Trade Winds March in Like a Lion

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Trade Winds March in Like a Lion

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Mar 17, 2011

They're back. Our long absent trade winds arrived with vigor today. What is it people say about the month of March--in like a lion; out like a lamb. Well, we're right on track. During the first weekend of March, the volcano--Kilauea--blew in a fiery display. The second weekend saw a tsunami roll through the Hawaiian Islands, damaging harbors and homes but leaving Hawaii relatively unharmed, especially in light of what's going on in Japan. And, now, we're under a high-wind advisory—east winds up to 35 mph and gusts of 55 mph. It made my morning on the North Shore of Kauai with 20-some grade school students a little more adventurous.

Hawaii's prevalent northeast trade winds--so named because of their direction of origin and trade route to and from the Hawaiian Islands--provide many blessings. “Trades” prevent temperatures from soaring into the uncomfortable range; they keep the mosquitoes flying instead of landing on your skin and biting; they blow down the webs of spiders and prevent my home from being encased in a cocoon; they fill the sails of kites and tow surfers skittering across the surface of the ocean; for a little music, they make the palm trees clatter; and to add a more sensory experience in Hawaii,  they send the scent of just-blooming plumeria wafting across the islands. But that's not all. Our trade winds--especially during a high-wind advisory--give the Laysan albatross currents in the air on which to soar.

Let's take a minute to talk about Hawaii's albatrosses. Three types of albatrosses breed in the Hawaiian Island archipelago, primarily in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands--Laysan albatrosses in the hundreds of thousands, black-footed albatrosses in the tens of thousands and a lone pair of short-tailed albatrosses.

Sadly, tens of thousands of these birds were lost in last weekend's tsunami at the low-lying Midway and Kure Atolls, some 1,100 miles northwest of Honolulu. There were two survivors of note, though, two birds who were on many people's minds throughout the long tsunami night and ensuing day until the reports started rolling in via email, blog and Facebook.

Wisdom, the female Laysan albatross known as the oldest banded bird in the world was first banded as an adult 60 years ago. No one knows exactly when she was born; some estimates put her at 65 years of age, minimum. The nearly 5-foot tsunami wave washed ashore on Midway’s Sand Island—the largest of the three in the atoll—but didn't quite make it to Wisdom's nest. She and her chick survived.

Earlier this year, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge made international news reports when the first short-tailed albatross chick hatched on Eastern Island—the first chick to hatch outside Japan in modern, record-keeping times.

It's believed that at one time, the short-tailed albatross was quite abundant in the North Pacific, but due to egg and feather hunters in the 19th century, the population plummeted, leaving the active volcano of Torishima Island off the Japanese coast as the primary breeding grounds. (I’m told this colony was spared during the recent earthquake/tsunami.) But, in 1939, a lava flow during nesting season killed almost the entire population. Today, after a concerted effort led by a biologist in Japan, the number of short-tailed albatrosses has climbed back to 2,200, certainly not enough to remove the species from endangered status. After several years of luring short-tailed albatrosses to Midway with decoys and recorded mating calls, finally, a nest was scratched together, an egg laid and a chick hatched in January.

It hasn't been easy for this little guy (or girl). A month ago, a big storm with its big surf crashed ashore Eastern Island and washed the chick (and thousands of its albatross cousins some distance from its nest. That’s problematic, because if its parents return from sea with a belly full of food and can’t find its chick, the chick will go unfed and starve. Luckily, it’s easy to spot a lone short-tailed albatross from a sea of Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks in a field and, so, dedicated biologists made sure it got transported safely back to its nest cup.

But, then, the tsunami arrived, and the ocean washed over 60 to 80% of the island. The “shortie” was washed away again, this time, some 45 meters away. When it was safe to do so, biologists again went searching for it, found it and this time unfurled a roll of plastic sheeting and waited until the bird clambered atop it. Then, the biologists gave it a “sled ride,” albeit cautiously, back to its nest cup. Now, we wait for its parents to return.

So, to see these graceful beings soaring today, doing what they do so well; well, it just feels good. And soar they were earlier this morning when I joined a group of 20+ kids to talk seabirds. Laysan albatross love big wind; they love to fly.

It’s not that I do not like kids; it's just that I do not have kids. And, so, I miss out on opportunities to witness their greatness, those moments when, unbeknownst to them, they do something that makes the rest of us adults look at each other with raised eyebrows, those times when 10-year-olds, with dirt smudged on their cheeks and shoestrings untied, say something wise beyond their years. Like today.

After a short nature walk along the coastline, the kids reported seeing great frigatebirds, red-footed boobies and dancing Laysan albatrosses. I have adult friends who cannot seem to figure out the dark-colored birds with the split tail and hooked bill is a frigatebird.

And when it came to Laysan albatross, these kids already knew Laysan albatross grow to a wingspan of 6+ feet. They knew that when the chicks fledge they do not return to land until they are three or four years of age. They knew adults tend to mate for life. They knew the bill clacking and sky mooing and head shaking they witnessed was part of an elaborate courtship dance that could take years before a pair settle down to the business of laying eggs and raising chicks. There's no doubt about it. These kids were smart. What’s more? These are the kids who will grow up to care for our world, and that makes me feel good.

They identified naupaka, akoko, and ilima. And they knew these coastal native plant's tolerated well their habitat of sandy soul, salt spray and wind. Wind, ah, the wind.

Trade winds account for 70% of all wind in Hawaii. But in the first quarter of the year, from January through March, they may go silent for a time, or switch around and whisper from the southwest and/or northwest, and I all but forget about Hawaii’s blessed trade winds.

For more information about wind in Hawaii, see


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