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Fly 6,000 miles with talking backpacks? No problem.

During an August 10th Hilo visit, Hawaii Audubon board members Dr. Wendy Kuntz and Susan Scott, (me, in photo) admire this school’s welcome sign for its mascot, the Kōlea. ©Wendy Kuntz

December 12, 2022

Does a GPS signal interfere with a Kōlea’s migration? That was the question Wally Johnson set out to answer in March when he and a team of researchers and volunteers tagged 30 Kōlea at Punchbowl Cemetery (March 30 NEWS.) All 30 birds were fitted with colored leg bands for identification. In addition, 10 birds carried live GPS backpack devices, and 10 carried dummy backpacks. Ten had no backpacks at all.

This bird carried, round trip, a GPS tag labeled DUMMY. It was the same weight and size as the live tags, but did not transmit a signal. ©Susan Scott

By the end of April-early May, all 30 birds had migrated. Then came the waiting, and the nut of the investigation: Which of the study birds would return to Punchbowl?

Hawaii Audubon volunteers answered the call to find out. Armed with cameras and binoculars, Kōlea watchers took turns driving through Punchbowl almost daily from mid-July through September to look for, and record, the study-birds that had made the round trip.

The result gave Wally photographic evidence to the question of whether GPS signals sent to satellites from tiny transmitters the birds carried on their backs interfered with their migration: The answer is no.

This male, nicknamed Mr. Necker, flew to Alaska, then Russia, then to Necker Island in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument where his signal stopped. The team was surprised and  delighted to recapture him in Punchbowl Cemetery on October 10th in the exact spot he was tagged in March. We know the bird’s sex from his springtime feather colors, not his above October colors.  ©Susan Scott

The birds with transmitting backpacks, dummy backpacks, and no backpacks returned this fall at about the same rate: 80 percent. Wally Johnson reported this finding—that GPS locating signals have no apparent negative effects—in the 2022 summary of the Alaska Shorebird Group.

A large part, and purpose, of Kōlea research is teaching. Here’s Wally shows volunteers and students a recaptured plover’s flight feathers. ©Susan Scott

Wally shows volunteers and students the wear on a kōlea’s flight feathers. The bird will drop these hard-used feathers and grow new ones, but gradually, so as to not lose its ability to fly. ©Susan Scott
















By |2022-12-12T10:06:58-10:00December 12, 2022|Recent News|0 Comments

Join us for the 2022-2023 Kōlea Count

November 22, 2022

Welcome to the third annual Kōlea Count, the Hawaii Audubon Society’s citizen science project started in 2020. Because so many facts about these remarkable shorebirds are still unknown, and so many Hawaiʻi residents and visitors watch and enjoy our plovers, here’s an opportunity for us to record our observations.

Adults arrive from their Alaska breeding ground in July, August, and September. The summer’s offspring stay in Alaska until the snow falls, sometimes as late as October and November. With food sources gone, the youngsters head south alone. It’s a perilous journey, but juveniles that live through their first winter have the potential to live 20 or more years.

Birdy Big Foot: Kōlea chicks hatch with adult-sized feet and legs, and can fly in about a month.  This chick is on the tundra near Nome, Alaska.  © Oscar W. Johnson. 

The birds that survived Arctic predators, stormy weather, and competition for space are now here in Hawaiʻi. So let’s don our green Kōlea T-shirts, and go counting. We ask for a minimum (no maximum) of three counts in each area, from December 1st through March 31st.

T-shirts available at











Counting goals are to:

  • Get some numbers. Collecting data to compare from year-to-year will help us learn more about whether Hawai’i’s plover population is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same.
  • Spread the joy. The Kōlea that winter in Hawaii are the only shorebirds in the world that have adapted so well to human presence, and to our alteration of the birds’ natural habitats. Our plovers stroll down sidewalks, sleep on rooftops, forage in lawns, and get fat on the hundreds of species we’ve introduced to the Islands. (Plovers eat anything that crawls.)

Kōlea pick bugs from Astroturf and bathe in hotel swimming pools. Kauai. ©Susan Scott

Please see the GUIDELINES tab to sign up for a LITTLE COUNT  or a BIG COUNT. Ask questions or share comments with me on the CONTACT tab.

On behalf of our lovely, perky Kōlea, thank you for helping us learn more about them and in that, learn how to help them thrive.

Punchbowl Cemetery, Oahu’s Kōlea lab. © Sigrid Southworth (our Punchbowl Kōlea counter.)

Aloha, Susan Scott, Plover lover and Hawaii Audubon Society president

By |2022-11-22T10:55:57-10:00November 22, 2022|Recent News|0 Comments

Celebrating Hawaiʻi’s Kōlea

Special thanks to Ann Tanimoto-Johnson of UH Hilo’s LOHE Bioacoustics Lab for this outstanding Kōlea photo.

As of October, most of our adult kōlea have returned to Hawaiʻi for the winter. Now is the time to keep an eye out for their summer’s offspring, which can arrive as late as November depending on Alaska weather. Because of these late arrivals, we start the annual Kōlea Count on December 1st. Please tell me on the contact tab which site you can count, and I’ll sign you up. We ask for a minimum of 3 counts on your chosen site between December 1st and March 31st. (Suggested count sites)

Wally Johnson is also migrating to Hawai’i again to continue his Pacific Golden-Plover research. Please join us to see Wally’s excellent photos and hear the latest about these marvelous shorebirds that brighten our lives with their presence.

Becoming a member of the Hawaii Audubon Society helps us help Wally learn more about the birds, and in that, we help them thrive.

Hope to see you at Sea Life Park for this special plover party. Buy tickets here. (Deadline October 22nd.)

Wally and me (Susan) giving a Kōlea ID leg bands at Punchbowl Cemetery, March, 2022.

By |2022-10-07T08:31:18-10:00October 7, 2022|Recent News|0 Comments

Every kōlea counts

September 12, 2022

Thanks to Christine Donnelly, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Kokua Line columnist, a lot of plover fans recently signed up to help monitor Hawaii’s much-loved shorebirds, the Pacific Golden-Plovers. Christine explained in her September 3rd column that the KoleaCount website is a way for plover lovers to help answer some basic questions about our marvelous kōlea.

The above clip is from the September 3rd, 2022 Kokua Line. My answers are available only to Star-Advertiser subscribers, but the facts I gave Christine are below, as well as on this website. On September 9th, I also chatted about kōlea with Catherine Cruz, host of Hawaii Public Radio’s “The Conversation.” listen here.

Given that these migratory shorebirds have been coming here for centuries, it surprises people how little we know about our plovers. When to do they arrive? When do they leave? How many spend winters here? How many don’t migrate? And so on. This citizen-science, data-collecting project will, over time, give us some answers.

Between 70 and 80 kōlea spend winters in Punchbowl Cemetery. This is the first to arrive back in its Punchbowl patch, spotted by the Hawaii Audubon Society’s office and communications manager, Laura Zoller on August 7, 2022. ©Laura Zoller

I also write about kōlea on my own website, My August 21st plover update is here: welcome home dear kolea

In other news, the birds that Dr. Wally Johnson tagged in March of this year (kolea get backpacks and bracelets) are returning to Punchbowl cemetery. As of this writing, about 22 of the 30 tagged birds are back in their Punchbowl patches. Several volunteers from Hawaii Audubon Society are checking daily and taking pictures to confirm sightings. I say “about” 22 because the leg band colors of a some birds are unclear in photos. The plovers’ graceful pause with one leg raised sometimes obscures the colors.

This bird posed perfectly for a picture of its leg bands. The plover returned to Punchbowl on August 22nd, and appeared to be good health after flying 6,000 round-trip miles carrying a tiny satellite tag. (antenna below tail.) © Susanne Spiessberger

Wally will be in Hawaii in October to re-catch the birds in nets and relieve the birds of their tiny backpacks.  The $2,500 tags, donated by BYUH, can be recharged and reused.

While he’s here, Wally has offered to treat us plover lovers to a talk on November 6th at the Hawaii Audubon Society’s Annual Meeting.

The gathering this year will be at Sea Life Park, 6-9 PM, with a “Taste of Hawaii” buffet including nonalcoholic beverages, and one of Wally’s informative and entertaining slide shows. Nonmembers are welcome, but please join the Hawaii Audubon Society to help us carry on this, and other, native bird research.

Dinner tickets, $40, are available on the HOME page of …

By |2022-09-12T05:36:59-10:00September 12, 2022|Recent News|0 Comments

Kōlea Count 2021-2022 update

Kōlea, center, sometimes forage with other shorebird species. This outstanding photo shows a kōlea with a ruddy turnstone (upper left) and two sanderlings. ©Ann Tanimoto-Johnson

During a recent June stroll in Waialua, I had a sad moment of missing my six feathered friends Cookie, Bilbo, Frodo, Boogie, and Mr. and Ms. Ed. These are the kōlea that established territories along my usual route and the walk just isn’t as good without them.

Now that July has arrived, though, my steps are springier knowing it’s possible that I’ll see an early returnee. Last year, July 6th marked the first kōlea arrival from ‘Āina Haina resident, Tom: “Aloha, I’ve seen him [the kōlea] every year for the last 8 years. He loves eating the bugs out of my lawn. Very shy.”

29 individuals returned to Hawaii in July, 2021

The kōlea that return in July get here early for one of two reasons, says plover researcher, Dr. Wally Johnson. Those individuals either had a super successful nesting season, where their chicks hatched and fledged early, or a failed one, where their eggs or chicks didn’t survive bad weather or a predator strike.

July 1st marks the start of a new season of information gathering in this ongoing Kōlea Count. We’re zeroing the tabs to start again.

We can’t count every plover in Hawai’i, of course, or record every coming and going, but the project helps us learn more about the birds from those of us who care about them. It’s also a place to record stories. Thank you for sharing the joy of these marvelous native birds. I read and save all notes.

Below are numbers from our tallies of the season. Special thanks to Susanne Spiessberger, Interim Executive Director of the Hawaiʻi Audubon Society, for tallies, graphs, and maps.

5,124 Total number of birds counted December 1 – March 31

O`ahu: 902 submissions

Big Island: 161 submissions

Maui: 70 submissions

Kaua`i: 14 submissions

By |2022-07-08T09:31:18-10:00July 6, 2022|Recent News|0 Comments

Farewell and fair winds

A patriotic plover, April 8, 2022 at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park. ©David Hyrenbach

May 1, 2022

This is a bittersweet time of year for us plover lovers, since most of Hawai’i’s Kolea (and our other shorebirds) have left the Islands for the Arctic. We wish the birds were still here perking up our lawns and shorelines, and at the same time, admire them for their remarkable, and mandatory, migrations.

Our bird, Jake, had molted almost completely into his spring tuxedo by April 1st, and then proceeded to bulk up day by day. (Craig joked that Jake was going to get too fat to fly.) The last day we saw him, all plump and pretty, was April 17th. Whether he joined his fellow plovers somewhere in Hawai’i or headed directly north, we’ll never know.

Our Jake on April 1st. ©Susan Scott

On April 20th, Kolea fan, Roger Kobayashi, kindly escorted me to Ford Island where he has been counting Kolea all winter. The field fronting the NOAA building is a staging area where Kolea gather before departing. I wondered if our Jake was there, a fact we cannot know unless the bird has ID bands on its legs.

Roger counted about 80 Kolea here at the height of the gathering, April 17th, with the number gradually decreasing day by day. Whether the birds took off for their 3,000 mile journey a few at a time, or gathered with others somewhere else in Hawai’i, is unknown.

During my visit to the Ford Island field, Roger and I counted about 50 birds in the field.  Because they tended to line up lengthwise, less than half are visible in this picture. ©Susan Scott

I visited Punchbowl Cemetery throughout April to check on Wally’s study birds (read here) and found several. Like at Ford Island the number of birds there decreased daily, from the peak of 70, until April 27th. And then there were none.

As of April 27th, Wally reported that 5 of the satellite-tagged birds had already reached Alaska, a 3-day, nonstop flight. He emailed: “Once again, peak departure 24-26 April. Amazing — this has been the exact pattern ever since ’79-80 the first year of our studies in Hawaii!”

Punchbowl study female, April 20, 2022.©Susan Scott

Another Punchbowl study male, April 26, 2022 ©Susan Scott

Wally and other researchers involved in this year’s Kolea study will keep me informed of what’s happening, and I’ll keep you informed here. Analysis of the data we collected for the 2021-2022 Kolea Count is in progress.

In the meantime, please report, and photograph if possible, …

By |2022-05-01T10:04:28-10:00May 1, 2022|Recent News|0 Comments

Punchbowl’s Kolea get backpacks and bracelets

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 …

By |2022-03-30T16:03:32-10:00March 30, 2022|Recent News|0 Comments

Kona storm brings Kolea feast

This Maui Kolea enjoyed bathing in a driveway rain puddle. © Photo courtesy Calvin M. Kaya, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Biology, Montana State University

January 9, 2022

Kona storm? Bring it on, say the Kolea who relish the worms and bugs the rain brings to the surface. Our Kolea are a hardy species, as are the plover lovers who went out to count and observe during the blustery weather.

Craig is showing off the Pacific Golden-Plover patch on my Alaska Audubon hat, a special gift. Friend and neighbor Lani Twomey braved the storm to count Kolea with us. (Selfie)

On Christmas Day, four of us took advantage of Mid-Pacific Golf Course’s holiday closure, and counted 85 Kolea, our plan being to count again on the second closure of the year, New Year’s Day. When the day came, though, a Kona storm had turned the golf course into a giant lake fed by drainage-ditch rivers so large they had standing waves.

The Christmas Day Kolea team from right, David Johnson. Beth Flint, Craig Thomas and me, Susan Scott. Photo by Michelle Hester

We set out anyway, counting 132 Kolea, and a surprising number of endemic stilts, gallinules and coots, all gorging on drowning invertebrates. Ducks too loved the sodden landscape.

During the storm, stilts, ducks and people enjoyed the temporary lake on this fairway. © Susan Scott

So far, for the 2021-2022 Kolea Count project, 79 people have counted 1,440 Kolea. Most are on Oahu but several are counting on the Big Island and a few on Maui. (I heard from a counter on Kauai who will soon enter her numbers.) I have friends currently working at Midway who lost track of the Kolea count at 500.

For reasons known only to the Kolea, the birds sometimes line up on the runway at Midway Atoll. © Courtesy Jonathan Plissner, USFWS

To answer a common question, it’s OK if you didn’t start counting in December. That isn’t a start date, but rather the earliest date to start a Big Count. We are asking for three counts anytime between December 1 and March 31. They can be 3 days in a row or 3 months apart. Three gives us the average number of birds in each area, but if you can only count once or twice, that’s still better than none. Please report whatever you have, wherever you did it. All data is useful.

It’s also OK if more than one person counts the same area, or if your area is not listed in my sign-up locations. The possible sites at are my attempt to spread us out a bit, but they’re not written in stone. Let me know …

By |2022-01-09T06:22:55-10:00January 9, 2022|Recent News|0 Comments

Kolea Count starts today

Puuiki Cemetery, Waialua, September 11, 2021. ©Susan Scott

November 29, 2021

Although today, December 1st, is the official start of the Hawaii Audubon Society’s Kolea Count, plover lovers have already been giving our marvelous shorebirds the attention they deserve. In the 2021 ARRIVAL report, we had 492 entries noting the arrival of 1,180 birds.

In July, Kolea watchers recorded 120 plovers. A few were on Kauai and Hawaii Island, but most reports were on Oahu, with the Waipio Peninsula Soccer Park being a hot spot. The plover-reporter wrote, “I have been checking the Waipio Soccer Fields and watching the numbers go up from 7 to 12 in mid-July (not sure if they were early returnees or birds that didn’t make the commute) and today, July 31, I counted 65 to 70.”

(That observer is not interested in doing a winter count so the park is still available.)

Professional naturalist, Lance Tanino, reported the first Kolea return of the season on July 14th at Kalaoa (west Hawaii Island, north of Kailua-Kona.) Lance reported that the bird was in partial breeding plumage. Nesting Kolea begin to molt their breeding-colored feathers while sitting on their eggs in Alaska.

Plover expert, Wally Johnson, says that early returns usually mean one of two things. Either the parent had a super-successful nesting season, raising chicks that matured early, or the parent had an unsuccessful season, and didn’t raise chicks at all.

Nest failures can be due to predation, bad weather, or accidents. Arctic fox, jaegers, and ravens routinely prey on eggs and chicks. Storms sometimes overwhelm parents and offspring, and occasionally eggs and chicks get trampled when herds of caribou migrate across the tundra.

This Jaeger (pronounced YAY-gur, German for hunt) is a fast-flying gull relative that, like Kolea, nests on the ground in the Arctic tundra. Jaegers are predators that eat other birds and their eggs. This post on the tundra outside Nome was a good perch for scouting prey. ©Susan Scott

On October 2nd, Craig and I counted 15 Kolea standing together, all facing the same way and looking a bit stunned. I wondered if these were newly arrived youngsters that hatched last summer, but no. Wally said that my photo showed partial breeding colors, meaning they were all adults, likely startled off the Dillingham Airport runway by sky-dive planes.

Although usually spread out on the sides of the Dillingham Airfield, these Kolea gathered on on the roadside during sky-diving activities. ©Susan Scott

Lesson learned: If your newly arrived plover shows patches or patterns of their bright spring feathers, they are adults rather than summer offspring.

Speaking of Wally, local plover enthusiast Roger Kobayashi named his yard’s bird Wally after Wally Johnson, who emailed that he is honored. When Roger puts out scrambled egg snacks for Wally, the bird appears out of nowhere. Roger wondered if Kolea have an acute sense of smell.

We don’t know. Wally Johnson writes …

By |2021-12-02T05:52:10-10:00December 1, 2021|Recent News|0 Comments

Plovers bring us together: Autumn update

Wally the Kolea, October 27, 2021. ©Photo courtesy Roger Kobayashi,

November 2, 2021

Last week, I received an email from a long-ago friend of plover expert, Wally Johnson, who found him through the Kolea Count website where Wally and I are pictured together. I forwarded the message to Wally and a thread followed, containing news of former students, colleagues and friends.

Wally wrote a note of thanks for the communication, ending with the statement, “Plovers bring people together.”

They do, sometimes in surprising ways.

During my morning walk with Craig and our little dog, Pixel, I keep an eye out for four Kolea that have each returned to their specific areas for several years. Because these birds feel like old friends, I’ve named them according to their locations:

  • Cookie (near three towering Cook pine trees.)
  • Bilbo (behind a charming little hobbit-type house)
  • Bougie (in front of an enormous red bougainvillea bush)
  • Ms. Ed (a pasture bird I called Mr. Ed until she showed her colors last April.)

Ms. Ed. ©Susan Scott

I’d been worried about one of the birds because I hadn’t seen him during my last few passes. Saturday, he appeared. “Craig, look,” I said, pointing.

At that, a visitor sitting in a nearby rental car called out, “That’s a Kalola,”

“What?” I said.

“That bird,” the man said, smiling, and also pointing. “It’s a Pacific ploover.”

The man may not have had the names down pat, but sharing his knowledge of Hawaii’s special birds left the three of us smiling.

“Thank you,” I said.

The visitor drove off before I could tell him that the bird’s other name was Bilbo.

Bilbo taking a shower. ©Susan Scott

Kolea fans feel like friends too even though we haven’t yet met. In July, retired Department of Defense accountant, Roger Kobayashi, volunteered to do weekly counts at all three fields at Ala Pu’umalu Park. (We ask for three counts per site, but more data is always good.) When Roger learned I was looking for a counter on Ford Island, he stepped up for that too.

Roger Kobayashi sent a Google map of Ford Island, marking  X, Y, and Z as to his first Kolea sightings, August 1, 2021.

Since then, besides sending a wealth of information about the many plovers he’s watching, Roger now has a resident Kolea who comes close when Roger offers it bits of scrambled egg. He named the bird Wally, giving me (and I’m sure Wally Johnson when he reads this) another smile.

Wally, the bird, enjoying a scrambled egg offering. Please feed your bird only healthy food, such as scrambled egg or mealworms. ©Roger Kobayashi

Years ago, I gave a Kolea talk for a senior citizen club, and during the subsequent question-and-answer period, a woman raised her hand, and asked, “But what good are they?”

I repeated the usual phrases about appreciating …

By |2021-11-18T09:36:21-10:00November 2, 2021|Recent News|0 Comments
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