Monthly Archives: April 2016

The kolea are set to depart on their 3,000-mile journey

Published April 25, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
This bird’s black face, ringed with white, marks it as a male. He is due to take off any day now for Alaska, where he’ll try to woo a mate. ©2016 Susan Scott

This bird’s black face, ringed with white, marks it as a male. He is due to take off any day now for Alaska, where he’ll try to woo a mate. ©2016 Susan Scott

The past few weeks our Pacific golden plovers, or kolea as we call them here in Hawaii, have looked so stunning in their spring attire, I’ve often had to stop and stare. Now it’s time to say farewell.

I wish they wouldn’t go, but that’s migration for you. The birds have molted into their breeding colors not to charm us, but to charm a mate in Alaska, where with luck the couple will raise four chicks.

So off they go today (or within the next few days), 7-ounce birds flying 3,000 miles nonstop over the Pacific Ocean in three days.

This winter we had a kolea we called “she” occasionally hop onto our lanai from the fronting golf course. Now our lanai visitor is a male. He’s plump, perky and drop-dead gorgeous. “Did that female ever come back?” Craig asked last week as we admired the preening male.

She didn’t. But now that I think about it, our winter “she” is probably the spring “he” we’re seeing now, the same bird dressed in different outfits. The golf course is loaded with plovers, but because the species is territorial, it’s likely the same bird.

When we see kolea in parks, on golf courses and along roads in winter, there’s no way to know whether they’re males or females.

The sexes look identical in winter, but come spring the difference between them is clear.

Males have solid black faces, breasts and bellies, outlined by a bright white racing stripe. Females have similar colors, but they aren’t as sharply outlined, the result being a mottled look. Both sexes, though, have gold-flecked backs and wings that remind me of jeweled cloaks.

Healthy birds with enough body fat to make the journey generally leave Hawaii on or around April 25. The birds’ departure is dramatic. One day kolea are there. The next day they’re gone.

Don’t worry if your bird doesn’t leave this week. Each kolea knows whether it’s strong enough to make it to Alaska. A few underweight birds might skip the trip north and stay in Hawaii for the summer. These are often first-year birds that hatched the previous summer.

According to plover researcher Wally Johnson, no one knows how the birds coordinate their leaving. Over a few days the kolea gather in flocks of various sizes. Suddenly the flock takes off, rises to a great height and heads to sea until it disappears. Sometimes an ascending flock merges with another passing by.

Johnson says a good place to see this flocking, and with luck, the departure itself, is Kualoa Regional Park on Kaneohe Bay.

Those of us who admire kolea fall, winter and spring feel their departure and absence acutely. But that’s the beauty of migration. In August they’ll be back.

The fish with a piglike nose apparently now flourishing

Published April 18, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
The wedgetail triggerfish can brace itself inside a hole in the reef, safe from predators, using spines. One species, the humu-humunukunukuapuaa, is the official state fish. ©2016 Susan Scott

The wedgetail triggerfish can brace itself inside a hole in the reef, safe from predators, using spines. One species, the humu-humunukunukuapuaa, is the official state fish. ©2016 Susan Scott

Because it seems that wedgetail triggerfish are having a banner year, last week I swam in a straight line and counted them. In only a few minutes, I saw 12.

I know I wasn’t counting the same fish over and over because I was snorkeling in 4 to 5 feet of water, and my close passing caused each fish to dive into a bunker. And there they stayed, locked and loaded. Once a triggerfish is in a hole, it really is locked. Triggerfish prefer spaces so small the fish can barely squeeze their bodies inside. Tough, sandpapery skin allows triggerfish to scrape against coral rock without harm.

Once in, the fish raises from its back a long hard spine that sticks into the cave’s ceiling. A smaller spine behind fits into a groove of the larger, bracing it upright. To anchor its lower half, the triggerfish extends a bone on its belly. It’s the fish version of jamming a chair under a doorknob.

Triggerfish wedge themselves in so securely that one could pull the fish out only by reaching in and depressing the second, bracing spine.

 

But don’t try it. Triggerfish are also loaded. Their weapons are sharp chisel-like teeth, eight in an outer row and six more in an inner row that shore up the outer.

Nor should a snorkeler or diver try getting a close look at a triggerfish’s egg mass. The mother will charge, and sometimes bite, anything threatening her clutch.

In other fish families that lay eggs on the ocean floor, such as damselfish and blennies, males guard the eggs. But triggerfish males have harems, which leaves them little time for baby-sitting. The male patrols his territory of females, chasing away interloping males with mating on their minds. That leaves each female in the harem responsible for safeguarding her own brood.

All this chasing and charging is exhausting for both sexes, but triggerfish romance is a one-day affair. Females lay their eggs at dawn, the male immediately fertilizes them and their tiny offspring hatch that night.

Of the world’s 37 species of triggerfish, all ranging throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans, Hawaii hosts 10. One, however, is special here because of a 1984 election for Hawaii’s state fish. The multihued wedgetail triggerfish won, partly because it has a cute Hawaiian name in a cute Hawaii song. In “My Little Grass Shack” the humuhumunukunukuapuaa go swimming by. With all their darting and ducking, wedgetail triggerfish remind me of kids playing soldiers while wrapped in their grandma’s patchwork quilts. Whatever the cause of this fish bloom right now, I’m glad of it. Dozens of humuhumunukunukuapuaa brighten any day.

Red fish that hides in a cave can be ID’d as 1 of 3 species

Published 11, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
A blue, pink and yellow Hawaiian cleaner wrasse cleans a soldierfish as two others wait their turn just outside their cave. ©2016 Susan Scott

A blue, pink and yellow Hawaiian cleaner wrasse cleans a soldierfish as two others wait their turn just outside their cave. ©2016 Susan Scott

Whenever I peek in a cave I pass during one of my favorite snorkeling routes, the Dr. Seuss book title, “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” starts worming through my brain. Even though I can only see flashes of scarlet in the dark little space, I know there’s at least one or two fish in there and they’re red. And that narrows the identity down to one of three red cave dwellers in Hawaii: soldierfish, squirrelfish or bigeyes.

Because those fish total about 25 species here, it can be tough to pinpoint a single one. But if the skittish fish allow me a look at their bodies, I can at least pick the right clan.

A major clue is the tails. Soldierfish and squirrelfish have forked tails, the center forming a V. Bigeye tails are a solid fan shape. That leaves soldierfish versus squirrelfish. The name soldierfish is big clue. Most species have a dark bar behind each gill cover resembling epaulettes, the shoulder strips on some military uniforms. Another possibility of the origin of the name is that the solid red bodies reminded someone of the 18th century British soldiers called redcoats.

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Although I didn’t hear grunts, the Hawaiian name, `u`u, may have come from the sound soldierfish sometimes make when alarmed. Today, most Hawaii anglers and markets call soldierfish by the fishes’ Japanese name, menpachi.

Squirrelfish, called `ala`ihi in Hawaiian, lack epaulettes, but have light-colored horizontal lines that run from gills to tails. One Hawaii author wonders if the name came from the fish acting squirrely, since they dash back and forth in their shelters when threatened.

Although they’re hard to see in a swimming fish, squirrelfish have needle-sharp, backwards-pointing spines, one on each gill cover. In some species, such as the longjaw squirrelfish, the spike bears a toxin that in human skin causes excruciating pain. Anglers who get poked are usually trying to remove a hook from the fish’s mouth.

All these scarlet fish rest in caves and under ledges during the day, bigeyes usually alone, the other two in schools. At night, soldierfish and bigeyes come out to hunt for tiny drifting animals. Squirrelfish search the ocean floor for crabs and shrimp. Last week during my morning swim, I passed my red-fish-blue-fish cave and got a surprise. Hanging outside the doorway, in bright sunshine, were ten red soldierfish waiting patiently for service from a busy blue, pink and yellow cleaner wrasse. My new title “One Fish, Ten Fish, Red Fish, Blue-Pink-Yellow Fish” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, but my conclusion is the same Dr. Seuss’s book: “Every day, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

Bonus blue fish: Male Hawaiian Spotted Boxfish, Ostracion meleagris camurum. Susan's web guy's favorite blue fish. ©2014 Scott R. Davis

Bonus blue fish: Male Hawaiian Spotted Boxfish. Susan’s web guy’s favorite blue fish. ©2014 Scott R. Davis

1867 sailors showed heart, unlike Kaena Point vandals

Published April 4, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Biologists working at Midway Atoll stand next to a fearless Laysan albatross. Because albatrosses evolved without land predators, they have no fear of people. ©2016 Susan Scott

Biologists working at Midway Atoll stand next to a fearless Laysan albatross. Because albatrosses evolved without land predators, they have no fear of people. ©2016 Susan Scott

After reading about my experiences at Midway, home of the largest albatross colony in the world, Mililani resident Jim May emailed me excerpts of letters his great-grandfather Edward May wrote. Edward was the paymaster aboard the USS Lackawanna when its captain claimed possession of Midway for the U.S. in 1867.

After raising the American flag, the crew explored Midway’s two islands. “Both are fairly covered with birds that don’t care any more for a man than for one of their own kind,” Edward wrote. “They won’t move off their nests unless you push them over.”

Edward killed 16 albatrosses for food, writing that he felt “mean for pegging away (hitting) at them and abusing their confidence.”

Jim thought I might be appalled by the description of the men bludgeoning the docile bird. I am not. Sailors had to eat.

What is appalling is the subsequent slaughter of millions of albatrosses for feathers on women’s hats. And even more appalling is the recent butchery of Kaena Point albatrosses. The fact that some 19th-century sailors felt bad about killing albatrosses for food says a lot about the depravity of the Kaena Point vandals.

There are, however, bright sides in Hawaii’s albatross history. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt stopped the mass killing of seabirds in Hawaii’s northwest chain, and today the enormous area is protected as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

In the early 1980s at Oahu’s Kaena Point, I saw men in pickup trucks shooting albatrosses. Now Kaena Point is a jewel in the state’s Natural Area Reserve system, and the public was outraged over the December bird killings there. The case is pending.

Innovation is also at work today with multiple groups working together to create a new albatross colony at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku. The refuge is, understandably, closed to the public.

 

It’s easy to get discouraged about wildlife conservation in Hawaii, but consider how far we’ve come. John Berger, the range complex sustainment coordinator at Barking Sands, said it perfectly in an email he sent about last week’s column. He appreciated the article for “recognizing not what we did, but what we are doing, and what we can expect in the future.” Thanks to all for writing.