Kolea expert spends two weeks at BYU-Hawaii

[Story by Mike Foley: Originally published in the online BYU-Hawaii Newsroom, January 21, 2008]

Dr. Wally JohnsonOne of the foremost international experts on Pluvialis fulva — the Pacific Golden-Plover — has spent the past two weeks at BYU-Hawaii helping faculty and students, as well as state and federal researchers, net and band specimens of the unique long-distance migratory shorebird known as kolea in Hawaiian.

“We are trying to band a number of birds on campus…to give experience and insight to some of the students who have come out. They’ve enjoyed seeing the techniques of actually capturing some of these birds and learning more about them,” said Dr. Oscar “Wally” Johnson [pictured at left], a retired professor of biology and ecology at Montana State University in Bozeman who is still active in research.

“In the dark, early morning out in the big fields in front of the campus we put up very fine-gauge ‘mist nets,’ which are called that because they resemble a misty, smoky look when you view them. In fact, when you’re walking straight at them in the morning, a human really can’t see them. Each net is seven feet high and 60 feet long, and we usually put out six nets at a time. We also use decoys, little artificial plovers, to try to attract the birds to the vicinity of the nets. After a certain time, they see the nets.”

Johnson pointed out this bird netting procedure is widely used. “Usually they’re up on rooftops during the night. They’re not down where we are until it just starts to begin to get a little light — a half-hour before sunrise. Birds hit the net in flight, or sometimes even walk into it, and the net has a lot of ‘give’ to it. It’s a very soft landing.” He also stressed the procedure does not hurt the kolea. “In fact once netted, the birds actually become amazingly docile” [pictured below at right].

Netting ploverThe research team then brings the captured birds into the lab, puts bands on their legs, records the data, and releases them. “Each bird is color-banded uniquely, so we can recognize the bird as long as it’s here on campus. This gives the opportunity for some student projects in site fidelity. We know these birds come back every year to the same wintering ground.” He added they’re also looking at longevity. “We may have banded a bird or two already that will be here over the next 10 years.”

Dr. Roger Goodwill, chairman of the BYU-Hawaii Biology Department, pointed out that Johnson has a U.S. government bird banding permit to net and handle the birds, “which are protected by national and international law.” He added research projects such as this one also require both federal and state approval. “We can’t do the work here without Dr. Johnson. He’s the key to this whole thing for us.”

Goodwill also noted that 13 BYUH students have been participating in the kolea studies over the past two years. He, Johnson, four BYUH students, as well as other researchers, plan to spend another month of field work in Nome, Alaska, starting June 14; “and next year I’m trying to convince Wally [Johnson] that we should go to the island of Pohnpei. Assuming that we do, we also have a Pohnpeian biology student.”

He explained the state and federal representatives participating in this current fieldwork on campus “are interested in the possibility that the birds are bringing in avian flu.” Johnson added that thus far the government researchers have found “nothing” in the 20,000-30,000 birds they’ve sampled between Hawaii and Alaska. “[Avian flu] is normally associated with chickens, ducks and crowded poultry situations.”

Johnson also said another major aspect of his visit to BYU-Hawaii was to work with Dr. Shane Gold, “a very, very outstanding genetics person” who is going to work on an upcoming study in Alaska that involves DNA research.

“We’re trying to get some basic information on the genetics of this bird, which has never been done; and also we’re looking at the possibility of what we call extra-pair paternity, where mom and dad with typically four chicks may have one or more chicks that really don’t belong to that father. That means the female may have mated with more than one male. No one knows anything about this…with this particular bird. It’s all new stuff, and Shane is going to be involved.”

“The whole thing started when I was on [a teaching] sabbatical at UH in 1979-80, I decided I was going to do research on plovers,” Johnson recalled, pointing out that only one student registered for his seminar — BYU-Hawaii biology professor Philip Bruner. “We decided to start doing field work together on plovers. That was the beginning.”

“Over the years we’ve had wonderful results,” he continued. “We’ve put little radios on many of the birds here in Hawaii, and then monitored for their signals in Alaska. About 26% of the birds we’ve put radios on here we have found in Alaska, which is incredible really, when you consider the geography.” He explained the kolea fly non-stop, direct from Hawaii to Alaska in an estimated 50 hours.

“We’ve also had some wonderful site fidelity results: We know that the birds come back right to the same place every year,” Johnson continued, adding the average kolea lifespan is about six years with some individuals living longer — including one documented at 21 years. “There’s very little mortality for them in Hawaii: They’re too wary for cats. Mongooses don’t bother them. Probably the only thing in Hawaii that gets some is owls at night.”

Johnson said plovers that return to Alaska are also found in Samoa, and some fly as far south as Tasmania. “When you consider the distances and the geography of all this, with the trans-Pacific aspect of no landmarks for much of the flight…it is really an amazing feat.” He added no one really understands how the kolea do this — whether it’s star patterns, the position of the sun, or magnetic sense — and even pointed out at the end of summer in Alaska the adults leave before the fledgling birds.

“It’s an extremely well adapted, living organism,” Johnson said, “It’s among that elite group of birds that has somehow adapted to long-distance, precision navigation and we’d like to know as much about its ecology as we can. There are a lot of birds that migrate, but many migration systems are land-based.”

Goodwill added that the partnership with Johnson “works out very well…and more importantly, allows some of our students to rub shoulders with internationally recognized experts, such as Dr. Johnson.”

For more information on the kolea…

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