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.