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Nature: Plover Love

Hawai‘i’s kolea are taking flight for the North—but they’ll be back.


photo: courtesy Wally Johnson

Name your ideal spot to honeymoon and start your family. Hawai'i? The Caribbean? Alaska?

Alaska? Yes, if you're a kolea (a Pacific golden plover), you'd go for the romantic tundra. But first, you'd gorge on roaches, beetles and worms here in Hawai'i before taking off on a 2,400-mile flight to your arctic breeding grounds.

The kolea have been in the Islands since August, on our lawns, in parks and cemeteries–feeding upon the best bug and worm pupu our soil can serve up. Wearing their Hawai'i camouflage (winter plumage of brown and gold spots), they blend in with their grassy surroundings. There they stand guard and fiercely defend their territories and winter supply of food.

But by this time of year, the plovers' thoughts are turning to love, and to the tundra, their breeding and nesting grounds in Alaska. And when it's time, it's time: a nonstop/no-pupu flight north, at speeds somewhere near 60 mph, according to researcher Wally Johnson, of Montana State University's ecology department.

To study the kolea, Johnson began attaching tiny, temporary radio transmitters to the birds in 1996, as well as banding them. "Many of the radio-tagged birds were detected in Alaska," he adds, "confirming the Hawai'i-Alaska migratory link."

Have you seen any banded kolea?

Dr. Johnson asks that you contact Annette Kaohelaulii (235-5431), who has been assisting kolea researchers. Each April, she follows the kolea at a Kane'ohe location, taking "roll call" as she counts, noting the banded kolea and observing what the birds do in preparation for the long migration. "Plover lovers" can also watch for field trips, talks and tours around the state; visit www.hawaiiaudubon.com or www.hi.sierraclub.org.

It's the lone call of the kolea that you miss when you realize they've quietly left. (It's somewhere between a whistle and a call, "cha lee" or "tsu eet," day and night.) The sudden silence is a void.

In the next few weeks, keep an eye out as the kolea change into their courting clothes: Black on the belly, brown and black with dazzling gold spots on top and an arresting, over-the-eye white stripe (see photo above). Males are more intensely colorful than females and have a white stripe down the side.

Once they arrive in Alaska, the females race to find males with snow-free, food-rich territories. Females gobble up food and store as much energy as possible while their mates begin nest-building. When the nest of tundra plants and lichen is ready, the female will lay four large eggs, the size of which almost equals her total body mass, according to Johnson.

These part-time Hawai'i residents then return in August. The parents arrive hungry and ready to claim the exact spot they left in the spring, again defending their supply of crunchy bugs and 'ono worms. Their offspring mature and fatten up, on their own, in Alaska, and somehow find their way to the Islands by October or November. "There's no guidance from Mom and Dad for this very long flight," Johnson points out.

You can help kolea by protecting their territories from insecticides, dogs, cats and fireworks. Do not try to feed the birds; they've been packing in the same high-protein diet for centuries and know exactly what they need. We can only protect their habitats.

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Honolulu Magazine June 2019
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