As I stepped out of the shower, I heard a rap at the door and quickly slipped into some clothes. When I opened the door, the threshold stood empty. There was no one there. As I stared at empty space, I heard the sound again. Knock. Knock. Knock. It was an albatross outside my window.
Albatross clap their bills when another albie approaches too closely, when they are courting, and, sometimes, when I walk by with my paint gun. I wonder if it’s the young parent who clacks their bills. Do the beginner parents get agitated more easily? It’s like in my family, according to my older brothers, our parents were more easy going with me, their third child.
It’s hard not to anthropomorphize with these birds. Especially when you approach the calm ones, and they lift their heads to look at you, then tilt one way and the other to get a better view. When you look into their eyes and they look back, you can tell there’s somebody home. It makes you wonder what they’re thinking. If they remember some really big creature coming by a year ago and leaving a paint splotch by their nest. And as you move on, spray orange next to the next nest on which an albatross might be sleeping with its head tucked under its wing, you still wonder. The eyes linger. You wonder things like how does it know where to go to find food? How much does it need to eat—how many fish eggs, herring, squid—before it will come back and regurgitate something like crude oil down its chick’s throat?
You wonder how old this particular albatross might be and how many chicks it has raised and how many chicks survived and how does it know where to find its chick when it returns from a thousand-mile forage?
The oldest known Laysan albatross would be 58 years old this year. It hasn’t been spotted thus far this season, but we’re looking. It did not return to Midway last year, but it nested here two years ago at 56. Imagine: Still breeding and producing offspring at 56 years of age.
Richard’s wife Jenny lived on Midway in the late 1950s when she was 10. She remembers “pet” albatrosses next to her family house. She’d sit on her front steps and scratch the birds on the back of their heads. Albatrosses love this. I’ve seen them wiggle their heads just so when their mate preens them. Just like I do when my husband gives me a neck rub.
Many of the Navy’s buildings have been bulldozed over the years as the population receded from 5000 to 50. But Jenny’s childhood home still stands and an albatross still nests outside it. Because albatrosses have what’s called nest site fidelity, I can’t help but wonder whether the albatrosses nesting outside her family home are the same pair that Jenny scratched as a 10-year-old. And I wonder whether they would remember her. Or if they would clap their bills at her.
The same year the oldest known albatross was banded, Doris and Lewis, two fellow bird counters, married. We celebrated their 58th anniversary today. The chef decorated cookies in their honor.