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 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.
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 crackerjack fliers and experts at avoiding capture.
Ornithologists catch birds for study by stringing up gentle traps called mist nets, similar to badminton nets except longer, and so fine they’re hard to see. But the wily Kolea can see them even in dawn’s early light. Mist nets, therefore, must be assembled in the dark. The team’s headlamp work begins at Punchbowl at 4:30 AM.
After dawn, comes the careful untangling of netted Kolea (1-to-4 each time), as well as mynahs and bulbuls that had the bad luck to fly into the nets. Packing up poles, nets and decoys, and then applying bands and devices to the plovers takes workers into daylight hours.
Unlike Kolea, mynah birds (left) and bulbuls struggle in the nets, getting their feet and wings more tangled than Kolea.
Those of us who have helped Wally agree that this is well worth getting up at 3:30 AM. The work of catching, banding, and placing satellite tags on Kolea is a grand life experience, especially with Wally who is kind, generous, and always the patient teacher. As for expertise, Wally is the man for the job. When a security guard asked how long he’s been doing this, Wally replied, “Five decades.”
Wally says that holding a plover always makes people smile. The photos of volunteers here prove his point:
Because of Covid concerns, Wally is not giving a slide-show this spring. He’ll be back in October, though, to monitor the three study groups, and to remove the birds’ backpacks. The Hawaii Audubon Society will arrange one of Wally’s popular talks. Check out www.hiaudubon.org What We Do/Events for time and date, as well as for tours and other doings.
I know all plover lovers join me in thanking Wally for his continued efforts to help our Kolea thrive by learning more about them. Wally is science advisor for this Kolea Count, the first of its kind in Hawaii. All observations help us understand more about these marvelous native birds.
Our Big Count and Little Count ends March 31st, but data collecting is year-round. Kolea watchers, please record when your birds leave (or the last day you saw yours). Also, report birds that do not migrate (June only so as not to count later leavers or early returnees.)
In mid-to-late July, we’ll be celebrating Hawai’i’s first returnees, which marks the start of the 2022-2023 Kolea Count. Come October, we’ll also be celebrating the return of our special migratory researcher, Wally Johnson.
Read more about Kolea and other Hawaii Audubon Society projects at https://www.susanscott.net/kolea-white-terns-and-wedgies/
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