Monday, April 25, 2005

A Pacific golden plover visits Kawainui Marsh.

Plover lovers

The tiny bird draws devotion
of a few faithful protectors

With all the fuss over the humpback whales, you'd think they were our only winter visitors. They might be among the most welcome, but they're not the only ones searching for escape from the chilly north.

Tracking kolea

Wally Johnson talks about where kolea go in the summertime:

Place: Windward Community College's Hale 'Akoakoa Room 105

Time: 7 to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow

Admission: Free; donations welcome

Call: 235-5431

The whales can't help but dwarf one fellow traveler, the little kolea, or Pacific golden plover, which keeps the same schedule as the whales.

The bird's small size, about 8 inches tall, and seemingly inquisitive demeanor cause some to feel quite protective of the creatures. When I spoke to Annette Kaohelaulii of the Sierra Club to inquire about the bird, she was suspicious.

"Aren't you the one who writes about food?"

"Yes, I am, but I have many other interests."



"You know they used to eat kolea in the past," she said. "I wouldn't want that to come back."

I didn't know. But then, there's a lot that humankind doesn't know about the kolea, and that's were Wally Johnson comes in.

The "somewhat retired" Montana State University professor can be found in the islands this time of year stalking the shorebirds before they start heading north from mid- to late April, even if research entails surveillance in a cemetery at night.

Last week, Johnson and a couple of assistants staked out the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe, hoping to catch radio signals from birds tagged earlier, to find out where they roost at night. He suspected they bed down on rooftops of unsuspecting Kaneohe residents, and sure enough, that's where they were.

"I've driven around my neighborhood to see if I can see them on the roofs," said Kaohelaulii. "I live near Castle High School, and there's about 12 who hang out on the school's baseball field.

"One night, I heard one really close by, and I'd seen them before on my neighbors' roofs. I thought maybe this one could be on my roof. You never know what's going on up there."

She said the researchers could use some help in looking for birds through research that can be done at a distance.

"They're very wary birds. Once they're caught, they're not going to get caught again, but people with binoculars can find the bands on their legs and share that information."

Those would be colored tags placed by scientists, along with numbered U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bands that can help researchers determine where the birds were tagged and how far they traveled.

"At one of our evening talks, a science teacher from Mililani said there was a bird on campus with a blue band, so we were out there at 6:30 a.m.," said Kaohelaulii. "Didn't see the bird, though."

If you think that's early, the researchers often wake up at 3 a.m. to find and tag birds "in the dark, with flashlights," she said.

Anything for the kolea.

JOHNSON LEARNED about the kolea while conducting other studies in the Marshall Islands in the late 1970s, but became serious about studying the shorebird while on sabbatical at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1979 and '80. He wanted to know more about the kolea's physiology because of its reputation for traveling one of the longest distances of any migratory bird.

"Geese also travel great distances, but they'll rest, settle down on land and do a number of short hops, while the kolea makes one trip, flying 40 to 50 hours nonstop," said Johnson, who will speak about his research tomorrow at Windward Community College.

It's an amazing feat, considering that most humans find an 11-hour Hawaii-to-New York flight grueling, even without flapping a single body part.

The kolea is an unlikely super-bird. It stands on spindly legs, with a wide-eyed look of curiosity and innocence, and a short, insect-nabbing little black beak that could do a human no harm. Approach one and it's more likely to sprint than fly away. The birds gain so much weight -- about 70 grams -- between fall and spring, they look too rotund to take flight.

While in town, plovers can be found everywhere from marshes to lawns and public parks, but it would be wrong to think it's because they like hanging out with humans.

"They're lawn inhabitants. They like short grass because it's easy to walk around and spot insects and worms," Johnson said. "They're very tolerant of people, which is unusual for a migratory bird but is a major trait in their favor. They're very adaptable to urban conditions, and that's smart because lots of other birds can't do that. If they lose their habitat, they're in trouble, although the kolea could lose its habitat in the far north if global warming continues."

Just don't mistake the kolea's tolerance for people with liking; their focus on individuals is merely an exercise in caution. You can get fairly close to them, "but they have their limits," Johnson said.

WHILE THE HUMPBACKS fuel up in Alaska before breeding in our warm waters, it's the opposite with the kolea, which feed here in preparation for summer breeding in Alaska up to Siberia.

"They add a huge amount of weight while they're here, double their body weight, which they need to burn as fuel to make the trip, and have something left in case spring conditions are such that they can't find much food until snow melts," Johnson said.

One would think that after a while the birds would want to settle down in just one place, and why not Hawaii, where the weather's nearly always warm and bugs are plentiful?

But Johnson cites the 24-hour-a-day sunlight in the north as a major factor in the birds' favor, as well as a lack of such predators as dogs and cats.

His research is now in its 27th season and has recently been featured on the Discovery Channel.

"I hope it helps the bird if that leads to better conservation and making sound decisions to help them persist."

And there are many individuals, like Kaohelaulii, who want to help in that regard.

"I'm not a scientist, I'm a bookkeeper, but I really like that bird a lot," she said, adding that those similarly enamored by the bird are welcome to make donations to purchase more radios for tracking. A contribution of $150 will allow an individual to name his or her bird as well.

Just so you know, she's not crazy about all birds this way, admitting to chasing cattle egrets from her yard.

"The Sierra Club philosophy is that we only want things that belong here. Cattle egrets aren't one of them," she said.

While the Pacific golden plovers migrate here on their own accord, the egrets were brought in by man.

Besides, she said, "I plant all native species in my garden. The cattle egrets just don't match."

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