Monthly Archives: December 2016

Peace, hope graced city on wings of white, gold

Published December 31, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

White terns have a ring of black feathers around their eyes, giving them a wide-eyed appearance. About 2,000 of them live in the Honolulu area. ©2016 Susan Scott

Most of my email this year was for the birds, specifically Pacific golden plovers (kolea) and white terns (manu-o-Ku), the native species that choose to grace our city.

The birds are doing what it takes in this era to survive on planet Earth: adapting to the presence of humans. And these animals aren’t just tolerating us. They’re using our stuff.

Plovers stand on our roofs, forage in our streets, and some even eat from our hands. (If you decide to feed your kolea, offer it healthy food such as mealworms or bits of scrambled egg.) Kolea prance around our yards helpfully gobbling up the roaches, beetles, worms, millipedes, spiders and slugs we’ve been introducing to Oahu for decades.

There’s a possibility that Hawaii’s kolea are here in greater numbers than before humans arrived. Since historical records are sketchy, there’s no way of knowing for sure, but we do know that plovers share our fondness for expanses of grass. And we mow it for them, too.

One of my favorite emails this year came from a reader who saw a kolea watch TV for days on end. The reader’s neighbor had placed a broken TV on the curb for pickup, and when a kolea saw its reflection in the glass, it stuck around, peering into the set for days.

White terns also landed in my inbox. For reasons known only to them, about 2,000 (and counting) white terns have decided to call Honolulu home, picking the most human-altered parts to raise their chicks. Their current range goes from Bishop Street to the Waikiki Aquarium, with a few of the brilliant ones going to the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Although nearly any tree will do, white terns’ favorites to balance their egg and raise their chick are kukui, monkeypod, mahogany, banyan and shower trees, all introduced species. As a result, urban dwellers can watch adorable chicks teeter on a bare branch while its parent stuffs an astonishing number of fish down its throat.

This year several readers emailed me pictures and tern stories. One woman described a “maternity branch” outside her condo window, and a worker at UH Manoa wrote that his favorite break-time activity was white tern gazing. “Just watching them,” he wrote, “made me relax.”

This year Pacific golden plovers and white terns gave us some priceless gifts: treasured moments of peace and glimmers of hope for the future.

You can give back to our special city terns by joining Hui Manu-o-Ku at whiteterns.org, and if you want to learn more about kolea, you can help Oahu’s plovers by buying their new book from the Hawai‘i Audubon Society at hawaii audubon.org.

Sea turtles are wonders to witness everywhere

Published December 24, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

urtle biologists measure a known loggerhead female as she lays her eggs in Mon Repos park in Queensland, Australia. ©2016 Susan Scott

This year I’ve already had the best Christmas present ever: a boost in appreciation of living on Oahu. For this gift I thank my visiting relatives from Portland and friends from Vancouver who couldn’t wait to go snorkeling. They were at the door with masks and fins while I was still looking for my wet suit. (It’s winter, for heaven’s sake.)

And then we got in the water and saw the turtles, some large, some small. They didn’t actually approach us, but neither were they fearful, and sometimes we had to maneuver to get out of a grazing turtle’s way. Hawaii’s honu, the Hawaiian word for green sea turtle, made each of my visitors’ snorkeling experiences remarkable.

I’m so accustomed to seeing Hawaii’s honu that I sometimes forget how lucky we are to have so many turtles swimming unafraid in island waters. Because Hawaii’s green sea turtles are the only population in the world that routinely come out of the water to rest and sunbathe, residents and visitors also get to watch them sleep on some North Shore beaches.

At a state park in Queensland, Australia, people get to see sea turtles lay eggs, a miracle I witnessed during my last visit there. The park, called Mon Repos, supports the largest concentration of nesting marine turtles in the eastern Australian mainland and is also the South Pacific’s most significant nesting population of the endangered loggerhead turtle.

You can imagine my excitement, then, when I learned that I could buy a ticket to watch a loggerhead lay her eggs. After a turtle crawled up the beach, dug a hole and started laying her eggs, a ranger biologist propped a small light behind the turtle. Another ranger then arranged us ticket holders in a wide circle he had drawn in the sand around the nest. In silence we shuffled clockwise so everyone got a chance to see the eggs drop. Sea turtles get trancelike while laying, and this one didn’t seem to even see us. When she finished her life’s grand mission, we backed off as instructed and watched the loggerhead return to the ocean.

This extraordinary education effort, appropriately called “Miracles on Mon Repos,” by the Queensland government heavily promotes attendance by our only hope for the future of sea turtles and our oceans: schoolchildren. The kids in my group were absolutely awestruck. Ticket proceeds support the program, turtle research and Mon Repos’ inspiring education center.

Because most of our honu nest at remote French Frigate Shoals, it’s not possible to watch them lay eggs. We have our own miracles, however, in that we can watch, swim and sunbathe with them. To help share Oahu’s great gift of turtles, see the “Help the Honu” tab at malamanahonu.org/index.asp.

New book chronicles decades of kolea studies

Published December 17, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

In the mid-1990s I wrote a column about the Pacific golden plover, Oahu’s favorite shorebird, known here as kolea. Soon after, I received in the mail several journal articles about these birds from ornithologist Oscar Wally Johnson of Montana State University. Someone had mailed Wally a copy of the column, and though we had not met, he sent me his publications.

“Nice piece on the kolea,” he wrote. “I think you’ll find these interesting.”

And so began a 20-year (and counting) friendship among Wally, me, the kolea and their many admirers.

As his research revealed more and more of this bird’s astonishing capabilities (flying, for instance, 3,000 miles nonstop in three days while occasionally reaching 100 mph in favorable wind), Wally began giving annual talks on Oahu.

Readers of this column increasingly emailed me questions about the kolea they saw in their yards, parks, golf courses and streets. I would email Wally the questions, he would email back the answers and I would write another kolea column.

Finally, last year, when Wally’s Oahu lectures were drawing standing-room-only crowds, and my kolea email became so abundant it got its own folder, we decided it was time to write a book.

The University of Hawai‘i Press agreed. Wally and I worked together to put his scientific articles into everyday terms and illustrate them with his photos and maps. As a result, he and I recently became the proud co-authors of “Hawaii’s Kolea: The Amazing Transpacific Life of the Pacific Golden-Plover.”

Wally, an affiliate research scientist at Montana State, became fascinated with kolea in 1979 while working in the Marshall Islands, and has been studying them since. His research continues to take him from his home in Bozeman to Hawaii, Alaska and throughout the Pacific.

Wally is the undisputed world expert on Pacific golden plovers.

The book contains pretty much everything everyone knows about kolea, and as you would expect, Wally’s photos during his 38-year pursuit of kolea facts are out of this world.

Before his death in 2006, Bob Krauss of The Honolulu Advertiser chronicled the comings and goings of Oahu’s kolea. I never met Bob, but I read his columns and am happy to accept the title that many readers have bestowed upon me: the new Bob Krauss. My kolea email is now more numerous than all my other column subjects combined.

The Hawaii Audubon Society is a longtime supporter of Wally’s kolea research. You can help Hawaii’s plovers and other native birds by buying the book from that nonprofit organization. Go to Hawaii Audubon Store.

Have a kolea Christmas.

Tahitian prawns gain foothold in local waters

Published December 10, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Tahitian prawns, also known as giant freshwater shrimp, can be found in streams and waters off all Hawaiian Islands since their introduction to the state in 1956. Courtesy Wikipedia

Tahitian prawns, also known as giant freshwater shrimp, can be found in streams and waters off all Hawaiian Islands since their introduction to the state in 1956. Public Domain photograph courtesy Wikimedia.

I had the pleasure of spending the long Thanksgiving weekend on Molokai with friends. After exploring that island’s remarkable beaches, we signed up with a local family for a guided hike up Halawa Valley to its waterfalls. On the walk along the stream, I found, to my surprise, an outstanding marine animal: a Tahitian prawn.

The other common name for this prawn is giant freshwater shrimp, which begs two questions. Is the creature a shrimp or a prawn, and does it live in salt or fresh water?

Both and both.

The words shrimp and prawn are not scientific names. They’re regional. People in the U.K. and other Commonwealth countries usually call the small edible species shrimp and the large ones prawns. In the U.S. most all are called shrimp, although large, freshwater ones might be called prawns.

The genus of the Tahitian prawn is Macrobrachium, meaning large arms. Males’ second pair of walking legs are long, thin and end in curved pincers. From head to tail the creature grows to 6 inches.

Despite the common name Tahitian, the species is native to East Africa, the Indian Ocean and throughout Indonesia to the Marquesas Islands. But it’s not native to Hawaii.

In 1956 state workers brought to Hawaii 340 of the prawns from Guam, releasing 94 in Pelekunu Stream, today a spectacular preserve on Molokai’s north shore. A year later state workers released 27 prawns in Oahu’s Nuuanu Stream.

For the next nine years, no one found a single prawn, causing people to believe the introduction a failure. Then in 1965 a fisher caught a large Tahitian prawn in a Big Island stream. By 1969 people had spotted the prawns in 42 streams on all islands.

The prawn had spread throughout the islands on its own. It could do that because the creature has a remarkable oceangoing phase in its life cycle.

After prawn eggs hatch, they wash to the sea. The tiny swimming larvae spend three to four weeks in the open ocean growing molt by molt. After 22 to 31 molts, the creature reaches the last molt before it becomes a proper prawn. But if it hasn’t found the fresh water it needs for its adult form to thrive, the baby is able to delay that last molt until it finds a stream.

The well-intentioned introduction of Tahitian prawns to Hawaii succeeded in establishing a new food source, but as usual, it came at a cost. The prawn eats anything it can find, including Hawaii’s native stream animals.

When during our Halawa hike I found a perfect large molt on a rock next to the stream, our guide said, “Tahitian prawn. We get them by the basketful. They taste great.”

That’s good, because Tahitian prawns are clearly here to stay.