Kolea will wing northward in mere weeks
It's that bittersweet time of year, when plover lovers will be watching for signs that our Pacific golden plovers are, once again, leaving us for their summer arctic breeding grounds.
Across the evening sky ...
All the birds are leaving.
Ah ... but how can they know
It's time for them to go?
-- "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" by Sandy Denny
Several weeks are left to get acquainted if you're not yet addicted to plover-watching ... with anticipated departure sometime in late April. Phones will be ringing as the time nears and plover lovers exchange their observations.
The plover -- also known by its Hawaiian name, kolea, or the scientific name Pluvialis fulva -- can be heard in your yard, local playground, soccer field or mud flats defending its territories. If you don't see them on your lawn, they might be on the roof, away from predators.
These plovers are working on a deadline. Because all the fuel that powers their flight will have to be consumed in Hawaii before they take off, nonstop eating is part of their flight preparation.
To us the greens around our homes and public buildings are lawns. But to the kolea -- the ultimate survivors -- these green patches are all-you-can-eat buffet tables where the worms, insects and other slimy treats just keep coming.
You'll see these long-legged birds standing alone while plucking breakfast, lunch and dinner from the soil. They'll run in short bursts, then stop to gobble up the next creepy-crawly.
There are also salads everywhere -- leaves and flowers in our lawns. (So, easy on the lawn chemicals. These birds preceded human occupation, and they like their meals just as their ancestors did -- without any dangerous added flavors.)
You will hear them with their long chirps -- somewhere between a tweet, whistle, cry and screech (tsu-eeet!) -- day and night. In fact, theirs is one of the few calls heard through the night, reassuring to many and sorely missed when the birds leave for their arctic honeymoons each spring.
By the time the plovers leave us, the males, in full breeding plumage, will be noticeably different from the females. He will be drop-dead gorgeous in his distinctive white, black, gold and brown plumage, and she will be ... well, not as flashy. After all, it's the male who has to impress the female and dazzle her with his fine genes for her future offspring. And she will want to remain inconspicuous to predators and blend in with her surroundings while protecting her young in the Arctic.
Who wants to honeymoon in Hawaii when you've got the tundra to look forward to -- nest-building in the Arctic, sitting on eggs in the frozen tundra? Oh, and you will be trusting those young chicks you've hatched to find their way back to Hawaii after you've left -- when they're not even old enough to be issued a learner's permit.
And another thing: Flights to and from the Arctic are nonstop, as there are no islands offering rest stops along the 2,400-mile trip, according to plover researcher Wally Johnson of Montana State University's ecology department.
How do we know the plovers make these long voyages, returning to the islands again and again?
The late naturalist E.H. Bryan wrote of a stump-leg plover that had been cared for, released and welcomed back to the same spot for many years, confirming years of casual observations by island residents that the same birds do, indeed, find their way back to Hawaii and other Pacific islands.
"The return each year of ol' Stumpleg was an early hint that kolea are remarkably site-faithful," says Johnson. But the confirmation came from the research that Johnson and team have gathered in years of extensive banding and monitoring the marked individual plovers.
"We've color-banded hundreds of kolea over 25-plus years and documented the unerring return of the same birds to the same wintering territories year after year -- the oldest for 22 seasons!"
Today, bird biologists have more specific confirmation. Johnson, with the help of his wife and of longtime Hawaii resident Annette Kaohelaulii, have been banding plovers and making visual counts in recent years. Johnson carefully attaches tiny, temporary radio transmitters that help fellow researchers confirm that a bird seen in Hawaii is the same bird seen in the Arctic. "The birds shed the transmitters after they reach the nesting grounds," Johnson adds.
In March the Johnsons return to Hawaii and, with Kaohelaulii, will be radio-tagging and monitoring plovers here, in Samoa and later in Alaska, using today's technology. Stay tuned for more information in this column.
In the meantime, help protect the kolea in your neighborhood from feral animals, pesticides and firecrackers. There's much to learn from these well-traveled residents.
teaches botany, ethnobotany and environmental science at Chaminade University. Her column runs on the last Monday of the month. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org