Every autumn, Hawai‘i welcomes home a beloved snowbird, the Pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulva), known to Hawaiians as kolea. Year after year, kolea return from their summer honeymoons in Alaska to the same patch of grass they left in Hawai‘i. Most kolea molt along the 3,000-mile journey. By September, they’re speckled in beautiful browns and golds, their fall feathers. Some return still dressed in black-and-white tuxedoes—though a little worse for the wear.
The black-tie plumage camouflages the birds while in Alaska’s tundra—and it helps them look sharp for potential mates. Male plovers woo females with nests of lichen. The resulting happy couples incubate four eggs, taking turns brooding. Once the chicks are able to fly, the parents head south, flying nonstop for forty to fifty hours. (And that’s without in-flight movies or snacks!) Some people theorize that the kolea’s yearly reappearance in the Pacific Islands inspired early Polynesian wayfarers to look for land north, resulting in the discovery of Hawai‘i.
Listen for the distinctive two-note call day or night to know that kolea have returned to a grassy field near you. Highly territorial, they prefer wide, open spaces that offer a clear view of approaching predators. That kolea pecking insects on your neighborhood soccer field, wetland, or front lawn is the same bird that wintered there last year, and the year before. Some birds have been known to return to the same spot for more than two decades!
Much is still unknown about our annual visitors’ migratory habits. For instance, fall’s latest arrivals, the newly hatched kolea, find our isolated archipelago without their parents’ guidance. How? What’s more, scientists suspect that each spring, the entire population leaves Hawai‘i en masse on a single day. Why?
Volunteers are needed to record observations. Sign up to watch your resident kolea take flight at www.hawaiinaturecenter.org/kolea. You can also help by restricting pesticide use on your lawn and keeping domestic cats indoors.