us get ALL of our target birds (and more). It was a pleasure hiking, chatting, and laughing with you.  Thanks for your knowledge, friendliness, and genuine interest in providing us with a super experience. Mahalo!

By Berna Arioglu on 2013/05/19

We are planning to come to Hawaii this summer around July 13 to July 22. İn which bird watching tour we have a chance to see the İİwi birds Thanks
[Hawaii Forest & Trail:]  Both the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge tour and Rainforest & Dryforest Birdwatching tour offer good looks of Iiwi.  To see the Palila, choose the Rainforest & Dryforest, to see the Akepa, choose the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge.

By Rita Wall on 2012/10/06

I took both birding tours during my recent trip to Hawaii and they were the hightlight of my vacation. I’m not a ‘birder’ but I hike a lot in Washington, so this looked like a good choice for me. Gary, our guide, not only knew birds, but he knew the plants and animals of Hawaii.  He helped everyone find the birds and made sure each of us got to see as much as they wanted. We had enough time to get to know everyone and to share a beautiful day on the island.

By Sue bush on 2012/06/01

Are your birdwatcing trips interesting for those less interested in birding but wanting to learn about the ecology, flora and history of the big island?  I am an avid bird watcher but my husband is not.  However he does like hiking and learning.  Would you recommend another tour that we can both enjoy? [Hawaii Forest & Trail:] Great question!  Our birdwatching trips are actually interpretive natural history tours, that focus on the native flora and fauna of the areas we visit.  In addition to getting the various native forest birds, we’ll also cover topics such as island formation theory, volcanology, adaptive radiation, and convergent evolution.  They are great tours for anyone interested in the nature of Hawaii.

By karaokagsut on 2012/01/13

Hi everyone. This is my very first visit to this great place.                                                       
Thank you for the great info.                                                       

By Darby Langdon on 2011/07/20

I have taken and enjoyed immensely two of your bird-watching tours and the Mauna Kea tour. I am wondering if you are planning to do any special tours around the transit of Venus next June. If so, I am interested in information about the tours.
Thank you very much,

Aloha Darby, at this time nothing special planned but we do have several groups that will be on island around that time.  It should be an amazing event.

By Hawaii Forest & Trail on 2011/01/07

@Sandra: Pick up at the 190/200 junction is approximately 8:00 AM, returning around 5:00 PM.  Please keep in mind that this area is not secure so you’ll want to remove all valuables from your vehicle. 

@Sharon:  All of our Interpretive Guides are trained in ecology, geology and natural history.  Our birding guides go one step further and learn to recognize birds by call, and also have a more in depth understanding of the different species, both native and introduced.  We feel that to truly understand and appreciate Hawaii’s native birds you need to learn about the unique habitats they have evolved and adapted in.  To that end, native forest ecology is always a part of our interpretation.

@Michael:  We sorry we didn’t get back to you sooner, we were having problems with our comments section!  Looks like you joined us on Hakalau and hope you had a great time.

By Sandra Hack on 2011/01/04

What time does the birdwatching tour depart and return to the junction of highway 190/200?

By Sharon Muczynski on 2010/12/19

What time of the year is it best to visit?

Honestly, I am frequently disappointed with the guides’ lack of knowledge. It is not enough to hike and see birds, I also am interested in the plants, and nature I see. Do you have guides who are capable of telling me about the ecosystem, not just the birds?

By Michael Korson on 2010/11/27

We will be on the big island and interested in the birding tour to Hakalau. What are the days around the first of the year that you are going? It may just be myself, so I guess I would want to go when you have a tour going. Thanks for the info.

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