golden plover

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 (and the shores of New Zealand!).

“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.

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.”

Pacific golden plover in breeding plumage
Sub Species:

Other common names:  — 

Asiatic, eastern, least golden plover, Kolea.

Description:  — 

Native bird

25 cm., 130 g., speckled golden and white, breeding plumage black face and underparts, long dark grey legs.

Where to find:  — 

Parengarenga, Ranganui, Whangarei, Kaipara, and Manukau Harbours, Firth of Thames, Bay of Plenty, Manawatu estuaries and other coastal sites as far as Southland. Only 300-1200 birds visit NZ.

Credit for the photograph: — 


Professor Wally Johnson

Illustration description: — 


Gould, John, Birds of Great Britain, 1862-73.

Reference(s): — 


Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.

Oliver, W.R.B. New Zealand Birds, 1955.

Professor Wally Johnson.

Page date & version: — 


Thursday, 4 July 2019; ver2009v1


©  2005    Narena Olliver,    new zealand birds limited,     Greytown, New Zealand.