Mystery of Midway kolea remains unsolved for now

Published January 11, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
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Some Pacific golden plovers, or kolea, spend their winters on Midway. ©LUKE HALPIN

I’m home from Midway, where I learned a lot about albatrosses. But one highlight of my visit came as a surprise: a flock of kolea.

I knew a few Pacific golden plovers wintered on Midway, and saw the occasional bird hopping around our living quarters. What I didn’t know is that they sometimes graze together there in large numbers.

Every day, kolea gathered among morning glory vines growing over a stretch of cement rubble that lies between runway and ocean. I wondered what the birds found so tasty in that one spot. And because our Oahu plovers so ferociously fight other birds with the nerve to trespass on their territory, I was also curious about how close together these individuals foraged. I rode my bike to the place to find out. The kolea had other ideas. From 100 to 200 birds immediately rose up and flew off together toward the ocean. Having never seen a flock of plovers in flight before, I was thrilled. But I needed to see birds on the ground.

I sat down and waited. And waited. After an hour not one bird had come back. Clearly, to see what these kolea were up to, I would have to be sneaky.

The next day, I stopped my bike far from the area and walked toward the vines. As I drew closer, I could make out the birds’ busy heads bobbing among the rocks and leaves in that stab-run-stab gait so familiar to us Hawaii residents.

I slowed my pace, taking one small step every 15 seconds, figuring the birds wouldn’t notice that I was drawing closer. Wrong. One danger call — “CHU-EET!” — and they were all gone.

The following day, after again flushing the birds, I sat atop sharp cement shards and leaned against a naupaka bush staying as still as I could. One kolea landed on the rusty breakwater, then another and another. Gotcha, I thought. But as I raised my camera for a picture, a bird raised the alarm. Gone again.

The next day, I dressed in dark clothes and took with me a padded beach chair that I nestled inside the branches of the little naupaka. Not a single bird landed in the vines, the slabs or even atop the distant breakwater. I sat there so long I nodded off; when I awoke there was still not a single bird in sight.

Before I admitted defeat, I crawled on hands and knees among the green vines and cement chunks but didn’t see a single living grub or insect, or evidence of anything eating the leaves or flowers.

The mystery of the morning glory plovers remains unsolved, but my efforts weren’t entirely in vain. The Midway birds’ wariness made me appreciate even more our Oahu plovers’ remarkable adaptation to human presence in urban settings. At the beach park next time, I’ll thank them.