ʻŪlili ma ka Huʻa Kai


In a subsiding tide pool, a yellow-legged cloudy gray sandpiper rhythmically bends at the water’s surface, dancing along the exposed pāhoehoe flats and shallow whitewash. With onomatopoetic trills and piping calls, we know the hungry and energetic ʻūlili (Tringa incana) has returned to Hawaiʻi.

Photo: ʻŪlili
ʻŪlili’s Latin name Tringa, a genus of wading shorebirds, has roots in ancient Greek to mean a type of old-world bird with an erratic bobbing tail. – Photos: Ann Tanimoto Johnson/ LOHE Lab

ʻŪlili, also known as the “wandering tattler,” frequent rocky shorelines and feed on small fish and invertebrates. A seasonal migrant, ʻūlili arrive en masse in late summer from Alaska and northwestern Canada and soon afterward disperse. They are generally solitary, although sometimes seen in small groups, and unusually territorial during the non-breeding season.

An enticing guide and capable messenger in Hawaiian mythology, ʻŪlili helped guide the lost ghost of Lohiʻau (the handsome yet blundering lover of both Pele and Hiʻiaka) to Kahiki to find solace after his murder.

In another story, ʻŪlili and Kōlea are dispatched by the great Kapepeʻekauila of Molokaʻi to defend his stolen wife, Hina, from her rescuers, her estranged husband and sons.