A Guide to Observing Sea Birds in Hawaii


Hawaii's stunning landscapes and diverse marine ecosystems provide an ideal setting for observing seabirds. These graceful creatures are an integral part of the region's natural beauty, and birdwatching enthusiasts can enjoy a unique opportunity to witness their behaviors, migrations, and nesting habits. This guide aims to help you make the most of your seabird-watching experience in Hawaii.

Choosing the Right Time and Place

Choosing the right time and place is crucial for a successful seabird-watching experience in Hawaii. Here's a more detailed look at factors to consider, but please remember that while these are general guidelines, nature can be unpredictable. Be patient and flexible in your approach, as you might witness unexpected behaviors or encounters that add to the magic of your seabird-watching adventure.

1. Seasons:

Hawaii's seabird activity varies throughout the year. Different species have distinct migration, nesting, and feeding patterns. Consider the following seasons:

  • Breeding Season (Spring to Summer): Many seabirds in Hawaii, such as Laysan Albatross and Red-footed Boobies, breed during the spring and summer months. This is an excellent time to observe courtship behaviors, nesting activities, and the adorable fledglings.
  • Migration Season (Fall and Winter): Some seabird species are migratory and spend the fall and winter months in Hawaiian waters. Black-footed Albatrosses, for example, are known for their winter presence. These seasons offer opportunities to observe these majestic birds in their feeding habitats.

2. Locations:

Hawaii offers various locations where seabirds can be observed, each with unique species compositions and behaviors. Some prime locations include:

  • Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: Remote and protected, these islands provide critical nesting sites for many seabird species. Locations like Midway Atoll are home to large populations of Laysan Albatrosses and other seabirds.
  • Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (Kauai): This refuge hosts a colony of nesting Laysan Albatrosses and other seabird species. It's an easily accessible location for birdwatching.
  • Maui's Seabird Sanctuaries: Areas like Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge offer opportunities to spot seabirds along with other coastal and wetland birds.

3. Time of Day:

The best times for observing seabirds are generally early mornings and late afternoons. During these periods, seabirds are more active, engaging in behaviors such as feeding, flying, and social interactions. Additionally, the lighting conditions during these times can enhance your observation and photography experience.

4. Tides and Weather:

Tides can affect seabird behavior, especially during feeding times. Research the tidal patterns in the area you plan to visit, as rising and falling tides can influence where seabirds concentrate for feeding.

5. Local Knowledge and Resources:

Local birdwatching clubs, conservation organizations, and national parks can provide valuable information about the best times and places to observe seabirds. They might also offer guided tours or workshops led by experienced birdwatchers who are familiar with the local birdlife.

6. Research and Planning:

Before your trip, research the specific seabird species you're interested in observing. Understanding their behaviors, habitats, and seasonal patterns will help you plan your visit more effectively.

Identifying Seabird Species

Identifying seabird species can be a rewarding aspect of birdwatching. Hawaii is home to a diverse array of seabirds, each with its own unique characteristics. Here are some tips to help you identify seabird species in Hawaii:

Identifying Seabird Species


1. Familiarize Yourself with Common Species:

Start by learning about the most common seabird species found in Hawaii. Some of these include:

  • Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis): Recognizable by their large size, long wingspan, and distinctive white head with a black eye stripe. They often have elaborate courtship displays.
  • Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes): Similar to Laysan Albatross but with dark coloring on their feet and a different bill shape. They are known for their silent soaring flights.
  • Red-footed Booby (Sula sula): Easily identifiable by their bright red feet and facial markings. They have striking blue plumage and are skilled divers.
  • Hawaiian Petrel (Pterodroma sandwichensis): Also known as 'Ua'u in Hawaiian, these birds have a dark plumage and a distinctive "mewing" call. They're often seen flying low over the water.
  • White Tern (Gygis alba): Known as 'Manu-o-Kū' in Hawaiian, these birds have all-white plumage and distinctive black markings around their eyes.

2. Observe Physical Characteristics:

When observing seabirds, pay attention to their size, shape, coloration, bill shape, and any unique markings. These characteristics can provide valuable clues for identifying the species.

3. Behavior and Flight Patterns:

The way a seabird flies, hunts, and interacts with other birds can also help with identification. For instance, some species might have distinctive flight patterns, such as the dynamic soaring of albatrosses.

4. Range and Habitat:

Knowing the typical range and habitat of each seabird species can narrow down your identification options. Some species might be more likely to be found in specific locations or during particular seasons.

5. Use Field Guides and Apps:

Carry a reliable field guidebook specific to Hawaiian birds or use bird identification apps. These resources often provide detailed descriptions, images, and range maps for different species, making on-the-spot identification easier.

6. Note Key Features:

When observing a seabird, take note of key features such as the color of its bill, the markings around its eyes, the color of its feet, and any unique patterns on its body. These features can be crucial in identifying the species.

7. Group Behavior:

Some seabirds tend to congregate in mixed flocks, which can provide a helpful context for identifying them. Pay attention to the interactions between different species and observe if they exhibit any distinct behaviors when they are together.

8. Practice and Patience:

Identifying seabirds requires practice and patience. Don't be discouraged if you can't immediately identify a bird. With time and experience, you'll become more adept at recognizing the subtle differences between species.

Essential Birdwatching Gear

By packing these essential items, you'll be well-prepared to enjoy a comfortable and productive seabird-watching adventure in Hawaii. Remember that each birdwatching trip can be unique, so consider tailoring your gear selection to the specific species and environments you're likely to encounter.

1. Binoculars or Spotting Scope:

Binoculars are an indispensable tool for observing seabirds from a distance without disturbing them. Choose binoculars with good magnification and a wide field of view. Alternatively, a spotting scope is a more powerful option, especially for observing birds on islands or cliffs where distances might be greater.

2. Field Guidebook or Bird Identification App:

Carry a field guidebook or use a bird identification app specific to Hawaiian birds. These resources provide detailed descriptions, images, and information about the behavior and habitat of different species, helping you identify birds more accurately.

3. Camera and Photography Equipment:

Bringing a camera allows you to capture stunning images of seabirds and their behaviors. Consider a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera or a mirrorless camera with a telephoto lens for zooming in on distant birds. A tripod or monopod can help stabilize your camera for clear shots.

4. Notepad and Pen or Digital Notes:

Keep a notepad and pen handy for jotting down observations, recording species, behaviors, and any other notes. Alternatively, you can use a smartphone or tablet to take digital notes or use birdwatching apps that offer note-taking features.

5. Field Journal:

Consider keeping a field journal dedicated to your seabird-watching experiences. Record details such as the date, location, weather conditions, species spotted, behaviors observed, and any interesting interactions you witnessed. Over time, this journal can become a valuable record of your birdwatching journey.

6. Protective Gear:

Hawaii's climate can vary, so bring appropriate gear such as a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, and rain gear. Staying comfortable and protected from the elements will allow you to focus on observing the birds.

7. Comfortable Footwear:

Depending on the locations you plan to visit, sturdy and comfortable footwear is essential. Some seabird-watching sites might involve walking on uneven terrain or along rocky shores, so choose footwear that provides good support and traction.

8. Snacks and Water:

Stay hydrated and energized by bringing along water and light snacks. Birdwatching can be a time-consuming activity, and having these essentials on hand will keep you comfortable throughout the day.

9. Birdwatching Ethics and Conservation Guidelines:

While not a physical gear item, having a strong understanding of birdwatching ethics and conservation guidelines is crucial. Respect the birds' natural behaviors and habitats, avoid disturbing nests, and follow any site-specific rules or regulations to minimize your impact on the environment.

10. Maps and Navigation Tools:

Depending on the locations you plan to visit, having accurate maps and navigation tools, such as a GPS device or a smartphone with a reliable map app, can help you reach birdwatching sites easily and safely.

Respecting Wildlife and their Habitat

Respecting wildlife and their habitat is essential when engaging in any kind of nature-based activity, including seabird-watching. Here are some important guidelines to follow to ensure that you have a positive impact on the birds and their environment:

1. Keep a Safe Distance:

Maintain a respectful distance from seabirds and their nesting sites. Most seabirds are sensitive to human presence and may be easily disturbed. Use binoculars, spotting scopes, or long camera lenses to observe them without getting too close. 

2. Stay on Designated Paths and Trails:

Stick to designated paths and trails to minimize your impact on the environment. Avoid trampling on sensitive vegetation or disturbing nesting areas. Following established routes helps protect fragile ecosystems. 

3. Avoid Feeding Wildlife:

Do not feed seabirds or any other wildlife you encounter. Feeding them disrupts their natural foraging behaviors, can lead to dependence on human food sources, and may negatively impact their health. 

4. Do Not Disturb Nests or Birds:

Never approach or touch seabird nests or eggs. Disturbing nests can cause adult birds to abandon their eggs or chicks, which can have devastating consequences for the population. Keep a respectful distance and avoid making loud noises. 

5. Minimize Noise and Movement:

Move quietly and avoid sudden movements when observing seabirds. Loud noises and quick motions can startle birds and disrupt their activities, especially during critical times like nesting and feeding.

6. Observe Behavioral Signs:

Pay attention to the birds' behavior. If you notice signs of stress, such as birds repeatedly taking flight or vocalizing loudly in response to your presence, you may be too close and should back away.

7. Pack Out Your Trash:

Bring all your trash and waste with you when leaving a birdwatching site. Leaving trash behind can harm both wildlife and their habitats, detracting from the beauty of the area for others.

8. Respect Restricted Areas:

Some areas may be designated as restricted to protect nesting seabirds or other sensitive wildlife. Always obey signs and regulations that indicate areas where human access is limited or prohibited.

9. Be Mindful of Wildlife Photography:

When taking photographs, prioritize the welfare of the birds. Avoid using flash photography at close range, as it can startle birds and interfere with their natural behaviors.

10. Educate Others:

If you're birdwatching with others, share these guidelines and encourage responsible behavior. Educating fellow enthusiasts about the importance of respecting wildlife and their habitats can have a positive ripple effect.

11. Participate in Conservation Efforts:

Consider getting involved in local conservation projects or citizen science initiatives that focus on protecting seabirds and their habitats. Contributing to research and conservation efforts can help ensure the long-term well-being of these birds.

Understanding Seabird Behaviors

Understanding seabird behaviors is a fascinating aspect of birdwatching that allows you to gain insights into these birds' lives and their roles within their ecosystems. Still, keep in mind that each species has its own unique behaviors, and patience and careful observation are key to unlocking the mysteries of seabird behavior. Consider keeping a field journal to record your observations and insights, which can contribute to your own understanding and broader scientific knowledge of these remarkable birds.

Understanding Seabird Behaviors


1. Courtship Displays:

Seabirds often engage in intricate courtship displays to attract mates. These displays can involve elaborate dances, vocalizations, and aerial acrobatics. Observing these behaviors can provide a glimpse into the complex social dynamics of seabird colonies.

2. Nesting and Parenting:

Many seabird species have unique nesting behaviors. Some may nest in burrows, while others create simple scrapes in the ground or build intricate nests on cliffs or trees. Observe how adults care for their chicks, including feeding, protecting, and teaching them survival skills.

3. Feeding Strategies:

Different seabird species have evolved various feeding strategies to exploit marine resources. Some are adept at diving from great heights to catch fish underwater, while others engage in surface feeding or even steal food from other birds.

4. Foraging Flocks:

Keep an eye out for seabird flocks congregating over areas of water. These flocks can indicate areas with abundant food sources, such as schools of fish or shoals of squid. Flocks may also follow fishing boats or other marine animals to scavenge for food.

5. Flying Techniques:

Seabirds are known for their graceful flight patterns, and each species has its own unique style. Watch how albatrosses utilize dynamic soaring to cover long distances with minimal energy expenditure. Gulls and terns may hover above the water before making quick dives to catch prey.

6. Interactions Between Species:

Observe how different seabird species interact with one another. Some species may engage in cooperative behaviors, while others might compete for food or nesting sites. These interactions can provide insights into the ecological relationships within the seabird community.

7. Migrations:

Some seabird species undertake epic migrations, traveling thousands of miles between their breeding and feeding grounds. Research the migration patterns of the species you're observing to understand where they spend different parts of the year.

8. Vocalizations:

Seabirds often communicate through vocalizations, which can vary from simple calls to complex songs. Listen for distinct calls during different activities, such as nesting, feeding, or social interactions.

9. Rafting and Resting Behavior:

Seabirds spend a significant amount of time resting on the water's surface. Watch for birds "rafting," which is when they gather in groups on the water. This behavior allows them to conserve energy while staying alert to potential food sources.

10. Adaptations to the Marine Environment:

Seabirds have evolved numerous adaptations that help them thrive in the marine environment. Observe features such as waterproof feathers, specialized bills, and webbed feet that enable them to forage, fly, and survive in oceanic ecosystems.

Joining Guided Tours and Workshops

Joining guided tours and workshops can greatly enhance your seabird-watching experience in Hawaii by providing you with expert guidance, local insights, and educational opportunities. 

1. Local Expertise:

Guided tours and workshops are usually led by experienced naturalists, ornithologists, or birdwatching enthusiasts who are intimately familiar with the local birdlife. Their knowledge and expertise can help you identify species, understand behaviors, and gain a deeper appreciation for the ecosystem. 

2. Access to Prime Locations:

Guided tours often take you to prime seabird-watching locations that might be challenging to access on your own. These tours are designed to optimize your chances of observing a variety of species and capturing memorable moments. 

3. Timing and Scheduling:

Local experts know the best times of day and seasons to observe specific seabird species. They can help you plan your birdwatching outings for maximum success. 

4. Educational Insights:

Guided tours and workshops provide opportunities to learn about seabird ecology, conservation efforts, and the unique challenges these birds face. You'll gain insights into the importance of protecting their habitats and the role seabirds play in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems. 

5. Photography Tips and Techniques:

If you're interested in bird photography, guided tours often provide photography-focused advice and tips. Experts can help you capture stunning images while minimizing disturbance to the birds.

6. Interaction with Like-Minded Individuals:

Joining a guided tour or workshop allows you to connect with other birdwatching enthusiasts who share your passion. You can exchange experiences, tips, and stories, fostering a sense of community.

7. Research and Conservation Contributions:

Some guided tours may have a scientific or conservation focus. By participating, you might contribute to ongoing research projects, data collection, or conservation initiatives aimed at protecting seabird populations and their habitats.

8. Safety and Preparedness:

Guided tours often provide a level of safety and preparedness, especially in remote or challenging environments. Local experts can help you navigate potentially hazardous conditions while minimizing your impact on the environment.

9. Customized Experiences:

Many tour operators offer a range of options, from half-day excursions to multi-day trips. You can choose the experience that best suits your preferences and schedule.

10. Respect for Wildlife and Habitat:

Reputable guided tours prioritize the well-being of the birds and their habitats. They adhere to ethical birdwatching practices and help educate participants on how to minimize disturbances.

Recording Your Observations

Recording your observations while seabird-watching is not only a great way to remember your experiences but also contributes to citizen science efforts and helps researchers better understand seabird populations and behaviors. 

1. Keep a Birdwatching Journal:

A birdwatching journal is a dedicated notebook where you can document your observations, thoughts, and insights. Include details such as the date, location, weather conditions, and the species you observed. Describe behaviors, interactions, and any interesting or unusual occurrences you witnessed. 

2. Use Digital Notes or Apps:

If you prefer digital methods, use note-taking apps or birdwatching-specific apps that allow you to input information on your smartphone or tablet. These apps often come with features like location tagging, photo uploads, and the ability to share your observations with online birdwatching communities. 

3. Document Species and Numbers:

Record the species you observed and, if possible, estimate the number of individuals. This information can help researchers track population trends and better understand the distribution of seabirds. 

4. Describe Behaviors:

Detail the behaviors you observed, such as courtship displays, feeding methods, interactions between birds, and any noteworthy activities. This information contributes to our understanding of seabird ecology. 

5. Include Location Details:

Be specific about where you observed each species. Note geographic features, landmarks, or GPS coordinates. This information helps researchers and other birdwatchers locate these birds in the future. 

6. Add Context:

Write about the habitat, time of day, and any environmental factors that might have influenced the birds' behavior. Providing context helps create a more complete picture of the observation. 

7. Record Weather Conditions:

Weather can influence bird behavior and activity. Note factors like temperature, wind speed, cloud cover, and sea conditions. 

8. Regular Entries:

Make entries regularly, even if you didn't see anything particularly unusual on a given day. Over time, these records can provide valuable insights into seasonal changes, migrations, and long-term trends.

9. Contribute to Citizen Science:

Many organizations and websites offer platforms for citizen scientists to upload their birdwatching observations. By sharing your records on these platforms, you contribute to large-scale data collection efforts that aid in bird conservation and research.

10. Respect Privacy and Environment:

When recording your observations, ensure that you're not disturbing the birds or their habitats. Maintain a respectful distance and prioritize their well-being.

11. Share with the Community:

Consider sharing your observations with local birdwatching clubs, online forums, and social media groups dedicated to birdwatching. This can lead to discussions, learning opportunities, and the exchange of insights with fellow enthusiasts.


Seabird-watching in Hawaii offers a captivating experience when guided by the right practices. Choosing the ideal time and place, understanding species behaviors, and respecting wildlife are key. Equipped with binoculars, guides, and a camera, enthusiasts can appreciate courtship displays, nesting habits, and diverse foraging strategies. Engaging in guided tours, workshops, and note-taking contributes to both personal enjoyment and the larger scientific understanding of seabird populations and conservation.

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