Tag Archives: Alaska

Kolea kamaaina at heart, plover lovers sure to agree

Published August 6, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Kolea

A kolea nest holds two chicks and two eggs in Alaska. The birds fly 3,000 miles to Hawaii to spend nearly nine months of the year. Courtesy O.W. Johnson ©June 2016

I’ve always wondered where home was for kolea. Is it Alaska, where for about three months the Pacific golden plovers build nests, raise chicks and “forget” their winter partnerships with humans? (In kolea nesting grounds, the birds behave as if people are predators.)

Or is home in Hawaii where these migratory shorebirds spend nearly nine months of the year living in harmony with humans? I’m sure kolea fans in Hawaii share my bias: Home is here.

Reader Bert Weeks of Aiea emailed that he saw two female plovers foraging in his neighbor’s yard July 25. On the same day another reader, Ann Egleston, saw Pacific golden plovers at the Diamond Head cemetery. By the 29th several kolea were gracing the lawns of Kapiolani Community College and the Department of Defense.

Because it takes plovers four days (nonstop) to fly here, these birds had to leave Alaska July 21. Such early returnees are probably adults that couldn’t find a mate this year, or parents that lost their brood to predators or bad weather.

Most adult kolea that successfully raised chicks arrive in Hawaii in August. Females come first, then males. After their parents leave, kolea chicks stick around the tundra for as long as the weather holds, fueling up for their 3,000-mile migration. First-year kolea navigate to Hawaii alone, on instinct, arriving in September, October and as late as November.

Only about 20 percent of each summer’s offspring live through their first year. If they make the journey, youngsters in Hawaii must then compete with stronger, experienced adults for foraging territory.

People worldwide take great pleasure in feeding wild birds, a practice endorsed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Humane Society of the United States, Birdlife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other conservation organizations. Not all experts agree on whether backyard feeding helps bird populations overall, but they do agree that feeding can help individual birds in a neighborhood.

Feeding also connects people with nature, often profoundly, turning observers into keen citizen scientists. If you decide to feed your plover, offer it healthy food such as mealworms or bits of cooked egg. My kolea likes her eggs scrambled. Last year I learned to outsmart grabby mynahs and pushy bulbuls by luring them with a little something around a blind corner of the house. My plover caught on quickly.

When the others flew off for breadcrumbs, she stayed with me and ate her bits of egg in peace. She’s not back yet, but when she arrives I’ll drape a verbal flower lei around her neck by calling out, “Aloha, my friend! Welcome home.”

Size of tusks determines walruses’ pecking order

Published June 1, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

Last week, I received an unsigned email from someone who’s been watching walruses via a live stream (at: 808ne.ws/1BAGACw) from Alaska’s Round Island.

“Some walruses poke others with their tusks, almost to the point of being pushy jerks,” he or she wrote. The writer wanted to know what was happening in that “great mound of walrus?” Is there a pecking order as to what part of the beach individuals lie on? And why do they mostly lie on their backs?

walrus

The entire Pacific walrus population (there’s an Atlantic one, too) winters in the Bering Sea on and around the pack ice. Mating takes place in the water in January and February, with males fighting one another for females.

When two males meet, they raise their heads from the water and turn sideways, showing their tusks. Often that’s all it takes, and the male with the smaller tusks backs down. If the rivals have tusks of equal size, the fight is on; sometimes males pierce each other with those strong, pointed weapons.

With skin an inch or more thick, however, punctures aren’t usually lethal.

walrus

Pups are born 15 months later in the spring. At that time, the sexes separate. Females with offspring migrate north to the Chukchi Sea, where they live on pack ice. Males head south to Bristol Bay, where, between foraging for clams, they haul out to rest on land, in some places by the thousands.

And that’s what we’re watching on the webcam. That great mound of walrus is a pile of bulls. You can tell they’re males from the bumps on the necks and shoulders called “bosses,” and the huge tusks. The largest are 3 feet long. Both sexes use their tusks to help pull their one-to-two ton bodies from the water onto ice floes, hence their nickname “tooth walkers.” The tusks are also handy for chopping holes in the ice to dive or breathe through, and as bayonets to fight off polar bears and orcas.

Walrus Cam - Round Island (968222)

Walruses are highly social animals that like to travel and rest in groups, but togetherness only goes so far. Females tusk-jab one other for better positions on ice floes and males tusk-fight other males for access to females.

I didn’t find anything in the walrus literature about why the males usually lie on their backs on the beach but it looks like a space issue. With those jutting tusks, it seems near-impossible for the animals to lie on their bellies, and there’s little room for sideways positions.

Nor did I find the answer to my question: If broken, do tusks grow back? The webcam shows individuals with broken and missing tusks.

The thousands of male walruses on Round Island beaches are there May through August. The biggest males with the largest tusks get the prime real estate at the top of the beach. But with coming and going for clam hunting, the guys in this crowd are constantly jostling, elbowing and poking one another to get back to the most favorable space.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game lost their walrus webcam funding 10 years ago, but thanks to a charitable donation from Explore.org, there’s an excellent new system.

Only tune in, though, when you have time to spare. Walrus watching is addicting.

Walrus Cam - Round Island (968081)


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

©2015 Susan Scott