Tag Archives: Golden Pacific Plovers

That golden time of year has arrived on kolea wings

Published August 5, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A Pacific golden plover, or kolea, pauses on Sand Island, Midway. The atoll is about 1,000 miles from the main Hawaiian Islands, to where the birds migrate from Alaska. Courtesy Luke Halpin

Writing in all caps with multiple exclamation marks is the text equivalent of shouting. But those punctuation points and uppercase letters have their moments, and here’s one: OUR KOLEA ARE BACK!!!

The birds have been trickling in all week, returning from their child-rearing chores in Alaska.

On July 25, Pacific golden plover expert Wally Johnson forwarded me an email with the subject “Plover at BYUH.” Wally wrote, “They’re starting to head back — neat! The early ones in ‘fall’ are often females, as this one appears to be. They apparently leave the guys in charge of their growing kids and zip off to enjoy the less complicated life in Hawaii. So, the cycle is turning once again — amazing.”

The next day, Niu Valley resident Peter Ehrman emailed, “This evening I spotted a kolea in the back of the valley! Don’t know if it’s a very early arriver or a straggler that never left, but it’s definitely a kolea. Thought you’d like to know.”

I do want to know. It’s an exciting end-of-summer moment when we see a plover, and especially exciting when the individual that lives on our lawn or pecks on our street returns.

Just about everything regarding these birds is remarkable, but the one fact that drops all jaws is that each season’s chicks instinctively head south by themselves. They have no guidance besides the compass in their DNA.

Chicks stay in Alaska as long as the tundra still has bugs and berries. The youngsters need to build up enough body fat to make the 3,000-mile nonstop journey to the Hawaiian Islands.

Look for these skinny youngsters in October. If the snow falls late, some chicks arrive as late as November.

It’s a rough trip for a bird that just got its wings, and making it to Hawaii is no guarantee for survival. The young must compete for grazing space with older birds, many of which guard their foraging territory aggressively.

At best about 20 percent of summer chicks live through their first year. On a more cheerful note, the ones that make it through their first year have good potential for a long and healthy life.

When I told my husband about the two plover emails I received, he asked whether I was going to write about these early-­bird arrivals.

Of course. Announcing the return to Oahu of our Pacific golden plovers is an honor I hold dear.

As another reader wrote about hearing and seeing a kolea on her neighbor’s rooftop July 26: “All is right with the world. The kolea are home.”

Thank you to all who wrote about the return of these marvelous migratory shorebirds. We may not be actually shouting, but we’re thinking it. WELCOME HOME, KOLEA!!

Time nears for plovers to bid aloha to islands

Published April 22, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A Pacific golden plover, or kolea, enjoys eating pieces of fish. Most of the birds will head to Alaska soon, except for the weak or sick. Courtesy Robert Weber

We have four days left to admire our kolea friends, so stunning in their spring attire. On or near Tuesday most of the Pacific golden plovers we’ve been enjoying in our yards, parks, golf courses and cemeteries will leave for Alaska to raise their kids in the insect-rich Arctic. Underweight or injured birds will pass on nesting this year and stick around for the summer.

How empty our yard will feel without Jude, the bird that has been brightening our days by dropping in for the occasional breakfast, lunch or dinner.

We live on a golf course, where Jude spends his time foraging. Most days, especially after rain, the pickings are so good in the grass that Jude prefers worms and bugs over eggs. During dry stretches, though, when he sees movement in our house, he flies to the lanai doors and waits patiently for some of the scrambled eggs we keep for him in the fridge.

I say patiently because before the egg toss I sprinkle some birdseed around the corner of the house to divert the mynahs’ and cardinals’ attention. Jude quickly learned that there’s nothing in that offering for him and stands rooted, waiting for me to dole out the yellow protein.

Jude, whom I called Julie before he showed his true colors, cannot swallow a piece of egg bigger than a pea. If I toss a chunk as large as, say, a lima bean, the bird drops it to peck it apart. The loose egg often gains the notice of our mynah-with-the-broken-leg who steals the egg from a surprised Jude’s beak.

This is why I was surprised when biologist-photographer friend Robert Weber emailed pictures of a kolea with a fish in its beak. Robert wrote, “I enjoyed watching (a kolea) fishing in shallow mud flats on Maui. It would wade around in the water, catch a fish, then carry it up the shore to tear it apart where it couldn’t get away. Interesting and entertaining.”

The fish is small, but still. It seems a kolea would quickly lose a fish to bandit birds before it could break it into beak-sized bits. But maybe our Jude is a first-year, inexperienced bird. Or he’s just slow.

I sent Robert’s photo to plover expert Wally Johnson, who emailed back, “We knew the little guys occasionally took fish, but had no images. Am very pleased to have these!”

We all are. Thanks, Robert.

The plovers’ signal to fly to Alaska is triggered by length of day. No one knows how the birds coordinate their actual departure. Over a few days they will gather in flocks, then suddenly fly to a great height and disappear.

A good place to see kolea assemble — and, with luck, witness the start of their incredible journey — is Kualoa Regional Park.

Fair winds, sweet birds. We await your return.

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.”

Plovers’ battle for territory goes on after rival’s death

Published December 30, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

Barely a week goes by without someone telling me a story or asking a question about our entertaining winter visitors, the Pacific golden plovers.

Recently, someone asked me if these birds ever form flocks like ruddy turnstones and sanderlings. I said no. I was wrong.

Plovers do form flocks in Hawaii, usually at night, when they sleep.

We don’t usually see such flocks (in mangroves, on flat rooftops, beaches, hillsides, parking lots and lava flows) because most birds go there after dark and leave before first light.

Such roosting flocks range from a few birds to more than 300.

It’s hard to imagine these aggressive, territorial birds sleeping together. They do, but it doesn’t sound like they get much rest. Pecking and squabbling is common in roosting flocks when one bird gets closer than 4 or so feet of its neighbor.

Apparently, such horizontal drift is common because this bird’s “elbowing” reportedly goes on all night.

Most of us bird-watchers have seen these sweet-looking little shorebirds turn into thugs-with-an-attitude when another bird gets in their space.

But a behavior I saw this fall took the prize for plover pushiness. In October, while working at a research station in Hawaii’s northwest chain, I noticed that many of the plovers there were small and listless.

“A lot of them are starving this year,” the manager told me. “We don’t know why.”

As the days went by, I watched several of these weak birds stagger, fall, then lie in the hot sun where they soon died.

But death didn’t slow the surviving plovers’ battle for territory. The living birds would be foraging, spot the dead or dying bird, then run over and give it a good, hard peck.

This was hard to watch. Once, we collected a couple of dead plovers and laid them under the house to keep the living birds from mutilating the bodies. It didn’t work.

A healthy bird dragged a body out, then proceed to peck it.

What’s with these birds, we wondered. Why waste precious energy beating up dead rivals? We decided the living birds didn’t know the birds were dead.

They spotted that gold-flecked pattern nearby and went into attack mode.

“They’re hard-wired,” a biologist friend once said about such behavior. “There’s no deep thought going on in those little skulls.”

Some plovers on the island were surviving, but weren’t doing great.

Besides being small, they were unusually tame when food was present.

Several even entered the house to eat bread crumbs from a dish we placed on the floor.

Several tried to enter, that is. Whenever more than one bird arrived at the open door, a fight broke out with such godawful screeching, pecking and kicking that we would sometimes drop what we were doing to watch.

The fight was over in seconds. The winner would instantly gain his composure and prance to the plate with the grace of a ballet dancer.

“Let’s name him Misha,” I said of a particularly elegant bird.

“Why?” asked one of the volunteer biologists.

“It’s Mikhail Baryshnikov’s nickname.” “So? Why would you name the plover after him?” she persisted. “Because he’s such a good dancer,” I said.

“And so is this bird.”

“Mikhail Baryshnikov can dance?” she said.

“Oh yes. Like an angel,” I explained. She looked thoroughly puzzled. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I just can’t picture that heavy-set guy with the birthmark on his forehead dancing like an angel.”

When we stopped laughing, we renamed our house plover Gorby.

We Hawaii folks love our golden plovers. Send me your stories.