Tag Archives: 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!!

Our Pacific golden plovers prepare for Alaska flight

Published April 6, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott


A male kolea in breeding colors. Courtesy O.W. Johnson

Hawaii’s annual spring pageant is upon us, the superstars dazzling in their April outfits as they prance through backyards, across golf courses, among gravestones and between parked cars. The celebrities are Pacific golden plovers, our much-loved migratory shorebirds known in Hawaii as kolea.

Although kolea start molting into their striking breeding colors here in March, the birds stay single until they reach their Alaska breeding grounds. There males return to the same spot each year and, upon arrival, get busy rebuilding a ground nest of leaves and lichen.

Females, though, aren’t usually faithful to either place or partner. Instead they shop around, looking for the handsomest male with the finest nest.

After choosing a homestead and mating, the female lays four huge eggs, their total weight equaling her own body weight. If a fox, raptor or caribou eats or breaks her eggs, a kolea can lay a replacement clutch in a week or so.

As if this reproductive labor isn’t astonishing enough, it all takes place after the 6-ounce birds have flown 3,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean. Nonstop. In three days.

If a nesting attempt fails due to weather or predation, adults can return to Hawaii as early as June. But if all goes well, the couple takes turns keeping the eggs, and later the chicks, warm and protected.

When chicks fledge, that’s the end of family togetherness. Mother plovers leave for Hawaii first, in early August, with fathers following a bit later. Chicks stay in their Arctic birth areas as long as the bugs and berries last, with most arriving here in October or November.

If you see a scrawny bird in a new place, it’s likely a recently landed chick that survived its first migration (on its own — there’s no adult guidance). But the struggle isn’t yet over. New arrivals must establish their own winter territory, often having to fight established plovers and other bird species for space.

Only about 20 percent of kolea chicks live to reproduce.

If you have a plover pecking and hopping around your yard year after year, it’s almost certainly the same bird, because both sexes return to the same wintering spot. And you could have that feathered friend for a long time. Some kolea live for 20 years or more.

Our grassy Easter parade isn’t going to last much longer. All kolea fit to migrate leave Hawaii within a few days of one another around April 25.

I know that countless Hawaii residents join me in wishing our little superbirds fair winds, strapping chicks and bugs galore. A hui hou.

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

©2015 Susan Scott


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

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.