At 3.5 months, Laysan albatross chicks wear a combination of downy fur and adult plumage. It’s a little like playing dress up in your mother’s closet or wrapping a pillow case around your shoulders and playing Superman. Albatross chicks sport bright white feathers on their chests, their wings are wrapped in adult plumage; however these seabirds’ heads and throats are still covered in down.
Yesterday, a team of us banded 31 chicks on Albatross Hill at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
At this age, chicks are pretty easy to capture. They are nest-site loyal—waiting for mom and dad to return from fishing trips with food—so they don’t run away. They are still two months away from fledging, so they can’t fly away. They do clack their incredibly large four-inch bills. They poop. Sometimes, they even projectile vomit. Their biggest weapon, however, comes from their feet.
Laysan albatrosses’ feet are big. Like ping pong paddles—ping pong paddles, that is, outfitted with razor-sharp toe nails. Think: the claws of cats.
When instructing you on the protocol of banding birds, scientists will warn you about the bird’s bills, they will tell you about the pooping and vomiting, but they may forget to mention the claws. The tic-tac-toe pattern on my forearm is testament to the claws on Laysan albatross chicks.
The hard part in researching animals that make their living at sea is that they can so easily slip away. Humpback whales swim thousands of miles. Hawaiian monk seals dive to depths over a thousand feet. Laysan albatrosses spread their six-foot wingspans and fly away—sometimes staying away from land for years at a time.
So, we don’t know all that much about Laysan albatrosses. Like how long they live or even whether the population is thriving or endangered. One way to capture information is by banding them. A monitoring process can, then, tell us:
• Annual nest count
• Egg hatch rate
• Fledgling rate
• Adult reproductive rate
On average, two minutes after we banded and released a chick, it was back on the ground, sitting like a sentry, as if nothing ever happened. They’re resilient little—er, big—birds.
You may see Laysan albatross flying overhead during the months of November through July, primarily over coastal areas. There are numerous breeding colonies on Kauai's north shore--in particular at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge--and at Kaena Point on Oahu.