On Saturday, I headed to the North Shore of Kauai to check on some Laysan Albatross chicks. There are a total of 11 that I monitor on behalf of several wildlife agencies.
Already, their wings have filled out from their stubby hatchling days. Brownish-grey down has given way to clean and white contour feathers covering their bodies. Primary and secondary flight feathers on their wings and tails are in—and groomed regularly by these chicks.
However, the one place these Laysan albatross chicks still look decidedly like chicks is on their heads, including their necks. It seems this is the last place on their bodies for their adult plumage to grow. It makes for some funny hair-do’s. There are the Mohawk, Bozo-the-clown and Mr. Clean “do’s.”
I expect we’ll see some fledging in the next week to three. And, as I’ve mentioned before, once these Laysan chicks take to the sea for their first flight, they will not touch land again for three to five years. Forgive me if you’ve heard me say that before, but I continued to be awed by that fact. For a landlubber like me, how could I not? Right?
At 28 degrees latitude, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge sits six degrees north of Kauai. That means albatrosses begin their nesting season before us. They lay their eggs before us. Their eggs hatch before ours. And their chicks fledge before ours.
Now for some big news. If you’re a birder. If you work with endangered species. If you spent time in the military at Midway any time since World War II. If you just like feel-good, heart-warming stories with a good ending. Then, listen up.
Sometime after the evening of June 15, the short-tailed albatross that hatched earlier this year at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge took flight. It fledged.
On January 14, 2011, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported the first hatching in modern times of this short-tailed albatross chick outside Japan. It is one of our world’s rarest birds. Now, it just has to figure out how to find enough squid and flying fish eggs to survive. Just like any albatross this requires soaring thousands of miles over the waters of the North Pacific, avoiding entanglement in long-line fishery nets and marine debris, ingesting too much plastic and evading predation by shark. But this little—er, big—chick is a tough one. It’s already survived two significant events—the washing away of his nest site due to a big winter storm and the tsunami last March. Plus, look at its size. Its adult wingspan is about a foot longer than a Laysan albatross's six-and-a-half feet, and yet the short-tailed albatross chick's got some girth and length on the Laysan albatross chicks that I helped band last month--they fit snugly under one arm. (But you've gotta get a gentle grip on those bills. Trust me. I may have a scar or two to prove it!)