The arctic avian: Hawaii’s snowbirds
Arctic residents vacationing in Hawaii during the winter may recognize a familiar face – errr fowl. The kolea, known to the rest of the world as the Pacific golden plover, migrates to Hawaii and other warmer places in the Pacific during the winter to escape the harsh arctic cold. These expert long distance fliers have a long history with the Hawaiian culture and are even considered by some to be the incarnation of a Hawaiian god.
There is fossil evidence showing that the kolea have been flying between the Arctic and Hawaii for at least 120,000 years. Some believe that certain islands in the Pacific, including Hawai‘i, were discovered by Polynesians following the trail of the migrating kolea. The kolea are revered in Hawaiian culture as messengers to the alii (chiefs). They are believed to be the incarnation of Koleamoku, the god of the art of healing –for which they are named.
If you visit Kailua-Kona on the Big Island you may find a statue of Koleamoku with the kolea bird perched on his head. The kolea are also considered aumakua, or protector spirits, and are honored in many traditional Hawaiian stories, songs, chants, and hula.
Summers in the Arctic
While in Alaska and Siberia, kolea spend most of their time defending their territory on the tundra and breeding. The males return to the same spot every summer and usually arrive just before the tundra thaws completely to defend their territory but the females don’t always return to the same breeding ground.
The kolea construct their nests on the ground out of gravel, lichen, moss, and grass and work together to incubate their eggs. After about three to four weeks the eggs hatch and the parents watch and tend to the chicks, protecting them from foxes and other predators. The chicks learn to forage for their own food and are quickly able to walk. Most of their time is spent eating and growing in preparation for the journey south for the winter.
The Long Journey
As winter approaches, the adults leave before the chicks. The young kolea must continue foraging for food and navigate their way south on their own. These strong fliers complete the 3,000-mile, two day journey from their nesting grounds to Hawaii without rest (doesn’t that six hour plane ride from the West coast to Hawaii seem like nothing now?).
The kolea can fly at speeds of up to 50-60 mph. The fastest flight time recorded for the long trip between Hawaii and Alaska was 70 hours. However, it is believed that their cruising speed is 50 mph and at an altitude of up to 20,000 feet (despite their inability to soar or glide).
Although classified as shorebirds, the kolea have no protective waterproofing on their feathers and thus cannot float in the ocean to rest. Their journey is one of the most grueling non-stop migrations for any bird and their ability to navigate is still a mystery to biologists, since the kolea always manage to return to the same place each year. In fact, many locals enjoy the presence of the same kolea in their yards and on their roofs year after year.
Life in Hawaii
While the kolea don’t exactly fly to Hawaii for a vacation, like other visitors from around the world, they are still able to enjoy the warmer climate and abundance of food. They begin appearing in Hawaii in August and most leave by late April with just a few remaining in Hawaii for the entire summer.
While in Hawaii, the kolea spend most of their time eating to refuel after the long flight and to fatten up for their return journey. Their feathers also change color before they leave for the Arctic arriving with brown feathers and leaving with black feathers on their breast bordered by white feathers.
These stately birds definitely don’t resemble the other common birds you see in Hawaii. While they seem to have adapted well to the island’s development, preferring the flat open spaces of gardens, parks, ball fields, and golf courses, they are still shy around humans and do not approach them for food.
The kolea hold a special place in Hawaii culture and the hearts of locals, so if you see one while you’re visiting consider it an honor. And if you’re already dreading the return of cold weather, remember to think like the kolea and plan ahead for your journey to Hawaii this coming winter.