Monthly Archives: November 2013

Kaena Point is hard to beat for watching nature’s glory

Published November 25, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A Hawaiian monk seal basked at Kaena Point last week. ©2013 Susan Scott

Last week I hikedto Kaena Point, a daylong excursion (about a one-hour drive from Honolulu, and a 5-mile round-trip hike). A few days later I got a text from a friend: “Hiking to Kaena Point. Wanna come?”

Leaving Oahu’s mass of buildings and lines of vehicles and walking into that world-class wildlife sanctuary had been like stepping through a magic wardrobe. Could I turn down another such journey? Of course not. I accepted instantly.

In the 1980s the state banned motorized vehicles from the 59-acre space to allow the plants and animals of this rare dune ecosystem (one of the last in the main Hawaiian Islands) to recover. And that they did, especially after the 2011 installation of a cat/rat/mongoose-resistant fence.

During my visits, Laysan albatrosses worked the wind, soaring as only albatrosses can. Other albatross parents had already hunkered down on newly laid eggs, and a few were singing and dancing in their search for mates. About 400 of these native seabirds spend the nesting season at Kaena Point, and the numbers continue to grow.


Wedge-Tailed Shearwater chick. ©2013 Susan Scott

Layman Albatross. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

Layman Albatross. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

 Wedge-tailed shearwaters (the “wedgies” I wrote about two weeks ago) also nest here. Full grown but still downy, chicks are emerging from their underground burrows, blinking in the bright sun. The youngsters are gearing up for the big leap, their first flight to the sea.

Kaena Point is also an ideal place to watch humpback whales and winter waves. Besides the beauty of big surf, the 20-foot-tall waves pounding the shore during my first visit caused four Hawaiian monk seals to choose a sleeping place exceptionally high on the beach. Several residents and visitors, a monk seal expert and 91 Punahou students admired the seals from a respectful distance. (To read about Kaena Point’s seals, and others spotted around the islands, see

Kaena Point

©2013 Susan Scott

This westernmost corner of Oahu gets our youngsters out hiking and, at the same time, teaches in the best way: by showing rather than telling. A troop of Kame­ha­meha students arrived as we left.

A sparkling diamond on the pinkie finger of Oahu, Kaena Point proves that given protection from vehicles and introduced predators, wildlife and humans can, even on a crowded island, coexist.

This special state preserve is a good place to visit any time, but especially so this week of Thanksgiving. If anything on this island makes me feel thankful to be alive, healthy and living on Oahu, it’s the precious point we call Kaena.

I’m already planning my next trip.

monk seal

Juvenile Monk Seal, Kaena Point. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Sea horses need secrecy to avoid collectors’ nets

Published November 18, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

The common sea horse, Hippocampus kuda, lives in the ocean near Hawaii. ©2013 Susan Scott

Last year, after I wrote my second column about snorkeling with sea horses, I got an email with the subject “Stop writing about Hawaii’s seahorses!” The writer had also found a sea horse habitat and worried that if word got around about the locations of these rare fish, collectors would take them.

And, to my sorrow, some did. Since then, following the Waikiki Aquarium’s policy, I’ve kept my sea horse sightings to myself.

The problem with such secrecy is that researchers lack the information to study the beleaguered little fish. With little knowledge as to sea horse whereabouts, conservationists can’t make management programs. And we desperately need some.

Each year, people worldwide sell 13 million sea horses, dead and alive, as traditional Chinese medicine, for aquarium pets and as curios and souvenirs. Yet on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, only 11 of the world’s 48 sea horses are listed. It’s likely that far more are endangered, but biologists don’t have enough facts to assess their conservation status. Twenty-six sea horse species are labeled “Data Deficient.”

Now biologists from the University of British Columbia, the Zoological Society of London and Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium offer a smartphone app called iSeahorse which lets snorkelers and divers report their sea horse sightings.

The app knows where you are by your phone’s GPS signal. Press “Add an Observation” and the program places a pin on the app map. On the geoprivacy button, you choose “obscured,” which will place the pin off by six miles. The researchers know the exact coordinates, but other app users will not.

To add a sighting, you must pick the species from a list in the app called Seahorse Guide. For a definitive ID, take a picture. (Try not to alarm the sea horse. Pregnant males can have “miscarriages” if they feel threatened.)

In Hawaii if you see a large, 8-inch-long sea horse, it’s a common sea horse, Hippocampus kuda. Smaller at 3 inches, and less common, is Fisher’s sea horse, Hippocampus fisheri.

A third possibility is a species called the thorny sea horse, Hippocampus histrix, 6 inches long with obvious spines on the head and body. Only one individual has ever been found — off Maui in the 1920s — but with this new team of citizen and research scientists working together, I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear about a second.

With iSeahorse I’ll know about others’ sightings of these little charmers in Hawaii. I’ll also write about them.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Human light sources can confuse fledgling seabirds

Published November 11, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A stranded wedge-tailed shearwater is kept safe and comfortable wrapped in a towel. ©2013 Susan Scott

This is the time of year to watch for wedgies, otherwise known as wedge-tailed shearwaters. If you rescue a wedgie, prepare to fall in love. These 16-inch-long seabirds have a natural smile on their beaks, velvet-smooth feathers, and after crash-landing, the exhausted and confused fledglings have a docile demeanor that seems to say, “Help me, please.”

Wedge-tailed shearwaters, also called uau kani, are ground-nesters. In spring, adults return from the ocean, where they’ve spent the winter gliding over the surface — “shearing” the water — searching for juvenile goatfish, flying fish, squirrelfish and squid.

Like most of Hawaii’s seabirds, wedgies mate for life. After a couple reunites on land in spring, often with haunted-house-style moaning, the two get busy digging a burrow and raising a chick. Now, in November and December, the fledglings emerge from their burrows and fly away to sea.

Or not. Because the birds find the ocean by moonlight on the water, city lights cause some to fly the wrong way, where they hit houses, utility poles and cars.

The largest number of chicks crash in areas where human lights are brightest, such as in sports fields and near all-night stores and eateries glowing along our shores.

Some birds die, but others are only stunned and can survive if given a helping hand. If you find one of these downed birds alive, here’s what to do:

» This time of year, keep a clean towel or T-shirt and a ventilated cardboard box or pet carrier in your car.

» Using the fabric, gently pick up the bird from behind. Wrap the cloth loosely around its body and wings. Place the bird in the box in a quiet and cool location. Don’t feed, give water or try to release the bird yourself by throwing it in the air.

» Take your bird as soon as possible to Sea Life Park. After hours, there are outside boxes, checked each morning, in which to leave the bird.

» For researchers studying the light problem, leave a note with your wedgie reporting when and where you found the bird such as an address, cross street, utility pole number or mile marker.


» Turn off outdoor lights in November and December, especially if you live near the coast. If you have a necessary light, shield it so it only shines down.

» Volunteer at Sea Life Park to help care for the rescued birds. Email Christina Leos at cleos@sealifepark­ for an application.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Plovers and people do well living close to each other

Published November 4, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Is it OK to feed the kola in your yard? A member of the standing-room-only audience asked that of golden plover researcher Dr. Oscar (Wally) Johnson during his recent talk on these shorebirds.

The question was also the subject of two emails I received from readers who were surprised that I would feed my plover, Gracie, scrambled eggs. ” … wildlife experts warn residents never to feed wild animals … ” one wrote. “I hope you heed the advice of experts.”

I do. The expert in this case is Wally Johnson, and he sees no problem in feeding Hawaii’s plovers. In his slideshow, Wally showed a photo of a Kaneohe resident who for 10 years and counting has been buying his kolea mealworms. In the picture, the bird is standing on the man’s hand.

Wally writes in a 2010 paper (“Birds of North America,” Cornell University, that the birds are very adaptable to coexistence with humans. “Extensive land-clearing in Hawaii … has likely improved wintering conditions for Pacific golden plovers by creating open environments.”

Besides cultivating lawns around our homes and making golf courses, cemeteries, pastures and parks, we have introduced alien creatures to our islands. Hawaii’s plovers pluck earthworms, blind snakes and millipedes from soil and grass, and also eat cockroaches, ants, earwigs, mites and slugs.

Plovers aren’t picky about grass. Some birds do much of their foraging on pavement. One individual Wally knows spends its winters on the AstroTurf fairways of a miniature golf course.

Hawaii’s kolea revert to their wild nature in Alaska, and that includes being good at spotting, and eluding, foxes and birds of prey (and plover researchers.) Wally suspects that this keen ability to protect themselves and their chicks from Arctic predators is why cats and dogs don’t seem be much of a problem for the birds in Hawaii.

Evidence comes from one kolea that Johnson banded and studied at Bellows, an area populated by feral cats. The plover wintered there for 21 years, a longevity record for the species.

Barn owls, however, are a threat to kolea as well as to native shearwaters and petrels. The night-hunting owls were introduced to Hawaii in the 1950s to control rodents, but barn owls also eat sleeping shorebirds and seabirds.

For all their flying, foraging and feather growing (plovers molt twice while in Hawaii), kolea need fat and protein, the main nutrients in eggs and meat. Rice and bread aren’t the best food for plovers, although Wally knows one that winters outside a fast-food joint and routinely snatches french fries from mynah birds.

Today, plovers and people are allies in conservation. We give the birds a hand with habitat and food, and they give us a personal connection with a native bird. In thriving with humans, the kolea show us, in all their glory, the basic principle of life on Earth — adaptation.

We’ve come a long way from shooting 15 plovers per hunter per day. Now, instead of having plovers on toast for breakfast, we cook and serve them eggs.

How lucky we Hawaii residents are to host majesty in our own backyards.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott