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Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Friday, August 22, 2003


Truth is out after
male plovers get
a bad rap


It happens every year the first day or two of August. I'm lying in bed, just about to drop off, when I hear a familiar tweedle-deet-deet outside the window. Wow, the plovers are back early this year, I think. I wonder what's going on in Alaska.

The next few days, I receive several e-mails with similar messages: "I saw a plover today. Isn't this early for them?"

This year was no different. I heard the birds on Aug. 2 and received the usual e-mails that week.

In addition, a friend asked me when the plovers usually return, and I wrote: "The males come back first in early August leaving the chicks and females to fend for themselves. Typical males, huh?"

Fortunately, I then wrote to plover researchers Wally and Pat Johnson, who for years have annually traveled to Hawaii from Bozeman, Mont., to study our plovers.

Wally replied: "Glad the kolea are finding their way home once again. ... Don't know as how it's any earlier than usual. Typically the adults start showing up in early August, a few sometimes in late July. The first arrivals are often females -- they tend to leave the tundra before the males."

Nuts. It's bad enough to forget the facts, but when it's about an animal I love, it's downright depressing.

OK, here's the real deal on Hawaii's favorite shorebirds, also called kolea (I have the book open, here):

>> The earliest plover arrivals are likely failed breeders.

Besides bad weather, plovers fail to breed for several reasons. Sometimes caribou tromp through plover breeding grounds, unintentionally destroying nests, eggs and chicks. Other times, birds of prey and mammals such as foxes eat chicks.

>> A predator doesn't usually get a plover without a fight. One researcher reported seeing several plovers attack a fox. The ruckus attracted some ruddy turnstones (another migratory shorebird that winters in Hawaii), which joined in mobbing the fox. The plovers then tackled the turnstones. Amazingly, the tough little turnstones came out on top of this brawl and drove the fox from the territory.

>> Male plovers usually sit on their four eggs during the day; females take the night shift. While the female broods, the male forages for food nearby. At the sound of trouble, he comes running. When the male broods, however, the female wanders out of earshot to feed. If there's trouble, it's the male's problem.

>> Plover parents sit on their newly hatched chicks for one day only. After that the chicks forage for their own food, but they aren't yet on their own. The parents lead their young to foraging areas and protect them from predators. If the weather gets bad, the parents sit on young chicks to keep them warm.

>> Both parents stick around their chicks until the youngsters are able to fly. The last adults to leave the juveniles are usually the males.

OK, I take back my crack about male plovers. They are brave defenders and devoted dads that stick around to see their kids off. It's the females who head south first, and although they surprise us each year, they are not ahead of schedule.

Next August, someone remind me of this, will you please?



See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.

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