Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, August 26, 1996

Golden plovers are back
for their Hawaiian feast

About two weeks ago, I had a golden plover day. My phone rang just as I was getting out of bed. "Sorry to call so early," a longtime reader's voice said. "I wanted to tell you that the golden plovers are back."

"What?" I mumbled.

"The plovers. They're back in Hawaii. I saw one yesterday at home and another today at work. You know, you haven't written about plovers in a long time."

"Thanks for the news," I said, admiring this bird-lover's enthusiasm.

A couple of hours later, a surfer friend mentioned that he had seen a sign of summer's end: A plover was in the beach park. Later that afternoon, I received a notice in the mail announcing a new golden plover publication.

That monograph, which arrived last week, turned out to be a treasure trove of information about these exquisite shorebirds.

Hawaii's winter visitors, called Pacific golden plovers, make some of the longest migrations in the world, some traveling more than 4,000 miles in nonstop flights over water. Such journeys occur twice a year - in April, when the birds fly to their Arctic breeding grounds, and in August, when they return to their tropical wintering grounds.

The first birds to arrive, and likely what my caller and friend saw, are mature females, pooped from the chores of egg laying and chick rearing. The males, who also sit on eggs and feed hungry mouths, appear next. In October, most of the juveniles arrive.

In Hawaii, golden plovers also called kolea, are unmistakable, prancing on delicate legs in a distinct stop-run-stop motion on beaches, in grassy beach parks and even on paved surfaces. But this dainty dance isn't for our entertainment. These birds are busy searching for any invertebrates - and some vertebrates - they can find. On the beach, these are snails, crabs, and worms; on the ground it's pests such as roaches, spiders and slugs. Sometimes, plovers eat small fish, skinks and geckos.

Pacific golden plovers hold a colorful place in the islands' history.

Some people believe that ancient seafaring Polynesians interpreted the plover's migration cycle to mean that land lay to the north, thus leading to Hawaii's human colonization.

Judging from ancient middens, or trash heaps, Hawaii's early settlers valued plovers for food as well as guidance. Hunters caught the birds with leg snares, using worms for bait.

Plovers are often mentioned in hula chants and Hawaiian folklore. These birds were thought to be the embodiment of Koleamoku, a god of healing and a messenger of chiefs.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, golden plovers were hunted with abandon. Near New Orleans in the spring of 1821, hunters shot about 48,000 of them in a single day. In the 1850s in Portland, Maine, hunters sold dead plovers for 25 cents a dozen, many spoiling before being sold.

Hunters also shot Pacific golden plovers in Hawaii until 1941, often exceeding the daily limit of 15.

Golden plovers are now protected in nearly all of the Western Hemisphere, but hunting still occurs in Barbados, parts of South America, India, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. About 2,000 birds a year are shot in Java alone.

Researchers believe Hawaii has recovered its former golden plover numbers.

These shorebirds are territorial, usually returning to, and defending, the same wintering spot year after year. If a plover comes to your yard or beach each year, it's probably the same individual.

Plovers' feathers change from golden brown in winter to striking breeding colors in spring.

If you get to know one of these birds, you may have a friend for a long time. Golden plovers can live at least 15 years.

Susan Scott is a marine science writer and author of three books about Hawaii's environment. Her Ocean Watch column appears Monday in the Star-Bulletin.

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