This Bird Flies 3,000 Miles Non-Stop To Kapolei

E komo mai to our friends from Alaska!

Humpback whale season is in full swing, with about 12,000 koholā expected to arrive through March to mate, give birth, and raise their calves in our calm, warm waters before their journey back in the spring. While they’re here, keep your gaze makai to make sure you don’t miss out on dazzling shows like this one, captured just off the coast of Ko Olina:

Koholā spend most of the year feeding in the cool waters near Alaska. Around November, once they’ve thickened up, they begin the nearly 3,000 mile journey to Hawaiʻi, swimming “three to seven miles per hour with very few stops” for up to eight weeks. That’s two months of continuous swimming!

Just reading about their arduous journey makes me tired, but curious: Do other animals winter in Hawaiʻi?

My research turned up a few birds, one of which I’m sure you’ve heard of and have probably seen in the open grassy fields of Kapolei Regional Park or The Lawn at Kapolei Commons: The Pacific Golden Plover, better known here as the kōlea.

Kōlea in Hawaiʻi. Photo by Alan Schmierer via Flickr / Creative Commons

If you thought the humpback’s journey was difficult, consider this: The kōlea completes the same 2,500+ miles completely in the air, without landing, while flapping its wings roughly twice per second the entire time because it is not capable of soaring or gliding. At least they travel a lot faster than the whales—around 40 mph. So their trip takes about three days.

Calling the kōlea a visitor from Alaska might be a little unfair. It spends more time here than it does there. Arriving in August or September, the kōlea do little more than establish territory—then eat and eat and eat until they fly back in April or May.

By the end of their stay, they’ve nearly doubled in weight and have moulted from their basic mottled winter browns to their brilliantly golden and jet black “nuptial plumage.” They get all dolled up, then go for a brisk three-day flight back to Alaska where it’s time to settle in to new digs, party in their fancy garb, and make babies. Then they journey back to Hawaiʻi to fatten up and repeat the process.

pacific-golden-plover nuptual plumage

Kōlea in golden and jet black “nuptial plumage”. Photographed at Ala Moana Park by Daniel Ramirez via Flickr / Creative Commons

This beautiful and dramatic cycle is captured in a few ʻōlelo noʻeau (wise sayings), perhaps a bit uncharitably. For example:

“Aia kēkē na hulu o ka umauma hoʻi ke kōlea i Kahiki e hānau ai.”

Translation: “When the feathers on the breast darken [because of fatness] the plover goes back to Kahiki to breed.”

Kaona (hidden meaning): “A person comes here, grows prosperous, and goes away without a thought to the source of his prosperity.”

A handful of ʻōlelo noʻeau characterize the kōlea similarly: As a visitor who comes here, uses the land and resources, and then goes elsewhere to enjoy the wealth.

I like to think of them a little differently. No one knows exactly when the first kōlea flew to Hawaiʻi, or how it managed the difficult journey. But there had to have been one courageous kōlea who decided that Hawaiʻi was so amazing that it had to come back again the next year.

And now, thousands of years after that first flight, we still don’t know how they know where to go. But we do know they fly with purpose and return to the same site every year. I’m not a scientist, but I think Hawaiʻi nei is in their DNA.

So welcome home, kōlea!

Further Reading

Kōlea, a.k.a. Pacific Golden Plover

Flight of the Navigators, Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines

Migration of the Pacific Plover to and from the Hawaiian Islands, The Auk, Ornithological Advances, published 1910!

Plovers tracked across the Pacific, PlanetEarth Online

Koholā, a.k.a. Humpback Whale

As many as 12,000 humpback whales estimated to migrate to Hawaii this season, Hawaii News Now

Photo illustration by Lindsey Gerber / Howzit Kapolei, using photos by Thomas James Caldwell and Daniel Ramirez via Flickr / Creative Commons