ʻAki i ka Pō Lāʻau

Photo: ʻakiapōlāʻau
The ʻakiapōlāʻau, passing through a ray of sunlight, is endemic to Hawaiʻi Island. – Photo: Ann Tanimoto Johnson

Deep in Hawaiʻi’s upland wet forests, the ʻakiapōlāʻau (Hemignathus wilsoni) flutter amongst sprawling branches of the mighty koa and ʻōhiʻa trees. Endemic to Hawaiʻi Island, this stocky yellow-green honeycreeper wields a bill unlike any other – a heterobill marvel that serves as both chisel and probe. With its large, decurved upper mandible and a stout, woodpecker-like lower mandible, ʻakiapōlāʻau are Hawaiʻi’s own avian carpenters. Like nā kālai waʻa (canoe makers), these birds spend many days navigating their forest for the perfect tree.

Photo: ʻakiapōlāʻau foraging
The ʻakiapōlāʻau forages with precision to reveal a delicious treat. – Photo: Bret N. Mossman

They forage with precision, tapping into the heart of ʻōhiʻa to savor the rich sap, a precious resource in their diet, and meticulously search for insects within the crevices of koa bark. These birds are territorial, guarding their resources throughout the year. Breeding from February to July, their low reproductive potential – and threats like predation, habitat loss, and disease – further challenge their survival. Today, you can catch glimpses of these endangered birds on the Puʻu ʻŌʻō trail and in the Puʻu Makaʻala Natural Area Reserve on the northeastern slopes of Mauna Loa.