On chartreuse feet, the pigeon-size ‘ūlili lands in Hawai‘i each winter to forage for crabs, marine worms and other treats along rocky coasts, on beaches and in wetlands. Around this time of year, the taupe-colored shorebird arrives in the Islands after a three-thousand-mile journey from Alaska and the Yukon, where it spent the summer nesting and breeding on the tundra. Spotting one is always a treat. “‘Ūlili were the swiftest messengers of the Hawaiian chiefs,” says Kim Uyehara, a fan of the bird and a biologist at Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge on Kaua‘i, prime ‘ūlili habitat. “They were also known for their charm.”
The vocal little bird, also named the wandering tattler, is often heard before it is seen. Its distinctive, four-note melody is wafting and sweet, a delicate whit-wee-wee-wee. The ‘ūlili appears throughout Hawaiian lore. In one story the bird’s enticing call played a critical role in restoring life to Lohiau, a handsome Kaua‘i chief, after his scorned lover Pele, the volcano goddess, killed him in a fiery fit of rage. The tiny kōlea, also called the Pacific golden plover, attempted to reunite Lohiau’s soul, which had fled to live among the forest songbirds, with his body. But the kōlea’s song simply wasn’t captivating enough to beckon the chief’s soul down from the trees. The song of the ‘ūlili, however, was. And Lohiau lived again.
Uyehara’s most memorable ‘ūlili en-counter took place at sunset on the shoreline of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park as she watched molten lava pour into the sea while waves pounded the coast, cooling the flow into new earth.
“It was very dramatic,” Uyehara recalls. “Nearby, I was surprised to see two birds on the shoreline. It was ‘ūlili and kōlea investigating a freshly formed black-sand beach not far from the steaming lava. It dawned on me that these birds were probably the first vertebrates to pioneer newly cooled flows, a process that has been going on for millions of years on new islands, and I felt lucky to have witnessed it.”