Photos and story by Kim Steutermann Rogers/BLOG: www.outriggerhawaii.com/blog.aspx
Right now, on the North Shore, Laysan albatross chicks are pipping out of their calcium enclosures, after 65 days of diligent incubation by dedicated parents. It will be another five-and-a-half months before these fledgling seabirds stretch their majestic, six-foot wingspans and take to the air for the first time. And, when they do, after trading fluffy down for feathery plumage, their spatula-like feet will not touch ground again for three to four years.
That’s right. This season’s fledglings will clock tens of thousands of miles over the North Pacific, returning to Kaua’i about the time we Americans vote the next president of the United States into office.
Author and ocean conservationist Carl Safina called the albatross, “the grandest living flying machine on Earth,” because they can go days without a single flap of their wings, and they can, essentially, sleep and fly at the same time.
When this year’s fledglings return to Kaua’i as juveniles, they will spend another two to three years carefully selecting a partner with whom to raise chicks—one chick a year for potentially 50 more years. The Laysan albatross courtship process is reminiscent of a singles bar complete with elaborate dance moves that include clacking bills, shaking heads, and arching necks high into the air while mooing.
For the most part, Laysan albatrosses mate for life. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t divorces or remarriages in cases of the death of one partner. And recent research at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge revealed the existence of long-time female-female pairs successfully raising chicks. That meant helpful, neighboring males were stepping in to fertilize the eggs. This discovery led scientists to re-think things, like what the word “monogamous” means. In this case, it should probably be preceded with the word “socially.”
What is clear about Laysan albatrosses is that both parents possess a high degree of nest site fidelity. It takes two adults to raise one chick to fledging. The parents take turns incubating the egg and, then, once the chick hatches, both parents participate in feeding, sometimes flying thousands of miles for a single meal. The older the chick gets, the longer period of time it spends alone on the nest, awaiting the return of a parent that will regurgitate a protein-packed smoothie of squid, fish and fish eggs.
The entire breeding season, from November through July, is an extremely vulnerable one. Because they nest on the ground, Laysan albatrosses are easy prey for predators—both the parents that won’t abandon their eggs and/or chicks and the chicks that are not able to fly until they are nearly six months old.
Dogs are among the biggest concern. Last season, just days before fledging, nine Laysan albatross chicks were attacked and killed by two dogs on Kaua’i’s North Shore. That may not sound like a significant number, but for a native species struggling to regain a foothold in the main Hawaiian Islands, it is. The vast majority of Laysan albatrosses nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and, in particular, at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Only a scant few percentage points of the entire Laysan albatross nesting population exist on Kaua’i. Yet as nesting habitat in the low-lying islands and atolls to the northwest disappears due to erosion and climate change, the high island of Kaua’i will play a pivotal role in the conservation of Laysan albatrosses, as well as other seabird species.
This time of year, Laysan albatrosses can be seen flying over Kaua’i’s coastline from the northeast to the northwest, their preferred breeding area. The Laysan albatross is distinguished from other seabirds by its two-toned markings of dark grey wings and mantle and white head and body. Its size and gliding flight pattern make it recognizable, as well. But most nest sites are hidden from the public on private or protected land, with the exception of the North Shore community of Princeville. Here, dark grey fluff balls can be seen in the front yards of a select few homeowners, a rare experience to be sure—and one to be admired from afar. Because Laysan albatrosses do not readily exhibit stress signals doesn’t mean your presence isn’t disturbing them. When and if encountering a Laysan albatross—be it an adult or chick—it’s best to give it a wide berth. And to keep dogs leashed.