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High-flying parents abandon babies for Hawaii

Wally Johnson, plover researcher
What kind of parents have a baby in Alaska, take care of it for a month and then bolt for Hawaii?

Don't they realize their newborn will band together with other youngsters and try to follow them even though the chances of a family reunion are laughable?

That Disney-like scenario is real life for the Pacific Golden-Plover, according to Wally Johnson, adjunct professor in ecology at Montana State University-Bozeman. The bird known as one of the longest non-stop migrants in the world probably makes the 3,000 mile trip from Alaska to Hawaii in 50 hours. It breeds on the Alaska tundra, then abandons its chicks for the golf courses and lawns of Hawaii.

"The parents are very devoted while the chicks are growing up, but after that ... 'you are on your own, buddy,'" said Johnson, a researcher who migrates as often as his subjects.

Johnson has been following the Pacific Golden-Plover ever since noticing them in the Marshall Islands while researching the kidney function of birds that live around salt water. A retired biology professor from Minnesota, Johnson said the adult male plovers arrive in western Alaska and begins display flights to attract females. When the females pull in a couple of days later, they mate with the first male that impresses them with his lichen-lined nest, slow-beating wings and gaudy feathers. Then the female lays four eggs.

The eggs hatch after about 26 days. Since the babies can find their own food within a day and fly when they're about 30 days old, the parents leave them in early August to return to Hawaii.

"Meanwhile, the young birds ... are fattening up in preparation for their first migration which is without mom and dad," Johnson said. "Their first big migration south is in September or early October, about one month after the adults leave."

The plovers or "Kolea" in Hawaiian stay in Hawaii until late April or early May when they return to Alaska to find new mates, Johnson said. As a result, he conducts his research in both states, specifically around Nome, Alaska and on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Johnson and his crews band the birds in Hawaii and attach tiny radio transmitters with the goal of learning where these birds nest in Alaska.

The transmitters fall off in Alaska and cause the birds no harm, noted Johnson who's interested in a variety of questions, including the plovers' ability to return to the same location every year.

Plover lover Susan Scott says, "Probably our most favorite plover trait is their habit of coming back to the same spot year after year. This allows us to get to know our birds individually, and they feel like pets." Scott writes the "Ocean Watch" column for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and uses Johnson as a resource.

Johnson is also curious about the plovers' stopover points. And how many of the young birds even make it to Hawaii?

"A lot of them probably hit the Hawaiian archipelago, but a lot of them probably miss," Johnson said. "I would think there's a lot of mortality on the first flight because they simply don't find anywhere to go. If they do find a place to go, you have to remember that the adults have already arrived in Hawaii, and adults in winter are very territorial."

Jay Rotella, head of MSU's ecology department, said Johnson's research is unique because he has studied the same individual birds for years, both on their wintering grounds and breeding grounds. That long-term study has resulted in meaningful findings about the plovers' life histories and survival strategies, Rotella added.

Johnson's wife, Patricia, also works on the plover research. She is an MSU ecologist. The National Geographic Society has funded much of Johnson's work, and television programs about it have aired on the Discovery Channel and "All Birds TV."

Posted by Evelyn Boswell for 9/9/02

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