Monthly Archives: December 1996

Plovers’ battle for territory goes on after rival’s death

Published December 30, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

Barely a week goes by without someone telling me a story or asking a question about our entertaining winter visitors, the Pacific golden plovers.

Recently, someone asked me if these birds ever form flocks like ruddy turnstones and sanderlings. I said no. I was wrong.

Plovers do form flocks in Hawaii, usually at night, when they sleep.

We don’t usually see such flocks (in mangroves, on flat rooftops, beaches, hillsides, parking lots and lava flows) because most birds go there after dark and leave before first light.

Such roosting flocks range from a few birds to more than 300.

It’s hard to imagine these aggressive, territorial birds sleeping together. They do, but it doesn’t sound like they get much rest. Pecking and squabbling is common in roosting flocks when one bird gets closer than 4 or so feet of its neighbor.

Apparently, such horizontal drift is common because this bird’s “elbowing” reportedly goes on all night.

Most of us bird-watchers have seen these sweet-looking little shorebirds turn into thugs-with-an-attitude when another bird gets in their space.

But a behavior I saw this fall took the prize for plover pushiness. In October, while working at a research station in Hawaii’s northwest chain, I noticed that many of the plovers there were small and listless.

“A lot of them are starving this year,” the manager told me. “We don’t know why.”

As the days went by, I watched several of these weak birds stagger, fall, then lie in the hot sun where they soon died.

But death didn’t slow the surviving plovers’ battle for territory. The living birds would be foraging, spot the dead or dying bird, then run over and give it a good, hard peck.

This was hard to watch. Once, we collected a couple of dead plovers and laid them under the house to keep the living birds from mutilating the bodies. It didn’t work.

A healthy bird dragged a body out, then proceed to peck it.

What’s with these birds, we wondered. Why waste precious energy beating up dead rivals? We decided the living birds didn’t know the birds were dead.

They spotted that gold-flecked pattern nearby and went into attack mode.

“They’re hard-wired,” a biologist friend once said about such behavior. “There’s no deep thought going on in those little skulls.”

Some plovers on the island were surviving, but weren’t doing great.

Besides being small, they were unusually tame when food was present.

Several even entered the house to eat bread crumbs from a dish we placed on the floor.

Several tried to enter, that is. Whenever more than one bird arrived at the open door, a fight broke out with such godawful screeching, pecking and kicking that we would sometimes drop what we were doing to watch.

The fight was over in seconds. The winner would instantly gain his composure and prance to the plate with the grace of a ballet dancer.

“Let’s name him Misha,” I said of a particularly elegant bird.

“Why?” asked one of the volunteer biologists.

“It’s Mikhail Baryshnikov’s nickname.” “So? Why would you name the plover after him?” she persisted. “Because he’s such a good dancer,” I said.

“And so is this bird.”

“Mikhail Baryshnikov can dance?” she said.

“Oh yes. Like an angel,” I explained. She looked thoroughly puzzled. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I just can’t picture that heavy-set guy with the birthmark on his forehead dancing like an angel.”

When we stopped laughing, we renamed our house plover Gorby.

We Hawaii folks love our golden plovers. Send me your stories.

Festive holiday on board recalls Puerto Rican trip

Published December 23, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

Last week, my partner and I decorated our sailboat with garlands of lights, invited 10 or so friends over, and prepared to sail harbor-to-harbor in the Christmas boat parade.

Prepared is the key word here: Christmas on a sailboat can be an adventure just tied up in a slip. But taking one out in a threatening Kona storm while carrying several hundred feet of electric lights and a load of people can be a downright dare.

Our first-ever boat Christmas occurred years ago on a friend’s sailboat. We were considering buying a boat but were confounded by the variety of sizes, styles and structures offered.

“Stay on my boat for a while,” one generous friend said when we groaned about so many choices. “Then you’ll know if it’s too big, too small or if you even like the nautical life.”

Oh, we were excited as we moved aboard that December. And oh, were we wet that Christmas. A Kona storm moved in like a banshee on Honolulu, drenching the city and its harbors in storm after storm. The aged boat was charming, but her overhead hatches leaked like sieves, as did her mast base and a couple of bulkheads in the clothes closets.

On Christmas, we sat below deck in foul-weather gear. Miserable? Not in the least. It’s a sailboat, my partner rationalized. You’re supposed to get wet. So we toasted our good fortune at spending our first Hawaii Christmas on a sailboat and then bought one of our own.

The rub was that the only boat we liked was in Connecticut. We had to sail it home.

That momentous journey landed us in Puerto Rico the next December. I’ll never forget anchoring after a long, hard passage, then hurrying ashore to look for Puerto Rican Christmas decorations for the new boat.

We couldn’t find any. No decorations lined the streets, and no holiday music drifted through the air. I knew Christmas existed inside private homes there, but this poor country couldn’t afford the public festooning that we Americans take for granted. It was a sobering realization.

Eventually, we found a pack of Christmas cards with Spanish greetings. These we addressed on the boat while listening to Christmas carols in Spanish on a local radio station.

We finally got the boat home and have since had many memorable Christmases aboard. One fond memory is of friends waking us on Christmas morning by tossing food gifts down the open hatch above our berth.

Another is the time I strung tropical fish lights in the cockpit. During the usual Kona Christmas storm, the system shorted out. Grabbing the stainless-steel bows of the cockpit that year was truly a shocking experience. The next year, those lights went inside.

We still string lights up the rigging though. For years, we struggled with those big old-fashioned bulbs that required a generator to run and a sorcerer to find replacements for.

Last year, stiff tradewinds accompanied the Christmas parade, banging those old, loosely strung lights against the mast and stays all the way home. The bulbs made popping sounds as they broke, and their glass confetti stuck to the nonskid for months.

This year, we bought little lights that do twinkling tricks and run off the boat’s own power. We bounced and swayed our way over to Honolulu Harbor without one broken bulb. During that time, the Kona storm dissipated, the air freshened and the seas flattened.

It was a perfect sailboat outing, the kind that makes us feel really happy about owning a boat. One friend, with wind in her face and a smile on her lips, said it all: “At this moment, I feel like I’m truly, vibrantly alive. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

Boats will do that. Merry Christmas.

Those needlefish are not totally harmless after all

Published December 16, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

Those pesky needlefish. Just when I convince myself that they can’t possibly poke you with their beaks, I find out that a needlefish killed a child in Kauai.

It’s not a common event, and it happened nearly 20 years ago, but still . . . The incident, reported in detail in a reputable medical journal, certainly got my attention. Needlefish, or ‘aha, are common in Hawaii waters, which host at least four species.

Some of these fish prefer the outer reef or offshore waters. Others dwell near shore, often in shallow snorkeling areas.

As their name suggests, needlefish are long, narrow and silvery. The smaller common species reach about 15 inches long; the larger ones can grow to more than 3 feet. In all species, the fishes’ needlelike beaks, filled with sharp teeth, merge with their bodies to form sleek, living spears.

It’s easy to miss seeing these widespread fish while snorkeling because they hover so close to the water’s surface. (Snorkelers usually move along looking down.) This same trait makes needlefish easy to spot from land. On a recent walk through the city, I saw one school in Honolulu Harbor near the Maritime Museum and another in Kewalo Basin.

At least I thought they were needlefish. These fish have some close relatives called halfbeaks which often swim with needlefish.

The two types can be hard to tell apart. Halfbeaks have a long lower jaw but the upper is short and stubby.

Needlefish have two long jaws, good for catching fish. A needlefish strikes at passing prey with a sideways movement of the head, then swallows it whole.

Like their other close relatives, the flyingfish (malolo), needlefish can leap from the water at up to 38 miles an hour, skimming the surface before falling back to the water. This is where needlefish and people can clash.

At night, lights sometimes attract and excite these fish, causing them to jump at speed. Needlefish beaks have penetrated the wooden hulls of outrigger canoes.

Tragically, one also penetrated the eye of a 10-year-old Kauai boy while he was night fishing in a small boat with his father. The fish beak penetrated the boy’s brain, killing him.

In other parts of the Pacific, needlefish have punctured people in the chest, abdomen, arms, legs, head and neck.

People at greatest risk of needlefish punctures are night reef fishermen carrying lights in low boats. For many village fishermen in the Pacific, needlefish are a greater occupational hazard than sharks.

Although it’s rare, swimmers and divers have been seriously injured by needlefish in Japan, New Zealand and the Red Sea.

No such injuries have been reported in Hawaii, but it’s a possibility. To prevent such an incident, night divers should leave lights off until well submerged. Fishermen in small boats should be aware of the potential danger of carrying lights at night.

Millions of people, including me, have snorkeled near, dived around and paddled into schools of needlefish countless times without any trouble at all.

These lovely, interesting fish aren’t out to get you and injuries are indeed rare.

Still, it’s good to know the facts. Now, when someone asks me if those skinny, silvery fish can hurt you, I won’t say never. I’ll say, almost never.

Call fisheries service if you spot the ‘Kaneohe Kid’

Published December 9, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

“Im so glad you’re home,” my neighbor Valerie said breathlessly when I answered the phone.

“There’s a monk seal playing with a fisherman right here on our beach.”

Playing with, I thought skeptically. More like, fleeing from. Then I heard the story.

Valerie had been walking on the beach when she saw a seal pop its head up near a man spearfishing in waist-deep water. The seal swam shoulder-to-shoulder with the man, occasionally nudging him. The man gently pushed the seal away, but it wouldn’t leave.

The story seemed inconceivable to me until she added, “They came in so close, I waded in. And it touched me.”

“A monk seal touched you?” I said.

“I know you’re not supposed to get near them. But it came to me. Just like with the fisherman. It seems to crave the contact.”

By this time, I was already pulling on my swimming suit. “I’ve got to see this,” I told her. “Grab your snorkel gear.”

Moments later, Valerie and I found the fisherman. He was minding his own business, looking for octopus. Directly behind him, playing with a trailing line and a net full of octopus, was the friendliest monk seal pup in the world. He bounded around the man like an exuberant puppy.

“Excuse me,” I said to the fisherman. “Do you know this seal?”

“Nope.”

“He seems to like you,” I said.

“I can’t get rid of him. He’s ruining the fishing.”

“Maybe he’s attracted to your octopuses.”

“Naw. I gave him one. He wouldn’t eat it.”

The mildly irritated man returned to his fishing; Valerie and I snorkeled behind. The pup checked us out and, yes, even rubbed against us. But his main interest was with the fisherman.

After a while, Valerie and I came in, leaving the spirited pup with his reluctant new friend.

The pup, I learned later, was the “Kaneohe Kid,” a Hawaiian monk seal born last spring on a Mokapu Peninsula beach. When its mother weaned the little male, officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service decided to leave it in Oahu waters and see what happened. Perhaps it would become an ambassador, endearing people to its species.

It endeared itself a little too much. The wild animal got so friendly, it soon found trouble. Once, managers had to remove a fishhook from its mouth. Also, concerned citizens called constantly, reporting incidents similar to the one above.

Then, just when officials decided it was time to move the affectionate pup to a remote area, the calls stopped. The Kaneohe Kid has disappeared.

Managers fear the pup is dead but don’t know for sure. If you see this friendly seal, you can help him by calling the National Marine Fisheries Service at 943-1221.

Resist the urge to touch this or any other Hawaiian monk seal. These critically endangered mammals are protected by strict federal laws. Also, they can bite, even in play.

Don’t bite the shark who bites you, ocean-lovers say

Published December 2, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

RECENTLY, while working as a volunteer in the remote Hawaiian Island National Wildlife Refuge in Hawaii’s northwest chain, two other volunteers and I decided to go snorkeling.

“Every time I’ve been snorkeling here, I’ve seen a shark,” I told my companions, both new to Hawaii, as we walked to the beach.

“What kind?” one asked.

“Gray reef. They’re no problem if you stay out of their space,” I said boldly. “They’re territorial.”

We sat in the blinding-white sand, put on our gear and soon took the plunge.

Seconds later, my prophesy came true. A gray reef shark appeared in the clear blue water of the drop-off before me.

Although every rational cell in my brain told me this was OK, my fear won the moment. I motioned to my friends to follow me, then swam like crazy for the beach.

“I saw a shark,” I said when we got back. “It scared me.”

They accepted this. I was the experienced ocean person with local knowledge. If I were out of the water, so were they.

The two women began examining shells on the beach, but I sat staring out to sea. How could this happen? I love to snorkel and dive in interesting places like this. And I’ve often done it with sharks and did fine. But not this time. Today I was afraid.

How do we ocean-lovers cope with such unwanted fears? Star-Bulletin reporter Greg Ambrose attacks this question head-on in his new book, “Shark Bites, True Tales of Survival” (Bess Press). Greg’s approach to the complicated and controversial fear-of-sharks issue is to tell the stories of people who were attacked and survived. Kevin Hand, Star-Bulletin artist and marine enthusiast, illustrates each incident with flair.

Don’t pretend it doesn’t happen, the pictures and stories say. Face it. The ocean is the sharks’ home. Sometimes, sharks bite people. It’s frightening, but victims usually survive. Now get over it, and go enjoy the water.

When I read these stories, I saw a pattern. The sharks in these attacks weren’t interested in actually eating people. They saw something that appeared to have potential as food and checked it out. It wasn’t right. They left.

This supports a theory that Greg discusses in his introduction. Most shark attacks are cases of mistaken identity. Sharks evolved millions of years before humans even existed, thus, “We aren’t on the menu. Humans are an oddity rather than a meal.”

This rationale and the stories in “Shark Bites” won’t work for people who are so afraid of sharks they can’t relax in, or even enter, the ocean. I know several of these dry-landers.

But for the rest of us, the tales are an inspiration. Nearly all of the attack victims still surf and dive (although they have their moments) and believe the attack held a message. “It changed my living patterns and exposed me to other things. … In some ways, it added to my life,” one survivor said.

“I walked out onto the front yard and saw blue ocean like I had never seen it before,” said another after an attack. “You just have to be thankful and enjoy every day, every moment.”

Speaking of enjoying the day, I sat on that Tern Island beach brooding about sharks for about 10 minutes. Then I donned my mask and fins and led my friends back into the water.

Each of them got a thrilling look at the curious shark, then it disappeared.

It was a wonderful day of snorkeling, complete with finding a place where six turtles were grazing. One was missing a rear flipper from a shark bite. Oddly, this encouraged me. Predator-prey relationships are the driving force of the marine world, and we humans are not a natural part of it.

I’m proud of myself for taking Greg and Kevin’s advice that day: I faced my fear of sharks, then got over it and had fun.