Issue 7.6: 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.

The vast distance isn’t the only astonishing thing about kolea migration. Their ability to navigate with pinpoint precision is one of the great mysteries of bird biology. "We do know they have excellent vision," says Dr. Phil Bruner, professor of biology at Brigham Young University in Laie, "and they can imprint on details of the landscape so fine that we can’t see them."

But that doesn’t explain the mystery of the kolea chicks: Though adult kolea devote much of their time in Alaska to the heavy labor of breeding—defending territory, building and protecting nests, incubating a clutch of eggs—kolea chicks are left largely on their own once they’re born. They can fly at three weeks, though not yet as far as Hawaii; when adult kolea lift off for the Islands in late August, they leave the young behind to follow some weeks later. Scientists aren’t certain how the chicks find Hawaii—mere droplets of land amid a vast, empty ocean—without adult guidance, visual markers, or an on-board digital GPS. Nevertheless, by October the juveniles alight on our shores, exhausted and ready for their mai tai and welcome lei.

Somehow, says Johnson, the birds hatch knowing at least where south is. "There’s a genetic program of some kind that gives them direction," he says. "Perhaps they respond to the position of the sun, or they innately recognize star patterns." He’s quick to point out, though, that many juvenile kolea never see the night sky in Alaska, since it’s light twenty-four hours a day during the summer.

Johnson estimates that many of the juveniles—perhaps as many as 80 percent—die at sea. For the birds that survive the arduous journey, the tough part—competition for territory—begins when their feet hit the sand. Kolea return to and vigorously defend the same spot in both their summer and winter grounds, an extreme example of what ornithologists call "site faithfulness." One bird returned to the same lawn at Bellows Air Force Station in windward Oahu for twenty-one years (unusual not so much for consistency as longevity: The kolea’s average life-span is five or six years). Squatter’s rights are the rule: Returning adults can reoccupy their previous year’s territory, but juveniles must find a vacancy or possibly die trying. Some birds unable to establish territories in Hawaii rest briefly before shoving off for a second migration to Australia, New Zealand, Micronesia, Melanesia or Rapa Nui.

Kolea newly arrived
from Alaska sport a
mottled sandy plumage. 

Those that stay spend their eight or so months in Hawaii leading solitary lives, fattening up on shellfish, beetles, roaches, flies, even venomous centipedes. As the months pass, their coloration changes from an uninspiring yellowish-brown to beautiful full-breeding plumage: Males sport mottled brown and gold wings; a jet-black throat, breast and belly; and a distinctive white racing stripe along the length of the body. Against the monochrome lawns and beaches of the Islands, such high-contrast markings may seem dangerously conspicuous, but on the Alaskan tundra, among dwarf birches and lichen-covered rocks, the birds are nearly invisible.

During late winter and spring, the kolea eat voraciously, nearly doubling their body weight to make the demanding flight north. A few birds depart around April 18, with the greater number lifting off around April 25 and 26. Some first-year birds remain behind for the summer, possibly because—real estate being what it is these days—they were unable to establish a territory with sufficient resources to meet their energy needs for the return trip.

Fossil evidence suggests that the kolea have been flying between Hawaii and Alaska for at least 120,000 years, and their appearance in the oral traditions of pre-contact Polynesian societies has led to speculation that some Pacific islands, perhaps even the Hawaiian Islands themselves, were discovered by Polynesians following the migrating birds. O ka hua o ke kolea aia i Kahiki goes an old Hawaiian saying: The egg of the kolea is laid in a foreign land. Among native Hawaiians both ancient and modern, the kolea is a protector spirit, or aumakua, and the birds’ feathers were once used to make cloaks and kahili for the alii. Kolea are woven through Hawaiian stories, chants and hula; in one myth, the kolea is an incarnation of Koleamoku, a god of healing and a message-bearer to the alii. Some of the mythology persists today as folk belief: If a kolea circles your home while calling, you can expect a death in the family. If one flies across your lawn, you will have a visitor.

To many in the Islands, the kolea symbolize a deep connection to the land and the traditions of those who first settled it. The migration of the kolea represents the unbroken continuity of the world’s ancient rhythms. "It’s easy to take for granted how incredibly well the universe is put together, but kolea remind us of how amazing the natural world is and why we need to take care of it," says Annette Kaohelaulii, amateur birdwatcher and president of the Hawaii Ecotourism Association. Kaohelaulii takes small groups of birders to Alaska to observe kolea. "The Alaskan cultures see in the kolea a deep connection with the Earth," she says. "The same is true for Hawaiians. It’s a very old wisdom."

Worshipped though they were, the kolea also had the misfortune of being tasty. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Hawaiians valued kolea meat; after colonization, Western settlers and visitors hunted the birds for sport. The kolea’s conspicuous plumage, preference for open territory and regrettable habit of freezing when threatened made them easy targets. Hunters regularly exceeded the daily bag limit of fifteen. After population declines, kolea hunting was banned in Hawaii in 1941; it has been illegal ever since. Hunting is also illegal in Australia and New Zealand, but kolea wintering in east Asia and Indonesia remain threatened by human predation. In an interesting, perhaps even unique twist, the kolea is one native species that may actually have benefited from human development: More parklands, athletic fields, golf courses and lawns mean more kolea habitat—kolea prefer open spaces because tall vegetation inhibits their movement, limits their range of vision and may conceal predators.

Still, urban planners, developers and landowners could, with a little awareness, help to protect the kolea. Johnson is particularly concerned by the application of pesticides on lawns in parks, cemeteries and golf courses. "Nobody’s really looked at this," he says. "What kinds of chemicals are being used? What effects do they have? And, significantly, when are the pesticides applied?" On a recent April morning, he watched as city workers treated a downtown Honolulu lawn just as the kolea that had wintered there were gearing up to leave for Alaska. "Why not defer until the birds are gone?" he suggests. "It wouldn’t be that difficult to do."

Although kolea appear to have enjoyed a recovery in Hawaii over the last sixty years, biologists can’t tell whether their numbers have rebounded to pre-exploitation levels. The most recent data on the population wintering in Hawaii—74,000 birds—dates back to 1949. Global population estimates over the last few years vary broadly between 125,000 and 2.6 million breeding pairs. Indeed, this is the "big question" in current kolea research, says Johnson. "We need to know how many birds are out there. That data may help to reveal—and not just for the kolea—what happens as the global climate changes." Global warming, for example, could cause the vegetation in Alaska to grow taller, rendering the habitat unsuitable for nesting. Elsewhere in the world, winter territories are on the decline, the disappearing pampas of Argentina being one example.

"Resident birds give us only a narrow view," says Bruner. "The migrants, living between two worlds, give us a much broader experience of the changing conditions in the world." These birds could be the kolea in the coal mine of global climate change.

"They link so many ecosystems together," says Johnson, "arctic, sub-arctic, tropical, island...they’re participants on a global scale. We don’t yet know how significant those links are, but we’d hate to see them broken."