Tag Archives: Kolea

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!!

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.

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.”

The kolea are set to depart on their 3,000-mile journey

Published April 25, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
This bird’s black face, ringed with white, marks it as a male. He is due to take off any day now for Alaska, where he’ll try to woo a mate. ©2016 Susan Scott

This bird’s black face, ringed with white, marks it as a male. He is due to take off any day now for Alaska, where he’ll try to woo a mate. ©2016 Susan Scott

The past few weeks our Pacific golden plovers, or kolea as we call them here in Hawaii, have looked so stunning in their spring attire, I’ve often had to stop and stare. Now it’s time to say farewell.

I wish they wouldn’t go, but that’s migration for you. The birds have molted into their breeding colors not to charm us, but to charm a mate in Alaska, where with luck the couple will raise four chicks.

So off they go today (or within the next few days), 7-ounce birds flying 3,000 miles nonstop over the Pacific Ocean in three days.

This winter we had a kolea we called “she” occasionally hop onto our lanai from the fronting golf course. Now our lanai visitor is a male. He’s plump, perky and drop-dead gorgeous. “Did that female ever come back?” Craig asked last week as we admired the preening male.

She didn’t. But now that I think about it, our winter “she” is probably the spring “he” we’re seeing now, the same bird dressed in different outfits. The golf course is loaded with plovers, but because the species is territorial, it’s likely the same bird.

When we see kolea in parks, on golf courses and along roads in winter, there’s no way to know whether they’re males or females.

The sexes look identical in winter, but come spring the difference between them is clear.

Males have solid black faces, breasts and bellies, outlined by a bright white racing stripe. Females have similar colors, but they aren’t as sharply outlined, the result being a mottled look. Both sexes, though, have gold-flecked backs and wings that remind me of jeweled cloaks.

Healthy birds with enough body fat to make the journey generally leave Hawaii on or around April 25. The birds’ departure is dramatic. One day kolea are there. The next day they’re gone.

Don’t worry if your bird doesn’t leave this week. Each kolea knows whether it’s strong enough to make it to Alaska. A few underweight birds might skip the trip north and stay in Hawaii for the summer. These are often first-year birds that hatched the previous summer.

According to plover researcher Wally Johnson, no one knows how the birds coordinate their leaving. Over a few days the kolea gather in flocks of various sizes. Suddenly the flock takes off, rises to a great height and heads to sea until it disappears. Sometimes an ascending flock merges with another passing by.

Johnson says a good place to see this flocking, and with luck, the departure itself, is Kualoa Regional Park on Kaneohe Bay.

Those of us who admire kolea fall, winter and spring feel their departure and absence acutely. But that’s the beauty of migration. In August they’ll be back.

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.

Koleas return after a busy season of laying huge eggs

Published August 18, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Enormous eggs: Each one is about a quarter of the length of a female kolea. Courtesy Wally Johnson

A couple weeks ago, I had one of those days when my brain felt like an iPod shuffle stuck on fast forward. Deadlines, chores, errands, family and a hundred other things raced through my head until I finally gave up trying to work. Turning off the computer, I went for a walk in a nearby park.

It was a hot, still day and I soon stopped to sit in the shade of a monkeypod tree. And at that exact moment, a Pacific golden plover dropped from the sky and landed in the grass not 20 feet away.

I had just witnessed the arrival of my first kolea of the season.

She was not, however, the first plover to return to Oahu this summer. Nor am I the first person to look up to see a plover descend from the heavens.

Earlier this month a fellow plover lover emailed that her kolea arrived in her yard July 31.

“It landed just as I looked outside, about 6 p.m.” Cindy wrote. “Pretty early this year?”

Yes, July 31 is a bit early, but not extraordinary. The early birds are usually females needing a long tropical vacation from their summer job of laying their enormous eggs.

Each kolea egg is about a quarter the length of the bird and weighs just under an ounce. That may not sound very heavy (an AA battery weighs about an ounce), but it means that a freshly laid clutch of four eggs weighs about the same as the fat-free female, about 3.5 ounces.

She’s bone thin, of course, having used the fat she gained in Hawaii first to fly 3,000 nonstop miles to Alaska, and soon after to develop her eggs. Because the female lays each egg about a day and a half apart, it takes six to seven days to produce a typical nest of four.

But that’s not always the end of her procreative push. If an owl, hawk or other predator eats a plover’s eggs, or a caribou breaks them while tramping through a colony, these formidable females, keeping the same nest and mate, start over. The first egg of the replacement batch appears, amazingly, within a week of the loss.

Lost clutches are common. At one study site from 1993 to 2002, 50 to 100 percent of kolea eggs were crushed or eaten.

No wonder that when their chicks get near fledging, the worn-out moms beat it back to Hawaii, leaving dad and the kids to follow.

I watched my first kolea of the season for 20 minutes, thinking about her miles flown, eggs laid and chicks raised, as well as how these busy bundles of feathers brighten the days of so many people in Hawaii.

Being one of those people, I walked home at peace.


Plovers and people do well living close to each other

Published November 4, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Is it OK to feed the kola in your yard? A member of the standing-room-only audience asked that of golden plover researcher Dr. Oscar (Wally) Johnson during his recent talk on these shorebirds.

The question was also the subject of two emails I received from readers who were surprised that I would feed my plover, Gracie, scrambled eggs. ” … wildlife experts warn residents never to feed wild animals … ” one wrote. “I hope you heed the advice of experts.”

I do. The expert in this case is Wally Johnson, and he sees no problem in feeding Hawaii’s plovers. In his slideshow, Wally showed a photo of a Kaneohe resident who for 10 years and counting has been buying his kolea mealworms. In the picture, the bird is standing on the man’s hand.

Wally writes in a 2010 paper (“Birds of North America,” Cornell University, bna.birds.cornell.edu) that the birds are very adaptable to coexistence with humans. “Extensive land-clearing in Hawaii … has likely improved wintering conditions for Pacific golden plovers by creating open environments.”

Besides cultivating lawns around our homes and making golf courses, cemeteries, pastures and parks, we have introduced alien creatures to our islands. Hawaii’s plovers pluck earthworms, blind snakes and millipedes from soil and grass, and also eat cockroaches, ants, earwigs, mites and slugs.

Plovers aren’t picky about grass. Some birds do much of their foraging on pavement. One individual Wally knows spends its winters on the AstroTurf fairways of a miniature golf course.

Hawaii’s kolea revert to their wild nature in Alaska, and that includes being good at spotting, and eluding, foxes and birds of prey (and plover researchers.) Wally suspects that this keen ability to protect themselves and their chicks from Arctic predators is why cats and dogs don’t seem be much of a problem for the birds in Hawaii.

Evidence comes from one kolea that Johnson banded and studied at Bellows, an area populated by feral cats. The plover wintered there for 21 years, a longevity record for the species.

Barn owls, however, are a threat to kolea as well as to native shearwaters and petrels. The night-hunting owls were introduced to Hawaii in the 1950s to control rodents, but barn owls also eat sleeping shorebirds and seabirds.

For all their flying, foraging and feather growing (plovers molt twice while in Hawaii), kolea need fat and protein, the main nutrients in eggs and meat. Rice and bread aren’t the best food for plovers, although Wally knows one that winters outside a fast-food joint and routinely snatches french fries from mynah birds.

Today, plovers and people are allies in conservation. We give the birds a hand with habitat and food, and they give us a personal connection with a native bird. In thriving with humans, the kolea show us, in all their glory, the basic principle of life on Earth — adaptation.

We’ve come a long way from shooting 15 plovers per hunter per day. Now, instead of having plovers on toast for breakfast, we cook and serve them eggs.

How lucky we Hawaii residents are to host majesty in our own backyards.


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

©2013 Susan Scott

Kolea’s seasonal journey is a beloved ritual in isles

Published October 21 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Gracie the Pacific golden plover makes an appearance on Susan Scott’s lanai. The birds, called kolea in Hawaiian, winter in the isles. ©2013 Susan Scott

We Hawaii residents love our kolea, the migratory shorebirds that nest in Alaska in summer and spend winters in the islands.

I use the terms summer and winter loosely because the birds, also called Pacific golden plovers, straddle the seasons, spending only about three months in Alaska. The birds leave Hawaii on or around April 25, usually all heading north within a day or two, and begin returning in early August.

It takes about three nonstop days for the birds to reach their Alaska breeding grounds and nearly four days (against the wind) to get back to Hawaii.

First come the females — pooped, I imagine, from laying four eggs and then chasing after foraging chicks to protect them from Arctic predators such as foxes and jaegers. Males arrive next. Newly fledged juveniles get here last, some as late as October.

Here in Hawaii we sometimes see kolea in the early summer months because if they’re underweight or injured, they can’t make the 3,000-mile nonstop trip over the North Pacific, and therefore sit out the breeding season. Healthy, well-nourished birds (weight: 3 to 4 ounces) make the round-trip flight each year.

The reason we islanders know plovers so well is that individuals return to the same wintering spot year after year. If you have a plover in your yard, get used to it. Kolea have a life span of at least 26 years. My plover, a female I call Gracie after her bal­le­rina­like bearing, showed up a year ago on my lawn, where I tossed her chunks of scrambled egg. She ate so eagerly that I microwaved an egg just for her, keeping it in the fridge to dole out in tiny pieces when she came around. Soon Gracie was prancing onto our tiled lanai, charming my friends and family with her elegant appeal for food, which she received in abundance. Gracie left in April, all plump and golden.

When I got home from Tahiti late last month, there was Gracie touching her beak adorably on my screen door, as if to say, “Got eggs?” For this bold beauty who even allows my gentle old dog to sniff her through the screen, boy, do I have eggs.

To learn more about our Pacific golden plovers, come to Windward Community College tonight at 7, where kolea expert Wally Johnson is giving a free talk and slide show called “Kolea Biology Update, 2013: They Continue to Amaze Us.” This Hawaii Audubon Society and Windward Community College event is open to the public in Room 103 of Hale ‘Akoa­koa.

I wouldn’t miss it for the world. See you there.


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

©2013 Susan Scott

Golden plovers are back for their Hawaiian feast

Published August 26, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

About two weeks ago, I had a golden plover day. My phone rang just as I was getting out of bed. “Sorry to call so early,” a longtime reader’s voice said. “I wanted to tell you that the golden plovers are back.”

“What?” I mumbled.

“The plovers. They’re back in Hawaii. I saw one yesterday at home and another today at work. You know, you haven’t written about plovers in a long time.”

“Thanks for the news,” I said, admiring this bird-lover’s enthusiasm.

A couple of hours later, a surfer friend mentioned that he had seen a sign of summer’s end: A plover was in the beach park. Later that afternoon, I received a notice in the mail announcing a new golden plover publication.

That monograph, which arrived last week, turned out to be a treasure trove of information about these exquisite shorebirds.

Hawaii’s winter visitors, called Pacific golden plovers, make some of the longest migrations in the world, some traveling more than 4,000 miles in nonstop flights over water. Such journeys occur twice a year – in April, when the birds fly to their Arctic breeding grounds, and in August, when they return to their tropical wintering grounds.

The first birds to arrive, and likely what my caller and friend saw, are mature females, pooped from the chores of egg laying and chick rearing. The males, who also sit on eggs and feed hungry mouths, appear next. In October, most of the juveniles arrive.

In Hawaii, golden plovers also called kolea, are unmistakable, prancing on delicate legs in a distinct stop-run-stop motion on beaches, in grassy beach parks and even on paved surfaces. But this dainty dance isn’t for our entertainment. These birds are busy searching for any invertebrates – and some vertebrates – they can find. On the beach, these are snails, crabs, and worms; on the ground it’s pests such as roaches, spiders and slugs. Sometimes, plovers eat small fish, skinks and geckos.

Pacific golden plovers hold a colorful place in the islands’ history.

Some people believe that ancient seafaring Polynesians interpreted the plover’s migration cycle to mean that land lay to the north, thus leading to Hawaii’s human colonization.

Judging from ancient middens, or trash heaps, Hawaii’s early settlers valued plovers for food as well as guidance. Hunters caught the birds with leg snares, using worms for bait.

Plovers are often mentioned in hula chants and Hawaiian folklore. These birds were thought to be the embodiment of Koleamoku, a god of healing and a messenger of chiefs.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, golden plovers were hunted with abandon. Near New Orleans in the spring of 1821, hunters shot about 48,000 of them in a single day. In the 1850s in Portland, Maine, hunters sold dead plovers for 25 cents a dozen, many spoiling before being sold.

Hunters also shot Pacific golden plovers in Hawaii until 1941, often exceeding the daily limit of 15.

Golden plovers are now protected in nearly all of the Western Hemisphere, but hunting still occurs in Barbados, parts of South America, India, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. About 2,000 birds a year are shot in Java alone.

Researchers believe Hawaii has recovered its former golden plover numbers.

These shorebirds are territorial, usually returning to, and defending, the same wintering spot year after year. If a plover comes to your yard or beach each year, it’s probably the same individual.

Plovers’ feathers change from golden brown in winter to striking breeding colors in spring.

If you get to know one of these birds, you may have a friend for a long time. Golden plovers can live at least 15 years.