Outdoors

Kauai is for the Birds: A Naturalist Offers an Insider’s Look at the Island

Kim Rogers, a docent at Kiluaea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge shares her Kauai insights. (Photos: Courtesy of Kim S. Rogers/Bryan Berkowitz [L]; iStock [R])

Kim Rogers wants you to meet her bird neighbors. She wants to tell you their names and help you identify them by their songs. “There are the Laysan albatrosses soaring overhead, red-footed boobies nesting in the trees across the cove, and there’s the eerie moaning sound of wedge-tailed shearwaters coming from the ground.”

Rogers is a docent at the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge; she introduces visitors to the abundant natural history of the refuge — and of the island she calls home. The refuge is a windswept spit above a variegated blue Pacific. There’s a steep drop-off at the edge of the bright green plateau where the lighthouse stands; it’s strange to look down and see birds wheeling in the drafts below.

“It’s public land,” Kim Rogers says. “In the early 1900s the U.S. government bought 31 acres from the Kilauea Sugar Plantation for one dollar. If that had not happened, somebody would have bought this land and put a house on it. None of us would be able to enjoy this place. I tell people, ‘You’re on a National Wildlife Refuge. Thank you for supporting public lands.'”

The 1913 lighthouse once helped ships navigate past Kauai’s dangerous shores. Visitors can climb the spiral staircase to the watch room, learn about the native flora and fauna in the visitor’s center, or scan the horizon for humpbacks. “This is probably the best land-based whale-watching spot on the island,” says Rogers. Humpbacks migrate to Hawaii from Alaska to breed and birth their young. November through February is whale-watching season; birders are here year round.

kauai hawaii monk seal
Don’t be shocked if you cross paths with a monk seal. (Photo: iStock)

Rogers also volunteers at Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui. “It is not uncommon for beachgoers to stumble upon a monk seal. I explain to visitors that the seal is resting; it’s fine. It’s a marine mammal that spends two-thirds of its life in the sea, but when it’s here on land, it needs to rest and be undisturbed,” says Rogers. “I use binoculars to inspect the seal, to make sure it’s not tangled with a fishhook, and I may do some beach cleanup — removing plastic so we don’t have seals or other wildlife getting tangled up in the marine debris that’s showing up on our shores.”

Rogers’ advice for enjoying Kauai beyond the refuge is, not surprisingly, focused on enjoying the island’s outdoor offerings — along with some local places to fuel your adventures.

Kauai Hawaii
Bring your binoculars and peer at the birds that call Kōke’e State Park home. (Photo: iStock)

If you’re a bird lover like Rogers, go to Kōke’e State Park and strike out on the Pihea Trail. “That’s the place to potentially see endangered and rare native forest birds.” The ‘elepaio, — a species of flycatcher — lives here, as does the ‘i’iwi, a nectar-loving bright scarlet honeycreeper.

On the way back from the Kōke’e, stop in Waimea at Jojo’s for shave ice. “You gotta go to Jojo’s and get a photo out front of the brightly painted building. It’s got that colorful character as well as real color,” Rogers says. The shop is an iconic Kauai location, but beware: The hours can be unpredictable, especially if the surfing is good that day.

Hawaiian shave ice
Cool down with a Hawaiian shave ice. (Photo: Alamy)

For snorkeling Rogers likes Anini Beach and Ke’e — at the end of the road past Hanalei — in the summer. There’s also Lawai Beach on the South Shore. If you’re asking for directions, locals might call it “Beach House Beach” because of its proximity to Beach House Restaurant. Kauai is notorious for its surf — always check the report or talk to a lifeguard before heading to the water.

If you want to end your day with expansive sunset views, Rogers recommends heading to the tiny town of Hanalei on summer nights. Walk out on the Hanalei pier; it juts into the protected waters of postcard-perfect Hanalei Bay. Bonus: When it gets dark you’ll already be in the village for fish tacos or cocktails.

But for winter evenings, head to Polihale State Park. The beach is seven miles of golden sand, and if the skies are clear, you’ll see the island of Ni’ihau on the horizon. Polihale marks the west end of the NaPali Range, the steep lush cliffs that line Kauai’s north shore. The rock face reflects the roar of the ocean, amplifying the sound of the waves.

A few caveats — the road is unpaved, occasionally closed by heavy rains, and if you haven’t rented a four-wheel drive vehicle, your rental car contract may prohibit you from driving here. And the beach isn’t a swimming beach; the surf is massive and unpredictable. But it’s a fine place to beachcomb, have a picnic and watch the sun fall into the ocean — and a perfect way to end your day, surrounded by the island’s natural beauty.

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