"We never miss the music until the sweet voiced bird has flown away."

-O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)

The Hawaii Nature Center

Kolea is the Hawaiian name for the Pacific Golden Plover.


Kolea Biology

Kolea are also called Pacific Golden Plover, Pluvialis fulva. They are shorebirds, and like most of their cousins are champion fliers. Kolea can fly for long periods at 50-60 miles per hour. From Hawai'i to nesting grounds in Alaska is a non-stop 3,000 mile flight.

Most shorebirds in live -- yup, along the shore. But Kolea are different. In Hawai'i, they like front lawns, parks, ball fields, sometimes even in parking lots. They are also found in more wild places like beaches, marshes, and in low vegetation high on mountains. Kolea do not like places with plants higher than their eyes -- too easy to hide a predator!

Many Kolea in Hawai'i are territorial when foraging (looking for food) -- they defend a patch of ground from all other Kolea. Some birds, however, wander in small groups while foraging. These may be younger birds that have not been able to establish territories, or they may be a genetically distinct population that follows a different strategy for finding food. If you see two or three Kolea near each other on the ground, they are probably 'defending' their territories -- making sure nobody crosses the line. Watch and see if they do parallel walking or head bobbing displays or even start fighting. If you see a half dozen or more, they are probably a non-territorial flock.

When not foraging, Kolea in Hawai'i often roost on rooftops. This is the most common place to see them during the night, though in days before houses they probably roosted on large rocks and other places that give them a good view of any approaching danger. They are so alert that cats and dogs probably almost never catch them, but owls might have better luck.

Kolea nest on the tundra of Alaska and Siberia during the summer. They spend the rest of the year far to the south: in Hawai’i, on islands throughout the Pacific from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to Aotearoa (New Zealand),and in Australia, southern Asia, India, and a few even as far west as Africa. Kolea probably do not float rest at sea, so they have to fly 3,000 miles non-stop from Hawai’i to Alaska! The trip may take them 2 days -- thought the fastest documented trip took 70 hours from the time the bird disappeared from its territory on O'ahu until a US Fish and Wildlife plane in Alaska picked up a signal from the bird's radio transmitter. Kolea counts and especially Staging Search may help get better estimates of how long the trip takes.

To get ready for the flight, Kolea put on a lot of weight. A bird might weigh 110 grams in March and grow to 180 grams by late April. They also start changing color in February, growing black feathers underneath and speckled golden ones on top -- their 'breeding plumage.' In April, you can tell male birds by their all-black bellies; females are at most partly black underneath. Even their muscles sense the changing season and grow to prepare for the effort.

On their tundra nesting grounds, Kolea have large territories. Males go to the same territory each year. About half of females go to the same territory, and about half choose a new territory. They build a small nest on the ground out of lichen and other plants. The nest is very hard to see, as are the four speckled eggs.

Soon after hatching, Kolea young can walk and forage (look for food). The parents never feed the youngsters, though the young do watch their parents eat! The parents also guard the fledgelings and give alarm calls when they see predators. So far north in the summer, there is sunlight 24 hours per day. The young birds can forage all day and all "night" on the rich tundra and grow very fast.

In late summer, the adults leave the tundra and head south. The young birds leave weeks later -- they seem to have no guidance at all from experienced birds when they make their first cross-ocean journey! How do they find land, and how do they decide where to go? Your data can help answer these questions!

Research by Phil and Andrea Bruner and Wally and Patricia Johnson for over 20 years has taught us much about these birds. For example, a territorial Kolea will return to its territory every year until it dies. Kolea can live over 20 years, so, the bird in your backyard is probably the same one as last year. Male Kolea return to the same nesting territory each year, and about half of females return to the same nesting territory and mate, and half show up at some other territory.

A lot is known about the Kolea, but there is so much we don't know. Your participation in Kolea Watch will help answer some very interesting questions.

For a wealth of scientific information on Kolea, look in the library for:

Johnson, O. W., and P. G. Connors. 1996. American Golden-Plover (Pluvialis dominica), Pacific Golden-Plover (Pluvialis fulva). In The Birds of North America, No. 201-202 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and the American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.


There are also some excellent story books about Kolea with lots of good information and beautiful illustrations:

Flight of the Golden Plover: The Amazing Migration Between Hawaii and Alaska by Debbie S. Miller, Illustrations by Daniel Van Zyle. Alaska Northwest Books 1996.


Kolea: The Story of the Pacific Golden Plover by Marion Coste, Illustrated by Fred E. Salmon, Jr. University of Hawaii Press 1998.

The Kolea In Culture
The Kolea is an important bird in Hawaiian chants, mele, 'olelo, and hula. Many of you may know this hula, which Moanalei Love taught us at the first Kolea Workshop:
Kahuli Aku - Traditional
Kahuli aku
Kahuli mai
Kahuli lei ula
Lei akolea
Kolea, kolea
Ki`i ka wai
Wai akolea
Wai akolea
Turn little shell
Turn this way little shell
The tree shell is a red ornament in
The lei of the akolea fern
Little bird, little bird
Go down to the stream
Sip the sweet nectar
From the akolea fern

Source: This old chant was set to music by Winona Beamer. The kahuli (tree snails) or pupu kanioe (land shells) are the singing snails of legend. The shells chirp in the evening and ask the birds to bring them a drink of water. The kolea is the Pacific Golden Plover (pluvialis dominca) that migrates to Hawaii in late August, stays until April, then returns home to Alaska and Siberia. The endemic snails, once numbering 35-40 different species, with their colorful patterns & designs were once abundant on all islands, but are rapidly declining and are now found only in mountain forests. The ground dwelling snail (amastridae) number only about 12 species as compared to the 300 species, a century ago. The pupumoeone, found only on Niihau and Kauai live underground in sand dunes far removed from the ocean. From the website: http://www.huapala.org/Kahuli_Aku.html

      John Cummings opened the first Kolea Workshop with a chant. He also found for us a wealth of cultural references to the Kolea, for example, the following 'olelo and hula:
'Olelo No'eau:
Ai keke na hulu o ka umauma
ho'i ke kolea i Kahiki e hanau ai
When the feathers darken on the breasts,
the kolea returns to Kahiki to breed
'Ai no ke kolea a momona ho'i i Kahiki! The kolea eats until he is fat, then returns to the land from which he came!
I ho'okauhua i ke kolea,
no Kahiki ana ke keiki
When there is a desire for plovers,
the child to be born will travel to Kahiki
Kolea no ke kolea i knoa inoa iho The plover can only cry its own name
O ka hua o ke kolea aia i Kahiki The egg of the kolea is laid in a foreign land

-from Mary Kawena Pukui, '0lelo No'eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings, Bishop Museum Press 1983

The Hula Kolea
Kolea kai piha!
I aha mai nei?
Kunou mai nei.
E aha kakou?
E ai kakou.
Nohea ka ai?
No Kahiki mai.
Hiki mai ka lani.
Olina Hawaii,
Mala'eal'e ke ala,
Nou e ka lani.
Puili pu ke aloha.
Pili me ka'u manu.
Ka puana a ka moe?
Moe oe a ho'olana.
Ka hal'a a hiki mai;
O'oe pu me a'u
Noho pu i ka wai aliali
Ha'ina ia ka puana
O ka hua o ke kolea, aia i Kahiki.
Hiki mai lou aloha. Ma'ele au.
A plover eating at the edge of the sea!
What is it saying to me?
It keeps bobbing its head.
To do what would you counsel?
Why, eat its plump body!
Whence comes this sweet morsel?
From the land of Kahiki.
When our sovereign appears,
Hawai'i gathers for play.
Stumble blocks cleared from the way,
Fit rule of the kings highway.
Let each one embrace then his love;
For me, I'll keep to my dove.
Hark now, the signal for bed!
Atentive then to loves tread,
While a wee bird sings I the soul.
My love comes heat-whole.
Then quaff the waters of bilss.
Say, what is the key to all this?
The plover eggs laid in Kahiki.
Your love. When it comes, finds me dumb.

-Unwritten Literature of Hawai'i The Sacred Songs of the Hula, Nathaniel B. Emerson

      John told us, "the hula kolea was in a class of hula named after animals, in each one the performer would mimic the movements of or characteristics of the animal. Dancers seated in a kneeling position performed the hula kolea. Their gestures and movements would imitate the movements of the kolea itself. There was no musical instrument accompaniment for this hula."

      Think about the range of biological knowledge expressed or hinted at in these hula and 'olelo, as well as the range of emotion and subtle plays on words (look again -- there are many meanings here!). Were people who might insult a vain person by saying "The kolea can only cry its own name" keen observers of nature? Sayings link the fattening and darkening of the birds to their impending migration. Did the entire population of ancient Hawai'i observe the departure of the birds, kind of like we are doing in Kolea Watch?

      We would love to post more stories, sayings, and knowledge about this bird in the culture of Hawai'i or other places. Send it to us if you like! Have you ever heard someone called a "Kolea"? What did they mean by it?

Hawaiian Language notes:

      Kolea is a Hawaiian word based on the flight call of the bird. To be spelled correctly, it must have a line over the "o" called a kahako (or a macron). Most fonts cannot display this symbol correctly, so it is left out here. Some people underline vowels to show the presence of a kahako, as in Kolea.

      You may notice single quotation marks used as 'okina. 'Okina are pronounced as a glottal stop (like the pause in "Oh-oh!"). The 'okina takes the place of what used to be a "k" in the history of the Hawaiian language. Like kahako, 'Okina are necessary for correct Hawaiian spelling, but you don't always see them used. The names of all the main Hawaiian islands except Maui have 'okina: Kaua'i, O'ahu, Moloka'i, Maui, Lana'i, Kaho'olawe, and Hawai'i.

About Kolea Watch
Kolea Watch is a cooperative project of: The Hawai'i Nature Center
US Fish and Wildlife Shorebird Sister Schools Program
Hawai'i Audubon Society
and Kolea lovers everywhere

Kolea Watch began as an effort to bring field science to K-12 students around Hawai'i. Kolea Watch activities include taking data on the spring Kolea migration, school visits, teacher workshops, and Staging Search. You can count Kolea to time their spring migration, join in tracking the birds by radio telemetry, and study Kolea and other native shorebirds with your school class. With your help, we can learn more about the life of the fascinating Kolea.

You can decide for yourself a lot of the "How To" questions -- think about what you want to know. Talk it over with your class. Ask yourself "What If" questions -- like "What if the birds are gone for three days and then come back?"


Participating is easy. Simply count Kolea in the same place and time each day when the birds are getting ready to leave. The data is simple to collect, but the results can tell us a great deal about this bird! The study is open to everyone. By entering your data into the database, you can share your observations with everyone who shares an interest in Kolea. In the same manner, everyone's data is available for you to look over, analyze, muse over and try to develop your very own hypotheses and conclusions.

Please look at the "Counting Kolea" before starting -- it has important information for the well-being of the birds.

Counting Kolea
Taking data on Kolea Migration
      Most Kolea are territorial in Hawai'i -- each bird has a certain place it calls its own, and it keeps all other Kolea out. This makes them easy to count. Find a place with at least one kolea, and pick a time that is easy for you to go out and count them. Then write down how many you see each day.

      It is very important to write down a 0 when you see zero birds. If you skip a day, do not write zero -- just put a dash or other symbol to show you didn't look that day. In the online database, don't enter any data for days you skip.

      Don't worry if you miss a day -- but try to check every day around April 25th! No need to watch the birds for long, just get a count.

When should we start counting Kolea?
      I suggest two weeks before you think they will leave.

      Why? Let's say you don't see any on April 24. Are they really gone? During the two weeks before the 24th, what if you only saw them there only half of the time -- or what if you saw them every day? Which situation gives you more confidence that they are really gone? Use the pre-departure to help you interpret your data.

      So, when will they leave? Probably the end of April on the main islands of Hawai'i.

      You are welcome to input data for any time of the year!

How do we know when to stop counting?
      Zeros are data too! Stop when you see zero birds for some days. How many?

      Decide for yourself when you are confident they are gone. What if you see zero birds for 3 days starting April 26th? What if you see zero birds for 8 days starting on April 1? Use your best judgment, but definitely keep going for more than a single zero-bird day.

Other observations
      If you can watch the birds for more than a moment to count them, you will see lots of interesting behavior. How many times per minute do they peck? Do they peck less or more when other birds are around? Do they peck more in April when they are fattening up for migration? Can you see any kind of aggression? Watch long enough in places with more than one bird, and you may see a fight.

Bird safety
      Kolea are tolerant of people, but they do get disturbed if they feel someone is close to them and watching them. Try to avoid scaring birds off their territories. If you only check once per day, it will not hurt them if they sometimes get startled -- they will come right back soon after.

      If you are watching them for long periods of time, make sure that you do not keep startling the same bird repeatedly. If that seems to be happening, move off or pick another bird to watch. Do not to disturb any one bird more than twice in a day -- after two times, leave the bird alone for the rest of the day. This is an important part of the study plan, and federal regulations require that we follow this plan.

      If you find an injured Kolea, contact the Hawaii Audubon Society at hiaudsoc@pixi.com or call Sea Life Park.

      The most important thing you can do for Kolea is to use less pesticide, which is not good for them (or for children or other living things). They eat thousands of bugs a week -- they can be your pesticide! Punchbowl National Cemetery of the Pacific recently got a national efficiency award for the money they saved by reducing pesticide use -- thanks to all the years of research by Wally and Patricia Johnson and Phil and Andrea Bruner!
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