Tag Archives: Pacific Golden Plover

Rare white plover adopts boat harbor as winter home

Published November 25, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A rare white kolea has been spotted at Heeia Kea Small Boat Harbor. The bird is likely a leucistic animal, as it has nearly all white feathers but also normally colored eyes, legs and bills, as well as a few patches of color on its feathers. ©2017 Susan Scott

Forget a white Christmas. We bird lovers are dreaming of a white kolea.

Last week reader Bill Coke emailed, “Recently spotted a leucistic Pacific golden plover.” Bill saw the rare bird at Kaneohe Bay’s Heeia Kea Small Boat Harbor. When I forwarded Bill’s pictures to plover expert Wally Johnson at Montana State University, he replied, “Wow! First leucistic plover sighting, Bill. Congratulations!”

Leucism is the term for a genetic disorder in domestic and wild animals in which the creature’s skin, fur or feathers are mostly white. Besides occurring in countless bird species, leucism is seen in nearly all invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, fish, mammals and marsupials. I once saw a gorgeous leucistic kangaroo in the Irwin family’s Australia Zoo.

“Leu” means “white” in Latin, but leucistic animals are not albinos. A different genetic mutation causes albinism, resulting in no pigment whatsoever. Because blood vessels show through colorless irises, albinos’ eyes look red.

Birds with leucism have normally colored eyes, legs and bills, and most have patches of color on some feathers.

Leucistic animals don’t usually live long. White skin, fur or feathers are like a neon sign to predators that says “EAT HERE.”

Because kolea tend to stay in one foraging site all winter, I drove to Heeia Pier hoping to see this unusual bird for myself. And there stood Blanche (my name) on the curb at the entrance to the harbor parking lot just as Bill described.

In using female pronouns for the bird, I’m guessing. At this time of year, male and female Pacific golden plovers look alike. Come spring, these migratory shorebirds shed their drab winter coats and replace them with the brilliant breeding color feathers we kolea fans so admire.

As for Blanche, time will tell what her post-molt colors will be. The bird will likely stay white, not a good hue for a ground nester in Alaska’s summer tundra. But there’s hope. Blanche fledged in the Arctic, made it to Hawaii and has established a territory.

Several readers have emailed that they are missing their neighborhood kolea this fall, and wondered whether storms in Alaska or the Pacific killed some.

In response to my email query about this, Wally replied, “Given the long flight and life on the tundra, anything is possible. Some birds missing may be just normal mortality.” (Oahu has no official kolea census.)

If you visit Blanche, please don’t startle her into flying. Because she’s so visible, the bird needs her energy to avoid the large number (I counted 35) of feral cats that people feed at Heeia Pier and park.

We might not get white Christmases here on Oahu, but this year nature gave us a gift wrapped in white.

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.

Peace, hope graced city on wings of white, gold

Published December 31, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

White terns have a ring of black feathers around their eyes, giving them a wide-eyed appearance. About 2,000 of them live in the Honolulu area. ©2016 Susan Scott

Most of my email this year was for the birds, specifically Pacific golden plovers (kolea) and white terns (manu-o-Ku), the native species that choose to grace our city.

The birds are doing what it takes in this era to survive on planet Earth: adapting to the presence of humans. And these animals aren’t just tolerating us. They’re using our stuff.

Plovers stand on our roofs, forage in our streets, and some even eat from our hands. (If you decide to feed your kolea, offer it healthy food such as mealworms or bits of scrambled egg.) Kolea prance around our yards helpfully gobbling up the roaches, beetles, worms, millipedes, spiders and slugs we’ve been introducing to Oahu for decades.

There’s a possibility that Hawaii’s kolea are here in greater numbers than before humans arrived. Since historical records are sketchy, there’s no way of knowing for sure, but we do know that plovers share our fondness for expanses of grass. And we mow it for them, too.

One of my favorite emails this year came from a reader who saw a kolea watch TV for days on end. The reader’s neighbor had placed a broken TV on the curb for pickup, and when a kolea saw its reflection in the glass, it stuck around, peering into the set for days.

White terns also landed in my inbox. For reasons known only to them, about 2,000 (and counting) white terns have decided to call Honolulu home, picking the most human-altered parts to raise their chicks. Their current range goes from Bishop Street to the Waikiki Aquarium, with a few of the brilliant ones going to the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Although nearly any tree will do, white terns’ favorites to balance their egg and raise their chick are kukui, monkeypod, mahogany, banyan and shower trees, all introduced species. As a result, urban dwellers can watch adorable chicks teeter on a bare branch while its parent stuffs an astonishing number of fish down its throat.

This year several readers emailed me pictures and tern stories. One woman described a “maternity branch” outside her condo window, and a worker at UH Manoa wrote that his favorite break-time activity was white tern gazing. “Just watching them,” he wrote, “made me relax.”

This year Pacific golden plovers and white terns gave us some priceless gifts: treasured moments of peace and glimmers of hope for the future.

You can give back to our special city terns by joining Hui Manu-o-Ku at whiteterns.org, and if you want to learn more about kolea, you can help Oahu’s plovers by buying their new book from the Hawai‘i Audubon Society at hawaii audubon.org.

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.