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Hawaii's Migratory Birds

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Aug 17, 2009

This is a Wedge-tailed Shearwater (puffinus pacificus) chick, maybe 10 days old. Its parents flew to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge from Central America, like they do every year in March. That’s a 5,000 mile journey. When they arrived, they called out for the other, which they may not have seen for four or five months. Their love song sounds nothing like Frank Sinatra crooning the lyrics to Fly Me to the Moon, or Whitney Houston belting out I Will Always Love You, or even Marvin Gaye pleading Let’s Get It On. No, the call of wedge-tailed shearwaters sounds alternately like a baby crying or a grown man moaning in pain. Considering that this medium-sized shearwater nests in cliff-side burrows, if you happen to be hiking, you might think someone had fallen over the edge, broken an ankle and lay groaning in agony. Hence, the Hawaiian name ‘ua’u kani, or “calling or moaning petrel.”

After incubating in its calcium enclosure for 52 days, this chick pipped its way to freedom almost two weeks ago. Now, it will sit here by itself during the day, waiting for one of its parents to return to the nest site each evening with food, a slimy concoction the parent regurgitates. In late November, this bird will fledge. The first time it takes to the air, it will wing it all the way to the Gulf of Panama.

Wedge-tailed shearwaters are migratory. Just like the Pacific Golden Plover who arrived in my yard today from the Arctic—it will stay until April or May. Just like the Laysan albatross. Just like Lee Sass.

You know Lee Sass. He served as my mentor at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, answering my myriad of questions about the seabirds--and, let me tell you, I can ask an annoying amount of questions. I recounted an incident on this blog last December about a mysterious bird perched on a rock on Moku’ae’ae Island, just north of Kilauea Point. Without looking, Lee predicted the seabird in question was a Great Frigatebird. Even with binoculars, the bird was difficult to identify. A crowd gathered. We debated. Lee stuck with his original guess; the rest of us decided the perched bird was a brown booby. Lee wasn’t convinced. Since then, other birds have perched on that same rock, and Lee and I have debated its species. Every time, the bird in question turned out to be a frigate.

This past Friday marked the first for me as a volunteer at KPNWR without Lee. Two days before, Lee took flight. He boarded a plane for the mainland with a one-way ticket in hand. One of the challenges with living in Hawai’i is that people come and go. Translation: You lose friends. In Lee’s case, he decided to live closer to his family—very understandable.

Now, I’m not one to admit my mistakes easily. And I’m not saying the five of us were wrong last December and Lee was right. What I am saying is, “Maybe.” And what I will say in the future when someone asks, “What’s that bird,” and points to Moku’ae’ae Island, that the first words out of my mouth—before looking through binoculars—will be “Frigatebird.”

That’s for you, Lee. A hui hou; until we meet again. And of that, I am sure. We will meet again—Lee and I—because that’s the thing about migration. It’s a round-trip ticket. Lee may go, but he will come back. How do I know? Because winters are cold in Wisconsin. 

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