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Picnicking at the Waipio Valley lookout on the Hamakua Coast Photo: Linny Morris Cunningham
Vol. 7, No. 6
December 2004/January 2005


Flight of the Navigators 

story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Jack Jeffrey 

A kolea displays full
breeding plumage, in
preparation for its
return to Alaska.

In 1773, Captain James Cook sailed the waters off Tahiti during his second expedition. His mission: to find the "Great Southern Continent" purported to lie somewhere between Australia and New Zealand. Near Matavai Bay, naturalists aboard the H.M.S. Resolution noticed a five-ounce, spindly legged shorebird and dutifully recorded what seemed, at first, a simple species of plover. But this was no ordinary bird. The Englishmen took a special interest after the Tahitians told them that the birds did not nest in the islands but migrated away each spring. Might these birds, the Englishmen wondered, be breeding on the elusive continent they sought?

Five years later, having understandably failed to find the non-existent Great Southern Continent, Cook was on his third expedition, now seeking the equally elusive Northwest Passage. In the North Pacific and Bering Sea, his crew spotted a very similar bird, which this time seemed to be migrating south. Again, Cook wondered if the birds knew something about geography that he didn’t: "Does this not indicate," he wrote, "that there must be land to the north where these birds retired in the proper season to breed?" Indeed so, but Cook might have been astonished to learn that the birds he’d observed in Tahiti and those he saw in the North Pacific half a decade later were not just, as he correctly deduced, the same species. They may well have been the very same birds. Indeed, these creatures—known in Hawaii as the kolea—knew exactly where the land was. And to find it, they flew all the way from the Arctic to the South Pacific—and back—every year.

The tiny kolea, known to the world outside Hawaii as the Pacific golden plover, are among the world’s mightiest long-distance flyers. They arrive in Hawaii in the early fall and stay through the end of April, during which time you can find them hanging around almost any large open space: stalking the lawn at Kapiolani Park; stabbing for beetles at Punchbowl; crouching in Kailua-Kona’s a'a lava fields; and, perhaps most frustratingly, fixed immovably on the green directly between you and your birdie putt. Though classified as shorebirds, the hardy and adaptable kolea have been found far from the sea, even in the crater of Haleakalä on Maui, where temperatures frequently drop into the teens at night. The bird’s Hawaiian name, kolea, a phonetic imitation of its keening flight call, has come to mean "one who takes and leaves." Ai no ke kolea a momona hoi i Kahiki! goes one Hawaiian proverb: The kolea eats until he is fat, and then returns to the land from which he came.

Kolea spend each summer on the treeless tundra of western Alaska; in late August, they head south. Migrating kolea are believed to cruise at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet and may average fifty miles per hour. But unlike many birds capable of trans-oceanic migrations, kolea can neither soar nor glide. And in what seems an unfortunate quality for a shorebird, kolea also can’t swim. When birds flying from western Alaska to Hawaii finally reach our shores, they will have continuously beat their wings twice per second for about fifty hours over some 2,500 miles of open ocean—one of the most grueling non-stop migrations in the avian world. Dr. Oscar "Wally" Johnson, an ornithologist at Montana State University who studies kolea, puts it in perspective: "Imagine that flight you made from L.A. to Honolulu—only without the plane." And there you were grumbling about legroom in coach.