Tag Archives: Plover

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.

Kolea kamaaina at heart, plover lovers sure to agree

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

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

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.

Palau is a wonderful world and the plovers are a plus

Published November 9, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
The water between the islands of the Republic of Palau is full of coral, marine mammals and other wildlife. <br>©2015 Susan Scott

The water between the islands of the Republic of Palau is full of coral, marine mammals and other wildlife. ©Susan Scott

KOROR, Palau >> Because I flew to this island nation directly from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, my expectations were high. And sure enough, before I even got my feet wet, I saw an animal that moved me to tears.

Standing on the concrete wall of a boat ramp where I was about to take my first plunge in Palau waters was a Pacific golden plover.

Hello, kolea! These plovers aren’t the same individuals we see in Hawaii, but they’re the same species. Palauans called them “derariik.”

Because plovers and other migratory shorebirds nest in the Arctic, the ones that winter here make longer annual round-trip flights than our kolea. The 10-inch-long birds can’t store enough fat for such long journeys — if they did they couldn’t fly.

The plovers that winter here and farther south make refueling stops in the rice fields of Japan and possibly other parts of Asia. To see that graceful bird performing its familiar ballet at the Palau shoreline gave me such joy that I thought, “If I see nothing else here, I’ll be happy.” Of course, I know that during my two weeks here I will see countless other wonders. Palau was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012 for good reason.

The Republic of Palau consists of 586 islands that lie about 400 miles north of the equator, similar to the latitude of Palmyra Atoll. Situated in the western part of Micronesia, Palau is roughly between and a bit south of the Philippines and Guam.

Because the total land area of Palau’s islands is 176 square miles, most of Palau consists of water. This is no ordinary water.

More than 600 species of hard and soft corals grow here between green toadstool-shape islands. They are so eye-popping that one of my snorkeling companions said she felt as if she were in a Disney movie.

A surrounding barrier reef protects the inner islands from offshore waves, and three oceanic currents converge here, supporting a vast variety of marine life. These combinations make Palau a diving, kayaking and snorkeling paradise.

Palauans are rightly proud of the unique beauty and nature of their nation, and work to protect it. Palau was the first country, in 2009, to create a shark sanctuary, and in 2010 the government made Palau’s waters a marine mammal preserve.

Fishing is banned in large areas, licensed guides are mandatory and park fees go to maintaining tour facilities. A wildlife preserve called the 70 Islands is off-limits to everyone, giving turtles, dugongs and other marine animals a human-free haven.

When I returned from my first amazing snorkeling excursion here, my plover was still dancing on the wall. I take it as a sign of great things to come.

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

©2015 Susan Scott


Cyclones present obstacles to the Pacific golden plover

Published September 7, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

An adult wedge-tailed shearwater. Courtesy Alex Wegmann

An adult wedge-tailed shearwater. Courtesy Alex Wegmann

We humans feel the effects of these storms in sweat, mosquito bites and high electrical bills. But what effect do cyclonic winds and torrents of rain have on migrating kolea? Some readers have been wondering via email how, and if, the birds flying from Alaska to Hawaii manage.

According to plover researcher Wally Johnson, the year-to-year differences in the survival rates of Hawaii’s Pacific golden plovers are probably due to weather. Severe winds during migration probably cause some mortality.

But never underestimate these extraordinary birds. In spite of storms, Arctic predators and enormous expanses to navigate, the survival rate of kolea is high.

“We know the birds have the capacity to fly for very long distances,” Johnson said in email. If blown off course, he continued, “they likely can re-orient and get back on target. We see lots of zigs and zags in our geolocator tracks and these must be wind-related.”

So for those still waiting for their feathered friend to return, there’s hope. And if an adult bird doesn’t make it back, natural selection might fill the vacancy. An empty territory is a bonanza for summer offspring that survived the flight to Hawaii and are now searching for food.

Another reader emailed that he recently hiked to Kaena Point to see wedge-tailed shearwaters (nickname: wedgies) but saw only some downy feathers and an unhatched egg. Because he saw rat traps, and concrete poured along the base of the fencing, he wondered whether predators were getting in.

Wedgie researcher Michelle Hester replied to my question, “The predator fence is working. Low trapping efforts will always be necessary inside the fence, as the ocean edges are open to critters..

The best time to see wedgies is July to November at dusk, when adults fly to the colony. Chicks begin fledging around Thanksgiving. Chicks aren’t usually visible because they wait deep inside their burrows for their parents to deliver food. But there are so many wedgies at Kaena that some parents nest under bushes or in burrows with skylights. You might see these chicks at any time..

After Thanksgiving the chicks wander around, giving admirers a good look at these native treasures. People from the mainland often say that Hawaii has no seasons. Tell that to the birds.

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

©2015 Susan Scott


Much-loved migratory birds are winging back to the isles

Published August 10, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott


A kolea, or golden plover, makes a midwinter stop at Midway Atoll. The birds split time between Hawaii and Alaska, where they mate, lay eggs and raise their chicks. ©2015 Susan Scott

I am so excited that I had to tell someone,” emailed my neighbor Joanne. “My kolea is back!”

This message was one of several I received last week reporting sightings of Hawaii’s much-loved migratory shorebird, the Pacific golden plover, or kolea in Hawaiian.

As much as we love our lovely little plover pals, facts about the species can be hard to find. The following are questions from readers. My answers come from kolea researcher Wally Johnson’s published studies.

Question: How long do kolea live?

Answer: The average bird lives six to 10 years, but some live longer. One kolea wintered in a grassy field at Bellows Air Force Station for 21 years, three months.

Q: How long does it take for the birds to reach Alaska?

A: Kolea fly to their tundra breeding grounds, 3,000 or so miles from Hawaii, over open ocean in three days, about 72 hours. Their return flights to Hawaii take about four days due to adverse winds.

Q: Do kolea have chicks in Hawaii?

A: Never. Mating, egg laying and chick rearing all occur in Alaska.

Q: When do kolea migrate?

A: Underweight birds stay in Hawaii all summer. Healthy birds with enough fat stores to make the trip (the birds know) all leave around April 25, likely cued by day length.

Birds with failed nests due to predators or bad weather can return to Hawaii as early as June. Adults that successfully raised chicks come back in August, with females usually arriving before males. Juveniles appear in October and sometimes as late as November depending on fall weather.

Q: I have a kolea in my yard year after year. Is it the same bird?

A: Yes. Both male and female kolea return to, and defend, the same wintering site year after year.

Q: How do I tell a male from a female?

A: In winter you can’t. Both sexes molt into the same winter colors soon after they arrive in Hawaii. Keep watching, though. In spring the birds molt again. Males are brighter than females and have distinct edges to their black, white and gold feathers.

Over the decades, our kolea have learned to graze on grass and pavement, rest on rooftops and fence posts and steer clear of cars, cats and dogs. As a result of this remarkable adaptation to urban life, the birds give us city dwellers a heartfelt connection to nature.

That’s why a lot of us this month are so excited that we have to tell someone: My kolea is back!

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

©2015 Susan Scott


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.

Various shorebirds join plovers in winter migration

Published January 27, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Sanderling at Laniakea. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

Hawaii’s Pacific golden plovers, or kolea, get a lot of attention because they graze on lawns, have adapted to the presence of people and return to the same spot year after year. These wonderful birds give us Hawaii residents memorable native wildlife experiences right in our own backyards.

But kolea are just one of the common migratory shorebirds that visit the islands in winter. The others might not dance on our doorsteps, but we don’t have to go far to find them, either.

A morning beach walk on a winter’s day often reveals little sanderlings either alone or in small groups. At 8 inches long, head to tail, the sanderling is so small it’s easy to overlook. This cutest of Hawaii’s shorebirds is also easy to miss because its colors match its favorite hangout, the edge of breaking waves.

The mottled gray and white shorebird’s Hawaiian name, huna­kai, means sea foam. The birds are experts at following receding waves while snatching exposed invertebrates and then running up the beach ahead of the next breaking wave.

Hunakai often race ahead of the incoming water so fast that their short, black legs are a blur, and if a wave outruns them, they use their wings for a vertical escape. It’s at this time we might hear the call of the huna­kai, a short sharp whistle that sounds like “Quit!”

Another common shorebird that I usually hear before I see is the well-named wandering tattler. The Hawaiian name of this bird, ulili, sounds like its call. These 11-inch-long, mostly gray birds usually forage alone on rocky beaches, and like the other shorebirds leave Hawaii in spring to nest in the Arctic tundra.

Ruddy turnstones, the fourth common shorebird wintering in Hawaii, are the easiest to spot. At 9 inches long, ruddy turnstones aren’t much bigger than sanderlings, but these visitors tend to forage in flocks, and their lovely orange, brown, black and white feathers are the colors of calico cats.

And, yes, in their search for food, ruddy turnstones turn stones.

It’s easy to tell sanderlings from Hawaii’s other common shorebirds because sanderlings are the only wave-chasers. But look closely.

“Would you like me to take your picture with the surf?” a nice man on the beach said last week when he saw me aiming my camera toward the big, beautiful waves breaking on the beach.

“No, thanks,” I said. “What I’m trying to shoot is a picture of this bird.”

“Bird?” he said. “What bird?”

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

©2014 Susan Scott