All About the Kōlea – Hawaiʻi’s Resident Winter Bird

The kōlea’s presence in Hawaiʻi has sacred roots and their annual migratory journey is a modern wonder. Read why this bird is not your average plover!

Kolea Bird Walking Tour Hawaii Walks
Photo: JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/)

“Is that a sandpiper in the grass?” guests often ask during our Waikīkī Nature Walk as they point to the long-legged Pacific Golden Plover (called the Kōlea in Hawaiian), picking at bugs in Kapi’olani Park. With most tours counting upwards of a dozen of these birds on any given day from October – April, they certainly pique the curiosity of visitors and locals alike with their elegant walk and distinctive calls. These birds look similar to sandpipers, with long legs and pointy beaks. But what makes them different? What makes the Kōlea such a treasured part of the Hawaiian landscape?

Plovers and sandpipers belong to different families. Sandpipers are part of the Scolopacidae family, which refers to a group of shore-birds. Plovers belong to the Charadriidae family, which includes birds like the Kōlea, that are larger and don’t feed exclusively on shore lines. Amazingly, these families of birds are thought to have been around up to 33 million years ago! Even though they are cute, scientists often refer to birds as modern dinosaurs, and seeing as how long they’ve been around, it’s no wonder why.

Image by Vinson Tan ( 楊 祖 武 ) from Pixabay

Amazing Navigators

The Kōlea is a migratory bird that breeds in Alaska and Siberia during the summer months, and then flies over 4,000 miles to Hawaiʻi every year to fatten up in the warm tropical weather on a buffet of bugs, berries, and seeds. Amazingly, these birds return from their Northern climates down to the same patch of land on the islands year after year. Many Hawaiʻi residents will say they have their “own” Kōlea, even going so far as to give them names. In fact, many families in Hawaiʻi consider the Kōlea their ʻaumākua, which is a spirit of protection that takes the form of a particular animal.

Fiercely territorial, the Kōlea will fight off any other Kōlea that may try to conquer their grassy knoll. The distance they have traveled to return to the same location every year is no small feat, which explains why the birds are willing to take on any rival Kōlea that ventures into their territory. And while older birds know the path to get to Hawaiʻi, newly hatched offspring do not. After baby birds are old enough to fly, the adults take off for Hawaiʻi. Meanwhile, the young are left behind for several more weeks. Amazingly, the young birds find their way to Hawaiʻi on their own without any guidance.

HD quality shot of the Pacific Golden Plover by Youtube user: JH1RNZ

Kōleamoku – The God of Healing

The Kōlea is named after Kōleamoku, the God of Healing in Hawaiian religion. It is thought that the Kōlea bird is an incarnation of Kōleamoku, and would fly to bring messages to the Aliʻi (Hawaiian leaders) from the Heavens. Since they departed for much of the year, it is easy to see how it would make sense that these birds were thought to be leaving to communicate with spirits in far off places.

Spotting the Kōlea

The best place to look for Kōlea are on flat stretches of grass. They have long legs and move in quick successions of small steps. Their call is a shrill and loud, and you’ll only hear it when you’ve gotten too close. Before the birds depart in April, the males grow a distinctive black plumage known as their “breeding tuxedo.” This is how locals know it’s almost time for the birds to head back to their Northern habitats.

A male Kōlea in its recently changed breeding plumage. Photo: snowmanradio

If you don’t see any around grassy spots in Waikīkī, you can always go visit the Kōlea at the Honolulu Zoo.

Enjoy your warm winter stay, Kōlea!

Book at tour today at hawaiiwalks.org to meet this bird in person from October – April!

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