Islanders, are you missing your favorite lawn ornament?

The annual spring migration to Alaska of Kolea, which translates as “one who takes and leaves,” is over, leaving thousands of us in Hawaii without “our” favorite Pacific Golden-Plover feeding and prancing about our yards, parks, golf courses, cemeteries and beaches.

“I miss seeing her as I drink my morning coffee.” “It’s weird to wake up and not hear his morning call.” “I wonder if she survived the trip.” “Only four months and he’ll be back.”

“She’s gone.” My husband, Dean Wariner, made the pronouncement shortly after sunrise, scanning our yard and the pasture below the house with binoculars.

The Pacific Golden-Plover, known as Kolea in Hawaii, just completed their spring migration to Alaska.

Oscar Johnson

Berating myself for missing the takeoff of “our” Kolea, I sulked as the French roast brewed.

Dean’s “Wait, she’s back!” sent me flip-flopping to the lanai in time to see Kolea circle over the house, sing out a farewell “chu-EET, chu-EET” and lift off into a clear blue sky, disappearing north.

At 8:46 a.m. on April 22, “our” Kolea, the size of a bar of soap and weighing no more than a softball, departed on one of the world’s most epic nonstop journeys.

Back To Alaska

Beating her wings twice per second, the navigator who can’t swim had to fly at least four days nonstop over 2,500 miles of open ocean until her pencil-size legs could touch earth in Alaska.

Fossils confirm her species has been making this twice-yearly trans-Pacific flight to and from its summer breeding grounds for at least 120,000 years.

“They’re back,” wildlife biologist Melissa Cady of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relayed by phone Monday from King Salmon, Alaska.

“Cornell’s (University) eBird site reported that the first Pacific Golden-Plover arrived on April 20 at Danger Island, near Chenega, in south-central Alaska,” Cady said. “Our average arrival date in King Salmon … is April 23. Our first (this season) was spotted on April 28th at 8:30 p.m., at Rapids Camp, Latitude 58.638744 Longitude -156.567379. You should be able to pull this up on Google Earth to see the area.”

Cady, based at the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge, said she has been hearing from people in Hawaii, asking if “their” Pacfic Golden-Plovers have arrived in the millions of acres of their summer range from Bristol Bay and Dillingham up the west coast and inland to Bethel in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“You folks in the islands obviously care a lot about them,” she said. “They are endearing and handsome little birds. It is great the way the shorebirds connect communities (in Alaska and Hawaii).”

Wildlife biologist Andy Aderman at the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge also confirmed sightings of the birds in his refuge’s 4.7 million acres of tundra.

Avian specialist Kristine Sowl, a wildlife biologist based in the Bethel headquarters of the 19.6-million-acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, said her office’s first sighting of a Pacific Golden-Plover was April 29.

“My house backs onto the tundra and I can just walk outside and see them,” she said. “Their arrival, and other long-distance migrants coming back, are very cool to me because they are harbingers of spring. Pick anywhere in Bethel and walk a short distance onto the tundra and you can see and hear them now.”

Several even showed up in time for the 25th annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer, Alaska, May 4-7, said Sowl, who attended the popular event.

Unlike their relaxed winter demeanor in Hawaii, Pacific Golden-Plovers are skittish and reclusive in Alaska during mating and nesting season, where they and their eggs and juveniles can fall prey to Peregrine falcons, foxes, long-tailed jaegers and especially aggressive ravens on the edge of towns.

In Hawaii, where each Kolea fiercely defends and returns annually to its same patch of grassy terrain and insect food source, the birds co-exist in the same spaces as humans, and even cohabit areas with domesticated animals if they aren’t harassed.

Kolea parents spend four months on the tundra, hatching eggs in July and August, then abandoning their youngsters a few weeks later to head south again. The juveniles bulk up on mosquitoes and bugs and follow weeks later.

Back To The Islands

Adult birds making the round trip have an 80 percent survival rate. Fledglings migrating for the first time have only about a 20 percent chance of living through their inaugural marathon over the Pacific.

“Our” Kolea is an adult who arrived last summer as a fledgling. The previous occupant, a mature Pacific Golden-Plover we think first staked out our lawn as her territory after we created it in 2006, flew into a window in December 2015.

When we found her, bird experts and federal authorities who oversee migratory birds guided us in treating her wounds and hand-feeding her mealworms. Just when we all thought she might survive, we found her dead in her large cage on Christmas morning, a week after her injury. Her death left us bereft but it also opened a welcoming patch of lawn for a successor.

If “our” current Kolea survives this migration season, we expect to hear her piercing call and see her touch down, weighing about four ounces and exhausted, on or about Aug. 10.

Settling in for the next eight months, she will be a daily delight. Scrawny and drab in late summer, she immediately begins to bulk up on centipedes, worms, roaches and slugs. She sleeps on one foot and skitters forward as if wearing stilettos. Every stop is like an emergency – Aha! A bug! – then she repeats her dance from dawn to sunset. She flies around as darkness falls, then spends the night up high — we think on the roof.

She puts up with the cat, who prefers to watch rather than chase. She keeps a sharp eye on stalking mongooses who never catch her. She bullies loud-mouth mynah birds, outshouts narcissistic cardinals, tolerates lumbering doves, welcomes wee kittiwakes in her territory, and ignores us.

Our fall and spring is marked not by the calendar but by Kolea’s clockwork comings and goings and “our” humpback whales’ migrations to and from Alaska.


Oscar “Wally” Johnson, an expert on the Pacific Golden-Plover, doing field work in Hilo. The biologist and his late wife started the Plover Project to monitor the birds in Alaska and the Pacific.

Oscar Johnson

‘A Sense Of Awe’

Scientists can only guess about how Pacific Golden-Plover adults can return to the exact same place they left in the spring. Theories include dependence on star patterns, some magnetic sense or positioning of the sun.

“We really don’t know,” said Oscar “Wally” Johnson, the world’s foremost expert on Kolea. To put their epic journey into perspective, he said we should imagine our last flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu – without a plane.

“I have a sense of awe at what the Pacific Golden-Plovers are able to do,” Johnson said in a phone interview from Maine, where he was consulting with another Kolea expert. “How do they manage to do that with no water, no food? It is an amazing feat.”

He said some plovers who return to Alaska also navigate the Pacific Ocean from as far south as Samoa, New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania with few trans-Pacific landmarks.

Johnson was a zoologist at Washington State University when he was introduced to Kolea at the University of Hawaii’s Mid-Pacific Marine Laboratory on Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands, in 1970.

“Seeing those marathon migrants on a tiny speck of land in the vast Pacific was a life-changing experience,” he wrote in the 2016 book, “Hawaii’s Kolea,” (University of Hawaii Press) co-authored with Susan Scott, an Oahu resident.

Switching careers in 1979 so he could study full time the Pacific Golden-Plover’s ecology, Johnson and his late wife, Patricia, started the Plover Project for long-term monitoring of the birds in Alaska and throughout the Pacific. A professor emeritus of biology at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, he also is an affiliate research scientist at Montana State University in Bozeman, where he lives.

Like the Kolea, Johnson is a snowbird who often travels to the Hawaiian islands in winter because the objects of his observations are so prolific here, “where they are relatively tame.”

“They are delightful birds to watch,” he said of the graceful, athletic creatures to which he has devoted much of his life. “I am in awe of what they are able to do twice a year – fly with no water, no food, for days on end, with certain death in the ocean if they fall. I am definitely a ploverphile.”

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