Author Archives: sdavissm@gmail.com

Breathing gets bubbly while crabs are on land

Published February 10, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

A reader spotted this rock crab, or aama, blowing bubbles at Maunalua Bay.

A lot of us beach walkers are crabby, and I mean that as a compliment.

Last week a reader spotted two rock crabs, or aama, at Maunalua Bay that gave her pause. Barbara emailed, “Do the crabs blow bubbles? I came across a crab with fine white bubbles on its eye area. … The bubbles seemed to dissipate within a few minutes and then the crab scuttled away.”

Crabs that spend part of their lives in the water, and part out, can blow bubbles. This foaming-at-the-mouth might look like the crab is in distress, and sometimes it is, but in healthy crabs, mouth bubbling comes from the crab breathing air instead of water.

All crabs have gills, and all gills need to be wet to work properly. Crab veins bring carbon-dioxide- loaded blood to the gills. There the blood offloads this gas, a waste product of metabolism, and gets a fresh hit of oxygen. Arteries carry the recharged blood away from the gills, delivering it through the body.

Crab blood carries its oxygen with copper molecules rather than iron and, therefore, is blue instead of red.

Crab gills come in pairs, each housed in a chamber beneath the top shell near the creature’s front. To keep respiratory current flowing, the crab beats a tiny paddle, called a bailer, at the base of each of its two front claws. The water or air exits through two holes, one on each side of the mouth.

You might say, then, that a crab breathes in through its legs and out through its own version of nostrils.

When it comes to getting oxygen, the aama is flexible, extracting the essential gas from water or air, depending on where the creature is scavenging. When an aama is on a rock pushing air past its gills, because they’re wet, the exhaled breath comes out in bubbles.

Barbara saw another aama with a bulging lower flap holding a spongy egg mass, and wondered whether rock crabs give birth to live crabs.

Sort of. Females of this genus (there are eight species, one being the red Sally Lightfoot) carry fertilized eggs under the belly flap for about three weeks and then drop the hatchlings in the water.

Crab hatchlings don’t look like crabs, but rather are larvae that drift around as plankton. Survivors go through several molts before they look like crabs.

Hawaii hosts about 200 crab species in a wide variety of shapes, colors and habitats. They have one trait in common: pluck. If they can run and hide, most crabs will do so. If cornered, though, crabs defend themselves, raising their claws like little boxing gloves to fight even enormous monsters like humans.

Hawaii’s shoreside crabs can breathe air or water, run sideways, eat most anything and fight for their lives with remarkable courage. In my view, calling someone crabby is a good thing.

Clinger crabs are members of wind drift community

Published February 3, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

A pregnant clinger crab fits in the palm of a hand. ©2018 Susan Scott

When the wind is howling and the surf is busy salting everything in my house, I hit the beach. Those aren’t the best conditions for soaking up sun or playing in the water, but for us avid walkers it’s prime time for finding marine treasures.

Because I make mosaics from litter I find in albatross nests at Midway and on beaches in the Pacific, my gems are usually bits and pieces of colored plastic. Last week, though, my prize was alive. When I got home and dumped my junk in a colander for rinsing, there on a barnacle- and algae-encrusted toy truck clung an offshore crab.

This species of crab is a member of the wind drift community, a diverse bunch of animals that float on the surface eating anything they run into, including each other. They’re called wind drifters because they are indeed adrift, their direction and speed controlled entirely by current, wind and waves.

Common jelly-type critters floating offshore are Portuguese men-of-war (Physalia), by-the-wind sailors (Velella) and blue buttons (Porpita).

You might not expect snails to be members of this community, but two species are common: violet snails (Janthina) and snails-without-shells called nudibranchs (Glaucus).

Another unlikely offshore mariner is a little crab I call the clinger crab because it doesn’t have its own float system, as the others do, nor does it swim. Rather, the clinger crab spends its life hanging onto a piece of wood or debris. (I can’t find a common or scientific name for this little crab. If you have one, please write.)

Clinger crabs are about the size of a quarter and come in shades of blue or brown, depending on which object they’ve chosen to call home. This clinger was brown, a perfect match to the brown seaweed that grew on its floating toy.

You can tell a male crab from a female by the flap on the center of its underside. Narrow is male; females have wide flaps that hold their eggs.

When I examined my crab’s belly, I discovered, with some excitement, that I had a female with eggs. Hoping to raise some baby clingers, I rushed back to the ocean for a bucket of water, half filled my rescue tank and gave my pregnant crab her tiny truck, a pile of rocks to reach it and some frozen brine shrimp for energy.

A pregnant clinger crab fits in the palm of a hand. The eggs are the yellow mass under the flap. ©2018 Susan Scott

Alas, a tank being the utter opposite of her natural habitat, she did not survive. Even so, I was happy to have had a wind drift pet, even if just for a day.

During my beach walks I sometimes forget to bring a bag, and have to go trash-can diving for containers. Failing at both those things last week, I called Craig to come get me in the car, because I couldn’t walk home. After stuffing my pockets full of flotsam, I then filled my Crocs.

I have lived in Hawaii long enough that I sometimes think it’s too cold to go snorkeling. Never, ever, though, is it too cold for beachcombing.

Midway beach becomes wall-to-wall sea turtles

Published January 27, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

A lost honu hatchling flaps its flippers in an effort to run or swim. It was released at the shoreline and swam away within seconds. ©2018 Susan Scott

Three weeks ago I wrote that an increasing number of green sea turtles, called honu in Hawaiian, are swimming to Midway Atoll to rest on a particular stretch of sand.

Researchers think that greens come out to warm up. Only the greens of the Galapagos, Australia and Hawaii haul out to sunbathe.

Haul is a good word for it. Because sea turtles have flippers for feet, moving their heavy bodies above the waterline is a slog. During my albatross work at Midway two years ago, I watched several 200-or-so-pound turtles dig their front fins into the sand and lurch up the beach, one laborious step at a time. I felt exhausted just watching.

On Jan. 20 a friend working at Midway sent an email with the subject “How many turtles?” Her photo showed turtles resting flipper to flipper on that same beach. “The count on this day was contested,” Jill wrote. “Either 69 or 70 depending on whether the computer image was enlarged.”

A few of Midway’s turtles basking on their favorite beach. The two in the background are dark because they’re still wet. ©2018 Susan Scott

Because few, if any, of these turtles hatched on Midway (it’s not yet a significant nesting site), I wondered how they know to go there. Perhaps there’s some kind of turtle telegraph advertising Midway as a great place to soak up the sun.

Another friend recently sent a smile-inducing hatchling video called “Turtles on a treadmill”; watch it at goo.gl/YhEqq7.

At night, when hatchlings emerge from their sand nests, they run toward the brightest light. In nature that’s the ocean. In urban areas, however, artificial light, known as skyglow, trumps the sea for luminosity.

When hatchlings head toward human-produced light, Florida researchers wondered whether the energy they used running around left the turtles exhausted when they finally reached the ocean.

To test this, workers placed hatchlings on a belt sander treadmill, using a light at the front as a lure. After the turtles had run up to 500 yards, researchers dressed each in a pink swimsuit and placed it in a tank of seawater. Tiny monofilament leashes attached to the suit’s back caused the turtles to swim in place for two hours.

Good news. Both the treadmill and lost-on-the-beach hatchlings rested longer than those of nondisoriented turtles, and that apparently helps the babies conserve energy. Blood and respiration tests showed that even after sprinting the length of five football fields, the baby turtles swam as well as the hatchlings that headed straight to sea.

The bad news is that baby turtles gone astray are easy pickings for predators such as cats, dogs, mongooses and seabirds. And if the hatchlings are still out on the sand after the sun rises, they soon become crispy critters.

Hooray for flippers. After seeing the photo of 70 honu basking on Midway’s beach, and watching hatchlings run on their treadmill, I’m giving green sea turtles a big high-one.

Good deed brings rare glimpse of sea horse

Published January 20, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

As slow swimmers, sea horses hide and remain motionless as a defense from predators. Courtesy Jeanine Palmieri.

I could practically hear the yippees in Jeanine Palmieri’s email when I read her account of what she and her husband found at Bellows Beach on Martin Luther King Day. “We were in the right place at the right time,” Jeanine wrote, “to see this little feat of Mother Nature!”

What the couple saw was two children looking into an old paint bucket in the sand. Next to the bucket lay a basketball- size fishing float covered in goose barnacles, seaweed and other marine growth.

The boy had spotted the black plastic ball in the waves and swam out to retrieve it so it wouldn’t hit anyone. Once ashore, the boy and his sister noticed a crab on the float. And on the crab clung a stunning sea horse.

The sea horse is a Hawaii native. The smooth sea horse’s scientific name is Hippocampus kuda. In Greek mythology, hippocampus was a sea monster with the head of a horse and the tail of a fish. All monsters should be so enchanting.

Hawaii fish guidebooks usually list three sea horse species and three pipefish species because the two fish types are closely related. Pipefish look like stretched-out sea horses.

Seahorse in old paint bucket. Courtesy Jeanine Palmieri.

But even though six of these beauties swim in Hawaii waters, we snorkelers and divers are lucky if we see any in our lifetimes. The fish are only 3 to 6 inches long and are well camouflaged. As slow swimmers, sea horses and pipefish hide and remain motionless as a defense from predators.

Another defense is a suit of armor that encloses the body. Some sea horses have spikes on their armor’s rings and ridges, but others are smooth. This is where Hawaii’s smooth sea horse, our most common, gets its name.

I use the word “common” loosely because Hawaii’s sea horses appear and disappear over the years. In the summer of 2012 I found seahorses in one area on the North Shore, in about three feet of water, nearly every time I snorkeled there. It didn’t last. After a series of huge surf events that winter, I never saw my little ponies again.

Jeanine called the Waikiki Aquarium about the rare finding at Bellows. Staff there said if the sea horse looked healthy, and it did, to return it to the ocean.

Courtesy Jeanine Palmieri.

If you get lucky and find a sea horse, admire it, take pictures and then please return it gently to its natural habitat.

Putting a wild sea horse in your home aquarium is a death sentence for the little beauty.

Continuing the story, Jeanine wrote that even though the young boy wanted to keep the sea horse as a pet, “his dad took the bucket far beyond the surf and let the sea horse run free.”

This story has a nice ending and a moral, too: When you see people at a shoreline peering into a container, always take a look. Inside Hawaii beach buckets, there may be magic.

You can enjoy sea horses galore anytime at the Waikiki Aquarium’s seahorse exhibit and nursery.

Green turtles’ numbers are growing at Midway

Published January 13, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

Green turtles have become abundant on Midway Atoll, choosing to bask in particular on Midway’s Sand Island. An immature green turtle on Midway prepares to eat a Portuguese man-of-war. Courtesy Hope Ronco.

I missed going to Midway this year, but because two friends had flown there early, and they’re back now, I get to enjoy tales of the atoll.

Midway is famous for hosting the largest albatross colony in the world (1 million to 2 million individuals), but it’s also become a place to admire sea turtles. My friends are still marveling over the sight of a green turtle gobbling up a raft of Portuguese men-of-war.

During my first visits to Midway in the 1980s, I didn’t see any turtles. But decades of protection have helped Hawaii’s greens thrive, and as their numbers increase, the turtles are branching out. For reasons known only to the turtles, some routinely swim to Midway’s Sand Island to bask on one particular beach.

On Oahu’s North Shore, seeing nine or 10 turtles dozing on the beach is a good day. Midway’s turtles, though, have made basking practically a team sport.

During my albatross work two years ago, I counted 38 adult turtles sunbathing on that beach, some so close together that their flippers draped over their neighbors’ broad backs. Now this beach sometimes hosts more than 50 individuals.

A few turtles lay eggs at Midway, but the atoll is not yet a significant nesting spot for Hawaii’s greens. Because most turtles return to their hatching place to mate and lay eggs, and green turtles don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re 20-plus years old, it takes decades to establish new breeding colonies.

Limited nesting beaches is one reason Hawaii’s green turtles are still listed as a threatened species. More than 90 percent lay their eggs at French Frigate Shoals, about 500 miles northwest of Oahu and 700 miles southeast of Midway.

Two weeks ago in Midway’s harbor, my friends saw an immature turtle, about the size of a dinner tray, eating trapped Portuguese men-of-war. This was a wind-created pupu platter for the turtle, which took the blue floats, one at a time, into its mouth.

Seeing the creatures’ tentacles dragging over the corners of the turtle’s mouth was cringe-worthy for the human onlookers, but the nasty men-of-war’s stinging cells didn’t seem to hurt the turtles’ skin or tongue.

As my friends and I strolled through Haleiwa Beach Park last week, we came across a friendly and informative turtle and seal guardian, Niko Lopez, from a nonprofit called Hawaii Marine Animal Response, or HMAR.

We learned that volunteers with this citizen science group work with federal and state agencies to patrol, teach, protect and rescue Hawaii’s turtles, seals, whales and dolphins on Oahu and Molokai. HMAR volunteers in 2016 were out 3,700 times, engaging about 56,000 members of the public.

Report turtle or seal injuries or abuse to HMAR at 888-256-9840. For more information or to volunteer with the group, see h-mar.org.

Portuguese men-of-war are remarkable animals in their own right, but they do pack a punch to human skin. Nice to know that our honu are helping keep the rascals in check.

Distinct isle anemones stow their okole at aquarium

Published January 6, 2018 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2018 Susan Scott

On exhibit at the Waikiki Aquarium is a Mann’s anemone, a variety found only in Hawaii. ©2018 Susan Scott

I had no new year’s resolutions this year until I received an email last week from a Honolulu Zoo volunteer who saw a kolea in full spring breeding colors. This was the second person who alerted me to this unseasonably attired plover wintering at the zoo, and off I went with my camera.

Afterward, having experienced a Christmas miracle — a side-street parking space — I walked across the street to the Waikiki Aquarium.

I enjoyed both facilities so much that I promised myself I would visit these wildlife havens more often in the coming year. To cement this spur-of-the moment resolution, I bought 2018 memberships.

Our zoo has fallen on hard times these past few years, but the good news is that the animals are still there and upgrades are in progress. During my search for the dressed-up plover, I spoke to several employees and volunteers, and without exception they were friendly, helpful and upbeat about the zoo’s future.

In light of all the time I spend snorkeling and reading about marine life, you might think that the aquarium wouldn’t hold any surprises for me. But wait, what’s this? On exhibit is an anemone, called Mann’s anemone, found only in Hawaii that I didn’t know existed.

An anemone looks like a single, cylindrical coral body without the hard skeleton around it. Its bottom is a disc that either attaches to something solid or anchors itself in sand or mud. Stinging tentacles surround a central mouth.

The aquarium had several Mann’s anemones, no small feat. The creatures live in intertidal zones exposed to waves and are hard to keep in captivity. The gorgeous pinkish-purple anemones are about 4 inches wide and 2 inches tall. The sign near the animals made me laugh out loud. It says that the Hawaiian name for these animals, is okole, meaning rear end.

The aquarium also has superb sea horse exhibits. As I admired the charming little ponies, a friendly visitor told me that the Japanese name for sea horses translates to “dropped dragons,” another name that made me smile.

I did not find the tuxedoed plover at the zoo during my first spin through, so after the aquarium visit I took advantage of my new zoo membership and popped in for another look around.

That’s one advantage of joining up. Visits can be brief. And if you go at midday you might even find free parking.

During my second spin through the zoo, I found flocks of delighted children and pooped parents, but again, no tuxedoed kolea.

That’s OK. I’ll be back to look again. And during my shoreline swims I’ll keep my eyes peeled for Mann’s anemones.

I know already that it’s going to be a good year.

Isles host 20 species of native spider crab

Published December 30, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

 

Hawaii is home to at least 20 species of small spider crabs. Pictured is one such Hawaii spider crab. Courtesy Morris Moribe

Year-end highlights or summaries aren’t my favorite reading material because the articles mostly contain facts about things I already know. Therefore, for this last Ocean Watch of the year, I’ll share some emails sent to me in 2017 that I loved, and answered, but didn’t have room to publish.

In March, reader Greg wrote, “My coworker found an odd crab … and we were wondering if this is an illegal alien that came to Hawaii during the Navy war games. … It’s a small guy … approximately one inch wide.”

Greg put the crab on ice in his freezer in “solidarity confinement.”

No need to worry about an invasion, though. Greg’s photos showed a spider crab native to Hawaii’s waters.

Hawaii hosts at least 20 species of spider crabs, all oddly triangular shaped. The one Greg’s friend found is common near Hawaii’s shorelines where brown seaweeds wash ashore.

But bring a magnifying glass to examine them. The crabs are only a half-inch to 1 inch wide, as well as being remarkably camouflaged.

Also called collector or decorator crabs, spider crabs have hooked hairs on their bodies that snag bits of seaweed, sponges, corals or other tiny animals drifting past. So besides being small, spider crabs can look like anything but a crab.

Claire, a loyal reader in the Seattle area, brought new facts about another marine animal to my attention last spring in a New York Times link (goo.gl/27XbPN) about fang blennies. (Claire is my 94-year-old mother-in-law who keeps me on my toes via her iPhone.)

Fang, or sabertooth, blennies are little Davids to the ocean’s Goliaths. When a predator fish takes a fang blenny in its mouth, the 2- to 4-inch-long blenny uses its two lower front fangs to bite the captor’s mouth. In response to the pain, the predator spits out the rascal unharmed.

Researchers recently learned that some fang blennies go a step further, injecting an opioid-containing venom during a bite. The venom doesn’t get the predator high, but rather drops its blood pressure by 40 percent.

We humans would feel faint and dizzy with such a drastic BP decrease. Although no one knows how it makes the fish feel, it can’t be good. With its head aquiver, the predator spews out the blenny.

Hawaii hosts several fang blennies but none that pack poison.

Ah, once again, I am out of space and have barely scratched the surface of my 2017 emails.

Readers, please know that I appreciate your personal stories, thoughtful questions, links to news items and words of encouragement. When I’m traveling or sailing I can’t always reply, but I read and enjoy all your messages.

Thank you for swimming with me into 2018. Another year, another 52 fish.

Isolated Midway still has creature comforts

Published December 23, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A pair of Laysan albatrosses sing and dance. The birds bond for a lifetime. ©2017 Susan Scott

 

When I mentioned that Craig and I were going to work at Midway counting albatrosses over the holidays, the questions people asked made me realize that few people know anything about the place.

Reasonably so. Midway may be in the Hawaiian Island chain, but it’s 1,200 miles from Oahu. And even though the atoll holds the Battle of Midway National Memorial, is part of the Papa­hanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and has long been Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the atoll is not included in the state of Hawaii or even the U.S. You need a passport to go there.

Midway, however, is owned by the U.S., its official designation being a “U.S. minor outlying island.” But don’t dust off your passport. Due to funding cuts to the managing agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the atoll is closed to the public.

When the Navy occupied the place, they called it Midway Island, but Midway is a typical atoll. It consists of three islands totaling 2.4 square miles bathed by a lagoon encircled by a coral reef.

Most people who go there are volunteers for Fish and Wildlife, but getting us there is a monumental task. Given the distance and the poorly named Pacific Ocean, going by boat is not an option. The largest island there hosts an airport, managed and staffed by a few Federal Aviation Administration workers. But no commercial planes currently fly to Midway except in emergencies, which is one of the reasons the government keeps the airport facility open and functional.

We volunteers pay our own charter airfare, up to about $2,500 per seat now, as well as our own meals. Housing is in renovated (and charming) World War II-era buildings that provide electricity, Wi-Fi and private bathrooms.

Not being part of the U.S. means that the contracted manager of the atoll’s facilities, Chugach Alaska Corp., can hire foreign nationals. As a result, about 50 Thai workers maintain the facilities that make Midway life so comfy. A chef named Pong manages the buffet-style meals, half Thai and half American. We albatross counters walk 8 to 10 miles per day, but I still gain weight on Pong’s feasts.

Since 1988, Craig and I have been jumping at any chance to work in this glorious wildlife refuge containing millions of albatrosses, Bonin petrels, white terns, green turtles, monk seals and other animals. But not this year. Due to an airplane glitch, 12 of us volunteer counters aren’t going.

The good news is that the six counters who went on an earlier flight report that the million or so albatrosses there are fine and don’t care if we count them or not. (Biologists care, but that’s another story.) Also, Wisdom, Midway’s 67-year-old Laysan albatross, has laid another egg and is looking as fit and beautiful as ever.

Instead of going to Midway, Craig and I will visit the Kaena Point albies and spend the holidays with our ohana here on Oahu. With alternatives like that, it’s hard to be disappointed.

Merry Christmas, dear readers. You make writing this column a continued joy.

Laysan albatross joins birds visiting isles for the holidays

Published December 16, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

This time of year is perfect for reading about a fictional Laysan albatross’s tale in “A Perfect Day for an Albatross” or watching the documentary “Midway: The Edge of Tomorrow,” which covers the significance of the atoll during World War II with the wildlife that lives there now. ©2017 Susan Scott

Here on Oahu, the holidays are for the birds — shorebirds and seabirds, that is.

In November, we plover lovers added to our list of thanks the first-ever-seen white (called leucistic) kolea, spotted foraging at Heeia Pier.

Late fall is also when Hawaii’s wedge-tailed shearwater chicks leave their burrows and soar to sea. Some youngsters, disoriented by street and shoreside lights, crash-land. Sea Life Park and other caring individuals embody the giving season by helping downed wedgies with rest, nourishment and redirection.

In addition, Honolulu residents and visitors get to enjoy the city’s own version of a white Christmas in the current flurry of white tern egg-laying and chick-rearing.

Topping off our island’s feathery Christmas cheer are Hawaii’s magnificent Laysan albatrosses, returned to nest again at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve.

Before putting on your hiking slippers to visit the albatrosses (parents are now sitting on eggs, and young birds are singing and dancing for mates), I highly recommend first hitting the couch to read a book and watch a movie.

The book is “A Perfect Day for an Albatross,” written and illustrated by Caren Loebel-Fried, an award-winning author and artist from Volcano, and published by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Loebel-Fried’s work of art is a children’s book in the way Pixar films are for children. Kids love the pictures and story, but the art is so stunning, and Malie the albatross’s tale so well told, that it’s a treat for adults too. A bonus in the book for teachers and home- schoolers is an educational guide for grades 1-3.

The partnership between Loebel-Fried and Cornell is a fine example of the lab’s mission of conservation work through combining scientific research, art and citizen science.

Similarly, the recent documentary “Midway: The Edge of Tomorrow” artfully combines the military significance of the atoll during World War II with the wildlife that now rules there.

You can watch the movie free on Amazon Prime or rent it for $5 for 48 hours. We rented it at a friend’s house, and she emailed that she watched it two more times before it expired. It’s that good.

Speaking of Midway, I’ll be writing next month’s columns from there because I’m going again as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife volunteer to help count albatrosses. The work is strenuous and the cost high (volunteers pay their own airfare and food), but it’s so worth it. See goo.gl/VX4Ph6 for information about volunteering.

Here in the islands, the spirits of Christmas forage, fledge, fish and fly. There’s no place like Hawaii for the holidays.

White terns enjoy growth with the help of humans

Published December 9, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

White terns have taken to urban life, gracing trees between Hickam Air Force Base and Niu Valley. ©2017 Susan Scott

If visions of fairy terns dance in your head this month, they’re not holiday hallucinations. For the second year in a row, Honolulu’s white terns (the official name for what we once called fairy terns or angel terns) are having a banner year.

Fall isn’t usually a busy nesting season for seabirds, but then, Honolulu’s white terns aren’t your usual seabirds. These parents build no nest whatsoever, laying their egg and raising their hatchling on a bare branch.

After the first pair of white terns decided to raise a chick at Koko Head in 1961, others followed until today our island’s south side hosts about 2,300 and counting.

White terns are native throughout the world’s tropic and subtropics, including our Northwestern chain, but Oahu holds the honor of being the only main Hawaiian Island to host a breeding colony of white terns. So far, the birds prefer urban life, gracing trees between Hickam Air Force Base and Niu Valley.

In 2016 and 2017 white terns have had two bursts of egg laying, one in March and another in October. This is a change from the past when, after spring breeding, the birds took time off from chick raising until the next spring.

This is a couple, probably mated for life. ©2017 Susan Scott

No one knows whether this year-round breeding is the new norm here, but it’s encouraging that the charming beauties are so busy. The small fish and squid that white terns eat are apparently plentiful off the city, our towering trees are safe from most predators and people from all walks of life are interested in helping the birds.

The heart and soul of white tern support is Hui Manu-o-Ku, a grass-roots association of tern fans. Among other things, the hui works with researchers, public and private wildlife agencies, and businesses to highlight the tern’s whereabouts.

No one wants to harm these adorable bird families, but in addition, because white terns are protected by federal and state laws, disturbing them can incur a fine. So when eggs and chicks are teetering on bare branches, tree trimmers, landscapers and holiday light stringers want to know.

To call attention to nesting terns, volunteers from Hui Manu-o-Ku and its partners are tying light blue plastic ribbons bearing the organization’s phone number and website around the trunks of trees hosting white tern families.

Volunteers have flagged 85 trees since October 2016 and are enlisting citizen scientists to monitor the terns’ progress.

This is crucial because when the chick fledges, the flag must be removed to keep the system current. People working with trees have been cooperative, helpful and grateful for the heads-up.

How lucky we are to live in a city where real angels decorate our holiday trees. Volunteer to help keep eggs and chicks safe at whiteterns.org or call 379-7555.