Midway Albatross Count: Day7

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Midway Albatross Count: Day7

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island , Kauai , Maui , Oahu
Dec 20, 2008

One week down; one week to go.

Today, we biked to the Empire Café and received good news.  (Of course, the fact that it wasn’t raining at the time and the winds had backed off to 20 knots was already good news.)

Lindsay, a 30-year-old bird biologist, asked our team leader Richard if he thought we would knock off four sectors today.  We had tackled three sectors two days ago and three-and-a-half yesterday.  She figured we would continue topping each day’s previous number.

I turned to Richard, “See what I mean,” I said.  Richard smiled.  That’s about as much emotion as you’ll get out of Richard.  But he knew what I meant.  He knew “Team Overachievers” would have been an appropriate name for our team–a middle-aged, hard-charging woman from Alaska, two 30-something bird biologists and an “actively” retired Richard.  (Then, there was me; I just keep my head down and count nest sites.)

Instead of “Team Overachievers,” though, we had settled on Team Steller as our team name.  The reason:  The rare and endangered short-tailed albatross is also called the Steller Albatross, and our team is the only team to have seen it.

There are three sub-adult Steller albatrosses here in Midway.  The remaining 2000+ nest on remote Torishima island off Japan.  The Stellers are the only albatross species known to actually be increasing in number.  Millions of these birds were killed in the late 1800s for their feathers.  If that wasn’t enough, in 1939, a volcanic eruption smothered their breeding grounds in 30 to 90 feet of lava.  The population dipped as low as 50-something.

Short-tailed albatrosses are noticeably larger than either Laysan or black-footed albatrosses.  Their wingspan reaches 8 feet or more.  And as testament to nature’s colorful ways, the bill of an adult is bright, bubble-gum pink.

Richard, the good leader that he is, had done his undercover work before we arrived.  He knew where the short-tailed albatrosses were, and he selected those sectors for us to transect on our first couple days.  He knew what would motivate us.

Today’s good news:  We had the option of counting nests in the afternoon or calling it a day after lunch.  I was all for enjoying the afternoon with my book-Safina’s Eye of the Albatross.  Karen decided to count birds–no surprise.  Lindsay and Eric opted to pedal out to search for the Steller albatross again and to see what other rare birds the storm blew in–which turned out to be a black-legged kittywake.

Then, Richard shared the afternoon’s plan.  He said they were headed down a mile stretch of white-sand beach–which is normally closed for the endangered Hawaiian monk seals that like to haul out there.  Today, however, whoever showed up to count in the afternoon would receive special permission to comb the beach, ostensibly for albatross, but for whatever else they might find, too.  Like glass balls.

Glass balls are considered collectibles in Hawaii.  They were used as floats in the Japanese fishing industry years ago.  Today, however, they have all but been replaced by plastic counterparts.  Some floated free from their nets and roam the Pacific for years, even decades, before washing ashore in the Northwest and Main Hawaiian Islands.  My husband has found a few on Kauai, but, alas, I have yet to find one.

That is, until today.  So much for reading.

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