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The original 'snowbirds': Pacific golden-plovers

Posted: February 3, 2012 - 1:09am  |  Updated: February 3, 2012 - 1:25pm
Male Golden-Plovers are striking during the breeding season. They start changing into these colors before they leave Hawaii.  Beth Peluso
Beth Peluso
Male Golden-Plovers are striking during the breeding season. They start changing into these colors before they leave Hawaii.

TIP: If you travel to a warmer place for a winter getaway, look for Alaska birds hiding out at your destination.

Many Alaskans take a break from winter, and this year I traveled to Kauai. I arrived late at night, groggy from hours in airports and on planes. The next morning my traveling companions and I went out for breakfast. I was startled to spot a familiar suspect dashing onto the golf course next to the restaurant patio, in plain sight — a Pacific golden-plover!

These lanky shorebirds are champion long-distance flyers, putting my airplane travel to shame. They power through the nearly 2,500 miles from their breeding grounds in Alaska to the Hawaiian Islands in about two days, nonstop. They lack the waterproofing on their feathers that seabirds have, so they don’t rest on the ocean. A few birds winter in California, but the majority winter throughout the South Pacific, from Hawaii down to New Zealand and across to Asia. Fossils found on Oahu reveal the plovers have been making the trip for 120,000 years!

In Alaska, Pacific golden-plovers nest in remote areas in Western Alaska from the Alaska Peninsula up to Point Hope. (The species also spills over into eastern Siberia.) The Yup’ik name for this bird is “tuuliik,” and the Inupiaq word is “tullik.”

The birds spend only three months in Alaska. The first birds depart Hawaii for Alaska around April 25. The adult males tend to arrive first, sometimes before the snow is completely melted, so they can reclaim last year’s breeding territories. Females tend to wander more; usually they wind up in a new territory with a different partner each year. When the birds pair up, the race against time begins!

Both parents take turns incubating the four eggs. The chicks hatch in about 25 days. As soon as their fluffy baby down dries, they’re ready for action. The family leaves the nest within hours of the last chick hatching, the youngsters already snapping up their own insect meals.

Being on the lam within hours of hatching gives the chicks a chance at survival.

Predators such as foxes or Long-tailed Jaegers lurk around. If the chicks stayed in the nest, they would be easy targets. There are other threats: a caribou herd on the move may crush eggs, and caribou have been known to eat eggs and young birds.

In barely a month the chicks are ready to fly. When they hit this stage, usually around August, the parents leave. Females usually depart first, leaving the male to care for the chicks a little longer. It may seem heartless, but laying eggs is energetically very costly. The weight of four eggs roughly equals the weight of the female herself. She needs to eat large amounts of food to put on enough fat to fuel her long flight to the warm wintering grounds. The males leave a little later, making landfall in Hawaii by late August.

The young plovers aren’t strong enough yet to fly the long distance when their parents disappear. They spend another few weeks foraging and building strength. It’s unknown exactly how the birds navigate on their first migration. It’s possible they use the position of the sun and stars (even though they have never seen a night sky until they head south), or maybe a sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field guides them. It seems miraculous any of the youngsters reach the warmth of Hawaii.

When the Pacific golden-plovers reach their wintering grounds, they undergo a personality change as drastic as their change in plumage. From protective parents hiding chicks, they become boldly unconcerned. Any open grassy space will do, regardless of how many people are around. I spied plovers on golf courses, on the lawn by my hotel, in a deserted picnic area along a foggy mountain trail, and near the busy Kilauea Lighthouse. I also spotted one individual poking among black rocks exposed by low tide. The bird’s buttery yellow feathers almost glowed in contrast.

The birds spend most of the day foraging for insects and other invertebrates, dashing a few steps, sometimes pausing with one foot delicately lifted, before snapping up their prey. Some birds strictly patrol the borders of a winter feeding territory during the day. The territories are much smaller than breeding ones. Other birds seem to care less, feeding in small, loose groups. Perhaps they aren’t experienced enough to hold their own territory. Perhaps these are just different strategies for survival.

At dusk, the plovers move to communal overnight roosting areas, often on top of buildings. Like squabbling siblings in the back seat of a car, however, they don’t let other birds get too close. Owls and feral cats are the main predators, so snoozing among friends provides the protection of extra lookouts. Although the average plover’s lifespan is about five or six years, some individuals live for decades. The record is about 21 years.

Along with the personality change, the birds have a new alias as well: in Hawaiian, the name for Pacific golden-plover is “Kolea.” The name supposedly mimics the calls the birds make. It also means “one who takes and leaves,” which perfectly describes the feeding frenzy to fatten up before leaving for lands beyond the northern horizon.

Legend says the Kolea, as they flew north, may have aided ancient Polynesian seafarers in discovering the Hawaiian Islands. There are traditional songs and hulas about the Kolea. Some of the songs convey how the Kolea feeds and fattens up, then disappears to an unknown land to lay its eggs. In legends, the god of healing, Koleamoku, could turn himself into a Kolea. They were also messengers to the high chiefs from the gods.

Below is a translation of one of the songs (“Kahiki” means a place outside Hawaii):

‘Olelo No’eau:

Ai keke na hulu o ka umauma

ho’i ke kolea i Kahiki e hanau ai

When the feathers darken on the breasts,

the kolea returns to Kahiki to breed

‘Ai no ke kolea a momona ho’i i Kahiki!

The kolea eats until he is fat, then returns to the land from which he came!

I ho’okauhua i ke kolea,

no Kahiki ana ke keiki

When there is a desire for plovers,

the child to be born will travel to Kahiki

Kolea no ke kolea i knoa inoa iho

The plover can only cry its own name

O ka hua o ke kolea aia i Kahiki

The egg of the kolea is laid in a foreign land

— from Mary Kawena Pukui, ‘0lelo No’eau: Hawai‘ian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings, Bishop Museum Press 1983

Today, the birds are favorites of many human residents of Hawaii. A “Kolea Watch” citizen science project asks volunteers to report when birds head north, trying to pinpoint timing. There is a “Krazy for Kolea Kontest” held by the Molokai Dispatch (a local newspaper) and the Hawaii Audubon Society, offering prizes for the first confirmed Kolea sightings in the fall and for reporting banded birds.

Another seafarer left a written record tying the Kolea to their northern home: Captain James Cook. He noted the birds on a trip to Tahiti, wondering if they nested on the mythical Great Southern Continent he sought between Australia and New Zealand. When he was searching for the Northwest Passage in the Bering Sea, his crew spotted a plover flying south and guessed it came from land somewhere north.

It’s breathtaking to think of the alternate life these birds live so far from Alaska, for millenia their beating wings tying two parts of the globe together long before humans knew it was possible.

• Beth Peluso is a freelance writer and illustrator and avid birder. She enjoys spying on wildlife across Alaska.

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