Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Looking out for
plovers, with love

Of all the animals I write about, Pacific golden plovers generate the best stories.

On Aug. 2 an elderly woman called me and said, "Are you the lady who studies plovers?"

"No," I said. "Who are you trying to reach?" I asked.

"I don't know her name, but she keeps track of when the plovers return to Hawaii each year." She paused. "She writes about her research in the Star-Bulletin."

"I think I'm the one you're looking for."

"But you said you don't study birds."

"I don't. But I write a column in the Star-Bulletin, sometimes about birds."

"Then you must know her," she said.

"I am her."

"This is so confusing," the woman said. "Dear, do you think you could give the plover lady a message?"

"Of course," I said. "What's the message?"

"My plover came back today."

Oh, how we Hawaii residents love our plovers. When these migratory shorebirds return to our yards in late summer, we're delighted, tempted to brag, even: My plover got home before your plover.

As a matter of fact, this year, my pet plover, Gracie, also arrived on Aug. 2.

A plover returning this early in August, or even in late July, is not unusual. But they don't all do it.

The bulk of the birds arrive from their Alaska breeding grounds in September.

Gracie's winter home is the lane behind my house. When this young female settled there a few years ago, I feared the road would be the end of her. Mynah birds have factored motor vehicles into the risky game of natural selection, but have plovers?

This one has. Gracie is surprisingly streetwise, prancing with speed to the curb whenever cars approach. And when it comes to defending her territory, she stands her ground, kicking and screeching like one of Charlie's angels.

This fierce behavior usually startles me because these delicate-looking birds resemble ballet dancers more than kick-boxers.

When feeding, they take a few nimble steps, stab the ground a time or two and then strike a pose, balancing on one long, slender leg with the other gracefully raised.

Some plovers have such heart they steal our hearts. While working in a wildlife refuge last year, I noticed a young plover hanging around the deck of our barracks.

One day, I found this bird standing in the middle of an unoccupied bedroom.

In his bold search for food, this explorer had entered our quarters and gotten lost. I backed out and let him find his own way out.

Uncle Jimmy, as we came to call him, came back day after day, looking thinner and thinner.

Although biologists in wildlife refuges don't usually feed the animals, we all have our moments.

I put some leftovers on a plate and set it on the deck.

Soon I heard the distinct shriek of a plover defending its territory.

When I peeked out, there was Uncle Jimmy fighting off a gang of ruddy turnstones like a tiny Jackie Chan.

Uncle Jimmy won the battle of the beef scraps, and that plate, which I kept full, was his ever after.

No, I am not the lady who studies plovers.

But I am the lady who loves them.

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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