Turnstones turning up in distant places
ONCE AGAIN, we migratory shorebirds are getting ready to leave Hawaii. Our four common species -- plovers, sanderlings, wandering tattlers and ruddy turnstones -- have a clear mission: go north and perpetuate the species.
Mine is less lofty: go south, sail around and see what happens.
We know a little about what happens to our shorebirds on their journeys north, but biologist Phil Brunner of Brigham Young University-Hawaii wants to know more. Recently he's begun studying ruddy turnstones.
These sweet-looking little feather balls would make Darwin proud. When food gets scarce, ruddies get creative.
Turnstones get their name from flipping over rocks and eating what's under them. But these birds don't flip their necks to roll their stones. A turnstone wedges its beak underneath and then opens it forcefully. It's the bird's powerful jaw muscles that move the rock.
Ruddies take full advantage of their strong beaks. One fall while working on Tern Island, I saw several ruddies hopping around on the back of a monk seal. When the annoyed seal reared up, the little birds scampered away. But as soon as the seal lay back down to sleep, back came the birds.
What's the attraction? I wondered. And then I saw. The birds were pecking open a large scab on the seal's back and drinking its blood.
Another day at Tern, I watched a handful of ruddies mill around the rear end of a sleeping seal. A bold bird then pulled a long tapeworm from the marine mammal's anus. When the seal turned and bellowed, the birds dashed down the beach, snatching pieces of dangling worm from each other as they ran.
Ruddy turnstones are smaller than plovers, with feathers an attractive mix of rust, black and white. Ruddies (and of course plovers) look stunning right now in their bright spring plumage. You can find ruddies in some cemeteries and beach parks, often in flocks.
A flock of about 200 birds winters in Kaneohe Bay's Kualoa Beach Park. Two of the birds there are stars.
In the spring of 2004, Brunner went to Alaska, and due to bad weather was able to band only three male turnstones. At the time, he didn't know if any of those birds wintered in Hawaii. But that winter, an astonishing two of the three banded birds showed up in the Kualoa flock.
Brunner continues to band turnstones in Alaska, and would love to hear from anyone who spots one of his birds. Please note the band's colors and call his office at 293-3820.
If you're traveling in the South Pacific this summer, you might also spot this migratory columnist. You'll know where to look, because I'll be sending home columns about my sailing adventures and the marine animals I meet along the way.
I leave for Tahiti tomorrow; my avian counterparts will leave for Alaska soon after. We'll surely have our ups and downs, but hopefully will reach our goals: healthy chicks for the birds, and for me, heaven, the Great Barrier Reef.
The birds and I thank you for all your good wishes. We'll be home in the fall.