Dr. Wally Johnson with feathered friend, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. ©Susan Scott
March 30, 2022
Our Kolea’s long-term advocate and life-long researcher, Dr. Wally Johnson of Montana State University, has been on Oahu these last few weeks helping the world learn more about one of Hawai’i’s (and Wally’s) favorite birds. In a study supported by Brigham Young University-Hawaii, the Hawaii Audubon Society, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and enthusiastic volunteers, Wally is placing leg bands on nearly half of the 60-to-70 Kolea that forage in the cemetery each winter.
Above: These ID bands are visible on foraging birds (binoculars or enlarging photos help.) To report a banded bird, note which bands are on which leg. This bird has blue on left leg, yellow and aluminum on right. ©Susan Scott
Each of 30 birds gets three leg bands, two plastic in various colors, and a numbered aluminum one, recorded by the North American Bird Banding Program. The colors allow observers to identify an individual without disturbing it.
This is how we know that Mr. X, a Punchbowl plover, is at least 19 years old. Wally gave the bird two red plastic leg bands (one went missing last year), and one aluminum, in section X in April, 2004. He says “at least 19” because the bird’s age was unknown when banded and, therefore, may be older.
Of the 30 plovers in Wally’s current study, 10 are fitted with tiny backpack tags that send GPS signals via satellite twice a day for about six months. Another 10 will carry identical tags sending no signal. The last 10 have only leg bands. This fall, Wally will be back to monitor the birds’ survival.
The plover carries its lightweight satellite tag on its back with soft, stretchable straps around the upper part of each leg. This allows the birds to walk and fly unhindered. ©Susan Scott
The 10 with signals will hopefully show the birds’ movements here in Hawaii, their tracks to Alaska, their nesting sites, and tracks back to Hawaii. The 10 with no signals will test the possibility that electronic tags interfere with natural navigation cues. Survival of the 10 with bands only will test whether simply carrying a backpack tag negatively affects the bird’s natural navigation system.
Volunteer, Marcy Katz, enjoys holding a satellite-tagged bird (antenna below its tail) before releasing it. Because Pacific Golden-Plovers defend their foraging areas, Wally makes sure each bird is returned to its home patch to avoid squabbles. ©Susan Scott
I’m smiling as I write the above paragraphs, because it sounds simple. It is not. Studies like this require years of experience. Nor do scientists just go to a store and buy satellite tags. At $1,600 each, these devices must be specially ordered and used in a timely manner, given limited shelf life of the batteries. Lastly, you have to catch birds that are …