Monthly Archives: January 2014

Various shorebirds join plovers in winter migration

Published January 27, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Sanderling at Laniakea. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

Hawaii’s Pacific golden plovers, or kolea, get a lot of attention because they graze on lawns, have adapted to the presence of people and return to the same spot year after year. These wonderful birds give us Hawaii residents memorable native wildlife experiences right in our own backyards.

But kolea are just one of the common migratory shorebirds that visit the islands in winter. The others might not dance on our doorsteps, but we don’t have to go far to find them, either.

A morning beach walk on a winter’s day often reveals little sanderlings either alone or in small groups. At 8 inches long, head to tail, the sanderling is so small it’s easy to overlook. This cutest of Hawaii’s shorebirds is also easy to miss because its colors match its favorite hangout, the edge of breaking waves.

The mottled gray and white shorebird’s Hawaiian name, huna­kai, means sea foam. The birds are experts at following receding waves while snatching exposed invertebrates and then running up the beach ahead of the next breaking wave.

Hunakai often race ahead of the incoming water so fast that their short, black legs are a blur, and if a wave outruns them, they use their wings for a vertical escape. It’s at this time we might hear the call of the huna­kai, a short sharp whistle that sounds like “Quit!”

Another common shorebird that I usually hear before I see is the well-named wandering tattler. The Hawaiian name of this bird, ulili, sounds like its call. These 11-inch-long, mostly gray birds usually forage alone on rocky beaches, and like the other shorebirds leave Hawaii in spring to nest in the Arctic tundra.

Ruddy turnstones, the fourth common shorebird wintering in Hawaii, are the easiest to spot. At 9 inches long, ruddy turnstones aren’t much bigger than sanderlings, but these visitors tend to forage in flocks, and their lovely orange, brown, black and white feathers are the colors of calico cats.

And, yes, in their search for food, ruddy turnstones turn stones.

It’s easy to tell sanderlings from Hawaii’s other common shorebirds because sanderlings are the only wave-chasers. But look closely.

“Would you like me to take your picture with the surf?” a nice man on the beach said last week when he saw me aiming my camera toward the big, beautiful waves breaking on the beach.

“No, thanks,” I said. “What I’m trying to shoot is a picture of this bird.”

“Bird?” he said. “What bird?”


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

©2014 Susan Scott

Bold paddle-boarder helps a yellow-bellied sea snake

Published January 20, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Courtesy Greg Gauget

When paddle-boarder Greg Gauget found a snakelike creature floating limp, but alive, off Maui’s Baby Beach (or Puu­anoa Beach) north of Lahaina a few weeks ago, he did what few people would do: He went through exceptional efforts to save it.

Sea snakes are so rare in Hawaii that Greg didn’t know what he’d rescued until he got it ashore and he and a beachgoer looked it up on her phone. Greg also took a picture, essential for the documentation of his animal, a yellow-bellied sea snake.

Yellow-bellied sea snakes are the most widespread snakes in the world, ranging throughout the tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans far from coastlines and reefs. Occasionally, though, the air-breathing snakes, which live mostly on the water’s surface, drift into higher latitudes. When one arrives in Hawaii, it’s the victim of oceanic currents that have carried the creature to waters less than ideal for breeding and feeding.

Yellow-bellied sea snakes eat small fish. The snake floats motionless, often among debris that collects at current boundaries, waiting for a fish to seek shelter below. If a fish hovers behind the snake’s mouth, no problem. These snakes can swim smoothly backward until the fish is within striking range.

With a lightning-fast sideways move of the head, the snake bites its prey, injecting a powerful venom with two tiny fangs, about 1.5 millimeters long (one millimeter is as small as the human eye can see.) It’s this cobra-type venom that gives sea snakes such bad reputations, and indeed, you do not want to get bitten by one.

Fortunately, sea snakes don’t want to bite us. Of the bites that do occur, nearly all are to anglers trying to remove snakes tangled in fishing nets.

The yellow-bellied sea snake is the only species of sea snake documented in Hawaii’s waters. We have 17 species of pretenders, though, that often trick people into believing they’re snakes. These are snake eels, harmless fish common on Hawaii’s reefs.

Sea snakes are like sharks in that for some people, no matter how many times they hear that these marine animals aren’t anything to worry about, they still feel that the only good one is a dead one.

Not Greg. After placing the ailing creature on his surfboard, Greg paddled it to shore, looked it up, took the picture and made some phone calls. The snake lived for a couple of hours. A University of Hawaii researcher (Greg didn’t catch the name) took the snake for study.

“I’m stoked that I decided to take action and help the snake,” he wrote.

I am, too. Thanks, Greg, for attempting to save this extraordinary creature, and for sharing your story.


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

©2014 Susan Scott

Chitons used in old Hawaii in rites for firstborn babies

Chiton. Courtesy Andy Swartz

While I was sitting on an airplane in freezing-cold Milwaukee last week, a burst of warmth came to me in an email from Andy, a Hawaii friend visiting Cali­for­nia. With the subject “What is dat?” Andy sent a photo and a note: “Creature is about 5 cm (2 inches) long adhering tightly to the tidal zone in Pacific Grove (Monterey Bay). I realize you’re more of a tropical ocean watcher, but maybe you know. Looks like son of trilobite.”

While I was sitting on an airplane in freezing-cold Milwaukee last week, a burst of warmth came to me in an email from Andy, a Hawaii friend visiting Cali­for­nia. With the subject “What is dat?” Andy sent a photo and a note: “Creature is about 5 cm (2 inches) long adhering tightly to the tidal zone in Pacific Grove (Monterey Bay). I realize you’re more of a tropical ocean watcher, but maybe you know. Looks like son of trilobite.”

It’s true that I prefer my ocean watching in warm water and tropical air, but then, so do some close cousins of the creature in the picture. Andy’s animal was a chiton, pronounced KITE-on.

Chitons remind people of trilobites, hard-shelled creatures that went extinct before dinosaurs existed, but the two aren’t related. Trilobites had jointed legs; chitons have no legs. They do, however, have a foot, a common feature in their animal grouping, the mollusks. Snails, clams, squid and octopuses are all mollusks, as are the 800 or so species of chitons that inhabit the world’s oceans.

Each chiton has eight overlapping plates across its back with a band of leathery flesh surrounding them called a girdle. Underneath is the chiton’s suction-cup foot which clings to rocks with the same doggedness as an opihi (limpet).

Most chitons live near the surge zone, where they graze on algae. During the day the animals rest under rocks, but come dusk they venture out in search of food.

A few species live to 5,000 feet deep, a dark place where plants can’t grow. These meat-eating chitons seek out tiny crustaceans, smothering them under the thick girdles.

Chiton mouths are just ahead of the muscular foot, but since the creatures have no tentacles, it’s hard to tell heads from tails on a chiton. Most grow to only a few inches long, but one called the gumboot chiton lives along the North Pacific coasts of America and Asia and grows to 13 inches long.

Hawaii hosts four chiton species a half-inch to 11⁄2 inches long. Ancient Hawaiians called them either pupu moo, meaning “lizard shell,” or pupu pee­lua, “caterpillar shell.”

Hawaiians didn’t eat chitons, but used them in ceremonies for firstborn babies. Aboriginal Australians roasted and ate these girdle-wearing mollusks, and aboriginal Bermudans used them in soup.

For good photos and stories about chitons and other trilobite pretenders, visit Hawaii biologist Sam Gon’s website: www.trilobites.info/triloimposters.htm.

I’ve not seen chitons in Hawaii, but now that I know they’re here, I’ll be looking — as long as it’s sunny with water and air about 80 degrees. (We can help Hawaii’s native marine animals by returning disturbed rocks to the positions in which we found them.)


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

©2014 Susan Scott