In the world of birders — those people who make lists of birds they observe in hopes of making an unusual sighting — a major event known as a “first occurrence” took place Friday on Molokai.
Molokai resident and water bird researcher Arleone Dibben-Young spotted a first-ever occurrence, not just for Molokai but for all of Hawaii. She saw a white-winged tern near the wastewater treatment plant in Kaunakakai. While these birds have been spotted on other Pacific islands such as Palau, this is the first occurrence of this species on any Hawaiian island.
Known for its unusual feeding patterns, the white-winged tern was discovered by Dibben-Young feeding on insects in one of the treatment ponds. She was able to get some quality photographs of the spectacular bird.
“These are typically found on the other side of the planet,” said Dibben-Young. “They should be in France or Belgium.”
Dibben-Young is not sure how these birds made a wrong turn in their migratory pattern. She is just happy they decided to visit, though she has no idea for how long they will stay.
White-winged terns breed in western and central Europe to central Russia and southern China. They winter in central and southern Africa, Indonesia and Australia. Vagrants have been recorded in Alaska, California, Eastern USA, West Indies and New Zealand. In the Pacific, they have been recorded in Palau and as a vagrant in the Marianas Islands.
Dibben-Young has seen several unusual species of birds on Molokai over the past 10 years, including several species from Siberia such as Bewick’s swan a couple of years ago, a subspecies of the tundra swan. She has also seen curlew sandpipers here.
Dibben-Young said she believes Molokai may be attractive to migratory birds for its 19 miles of mudflats that can be found here at low tides. Less light pollution from ballfields and other manmade structures may also make Molokai a popular resting spot for migratory birds.
The discovery has created quite a stir in the birder community, according to Dibben-Young. Five birders from Oahu flocked to the treatment plant on Sunday while two more showed up yesterday. Later this week, birders from the Big Island and Maui are expected to visit, said Dibben-Young.
Birds on Molokai made news last year when the kioea bird, or bristle-thighed curlew, became the official bird of Kaunakakai on Oct. 25. Dibben-Young, who organizes the annual bird count for Molokai and managed the Ohiapilo Pond Bird Sanctuary for five years, recommended the designation for the kioea.
The Molokai Visitor’s Association has been paying attention as well. The kioea has been part of its campaign to attract tourism, with images showing up on ball caps and T-shirts. This latest discovery may be just what the Molokai eco-tourism supporters are looking for.