A U.S. Navy C-26 took off from Kaua‘i Wednesday on a scheduled weekly mission to O‘ahu carrying some unusual space-available cargo — 44 Laysan albatross eggs destined for relocation to the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge.
The Navy in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Pacific Rim Conservation are attempting to establish a new Laysan albatross colony on the northern coast of O‘ahu from eggs collected at the Pacific Missile Range Facility that were unable to be placed with foster albatross parents on Kaua‘i.
Upon arrival, the eggs were further transported to the PRC office and then double-checked to ensure they made it safely through the transport process, which they all did. The eggs were then placed in an incubator, and are expected to hatch in six to eight weeks. The chicks will then be raised at the James Campbell refuge.
“Raising the chicks will require patience and innovation, but we are excited to begin this project and provide an additional safe place for albatrosses and other seabirds on O‘ahu,” Pacific Rim Conservation biologist Eric VanderWerf said.
Support for the joint project also involves the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the American Bird Conservancy and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
The albatrosses at PMRF nest near an active runway, where they pose a collision hazard that puts aircraft and crews at risk, due to the birds’ large 6-7 foot wingspan and their habit of circling over the nesting area.
The Navy relocates all albatross eggs and adults each year from PMRF’s air safety zone to prevent collisions with aircraft. Adult birds are transported to protected albatross nesting colonies on the northern coast of Kaua‘i and released.
Some eggs are placed with foster albatross parents on Kaua‘i whose natural eggs are infertile and will not hatch, but there are not enough foster parents.
“The Navy’s albatross egg relocation program has been a resounding success since we started at PMRF in 2004. However, with Kauai’s limited space for secure albatross sanctuaries, we’ve had to look at off-island options this year,” said Stefan Alford, Public Affairs Officer for PMRF, highlighting the proactive efforts of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawai‘i and its Environmental Planning and Conservation staff.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently acquired a parcel of land on the northern coast of O‘ahu that provides excellent habitat for seabirds, including albatrosses, but none currently nest there. The simultaneous availability of Laysan albatross eggs from PMRF and suitable, but unoccupied, albatross nesting habitat at a protected wildlife refuge represents an opportunity to accomplish an important conservation action for the species and also to help solve a human-wildlife conflict.
In a new approach, albatross eggs that cannot be placed in foster nests on Kaua‘i were transported by plane to O‘ahu to be placed in an incubator for two months until hatching, and then the chicks will be raised by hand for five months on a diet of squid, fish, and vitamins at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge.
“Albatrosses return to the same location where they were raised as chicks. Thus by moving the eggs prior to hatching, the chicks will imprint on the James Campbell Refuge and return there to breed, becoming the seeds of a new colony that they will establish in the future, away from aircraft and people,” VanderWerf said.
The young birds will spend their first few years at sea and are expected to begin returning to the James Campbell Refuge in 3-5 years and to start nesting on the refuge in 5-8 years, VanderWerf said.
More than 99 percent of Laysan albatrosses nest in the low-lying Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at the Midway Atoll and Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuges, where they are threatened by sea level rise associated with global climate change.
“Recent storm surges have wiped out thousands of albatross nests with eggs or young chicks,” said acting refuge manager, Jared Underwood of the USFWS. “This was one of the main reasons that made James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge an attractive location to receive the eggs because the refuge is located on a ‘high’ island within the historical nesting range of the Laysan albatross.”
Unfortunately, the refuge is not open to general public access due to lack of funding and staff reductions. In the meantime, albatross can be viewed at Ka‘ena Point Natural Area Reserve on O‘ahu, where a State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources designated walking trail provides public access and a predator-proof fence protects the albatross from being killed by dogs, cats, and mongooses.
“Support for this project from all the partners has been tremendous,” VanderWerf said. “It is amazing how quickly the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the American Bird Conservancy, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and permitting agencies have come together to get this project going.”