According to Nathan Heller in his Slate article, The Birder: the Ominous Rise of Amateur Ornithology, “Birding, these days, is everywhere.”
It’s good to know I’m not the only bird nerd out there.
Heller sites the primary character Walter Berglund in Jonathan Franzen’s best-selling novel, Freedom, who turns to birding to find meaning in life. Heller points to Annie Proulx’s new memoir, Bird Cloud, which includes long passages of bird watching. He writes that the forthcoming movie The Big Year will star Steve Martin in a race around North America to bag—er, list—the most species of birds sighted in one year. (Steve Martin? I can so see this.) Heller reports a rise in birding vacations, birding blogs and birding iPhone apps.
Confession: I didn’t go to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge to help count Laysan and Black-footed albatross nest sites. I went to Midway to go to Midway. It was more about the place and the adventure than the birds. And, then, I fell for the birds. So much so that, these days, I am monitoring 20 Laysan albatross nest sites on Kauai’s North Shore. I consider it a privilege more than an effort. Several other “citizen scientists” check on 53 nests elsewhere and a full-fledged biologist keeps an eye on 101 nests at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
Really, it’s not much effort. I check each nest weekly, identifying the tag number of the parent currently doing the incubating and noting the condition of the egg—namely, whether the egg is still in tact. At this point in time, while nature does its magic and transforms a gooey mass of egg white and yolk into a fluffy, downy chick, ta da!—with a bill sharp enough to chip open its calcium enclosure—there isn’t much to note. The egg is either in tact, broken or abandoned.
Of the 20 nest sites I am monitoring, one egg was abandoned before I even started data collection, and it still sits in tact in an untended nest cup. But I “lost” two other eggs since my last visit. Earlier this week, I found one nest site abandoned, its egg crushed and its most recent sitter about 50 feet away. The bird, seemingly, had lost its parental protectiveness and adopted a skittish demeanor, keeping a good 30 feet away from me, much greater distance than the other walkers nearby. I found the second crushed egg under a sitting parent, its pale feet smeared with dried yolk. I had to stick-nudge this parent into revealing its broken treasure.
The skittish parent? The sitter in denial? Yeah, that gets to me. But not enough to stop helping. In a couple weeks, little holes will appear in, hopefully, the rest of these eggs, and an unbearably cute chick with a big head and undeveloped wings will peck away at its protective house until it is free. And one step closer to soaring over the ocean.
According to Rachel Carson, “Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life.”
What Nathan Heller failed to mention in his Slate article is that one bird—or rather, one pair of birds, is attracting attention the world over. They are nesting on Eastern Island at Midway—the same Midway I visited two years ago and, likely, the same short-tailed albatrosses I saw two years ago.
I can’t write it any better than the press release dated January 14, 2011 and issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service:
Short-Tailed Albatross Chick Hatches at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
An important and hopeful milestone in the conservation of the endangered short-tailed albatross was recorded today at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. A short-tailed albatross hatched on Eastern Island, one of three small flat coral islands that comprise Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge about 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. This marks the first confirmed hatching of a short-tailed albatross outside of Japan in recorded history.
"We are all as excited as new parents," said Daniel Clark, acting Refuge Manager. "The chick hatched in the middle of a major storm but the parent is doing an excellent job of protecting it so we are guardedly optimistic about its chances for survival."
Establishing a new nesting colony is one of several important steps needed to continue the rare bird's recovery because volcanic activity regularly threatens the short-tailed albatross' main nesting grounds on Torishima Island. The species' recovery also depends on reducing the threats of contaminants, especially oil contamination at sea and plastic ingestion; reducing bycatch of these seabirds from commercial fisheries; and addressing invasive species and other competitive species at nesting colonies.
A pair of short-tailed albatross first "met" at Midway Atoll Refuge during the breeding season four years ago (2007-08). During that season, they were observed spending only a little time together. During the second season (2008-09), their time together increased. By the third season (2009-10), they arrived at the Eastern Island breeding colony together and built a nest. This breeding season, on November 16, 2010, an adult short-tailed albatross was observed incubating a freshly laid egg. The pair have been under remote observation since.
The short-tailed albatross, listed as endangered since 1970, is the largest seabird in the North Pacific with a wing span of 7 to 7.5 feet. It is known for the golden, yellow cast on its head and nape; for its large, pink bill with blue tip and black border around the base; and for its pale bluish feet and legs. Its life span is 12 to 45 years. Pairs begin breeding at about seven or eight years of age, and mate for life.
Once thought to be the most abundant albatross species in the North Pacific with a population of more than 5 million adults, short-tailed albatross were hunted for feathers, and harmed in other ways, to near extinction.
By the 20th century, only two colonies remained on remote Japanese islands - Torishima Island in the Philippine Sea and Minami-kojima Island near Taiwan in the East China Sea. In 1939, the short-tailed albatross' main breeding grounds on Torishima were buried under 30 to 90 feet of lava after a volcanic eruption. Population numbers plummeted to 10 nesting pairs. Since then, conservation efforts have helped increase the population to approximately 2,400 birds, which forage widely across the temperate/subarctic North Pacific and can be seen in the Gulf of Alaska, along the Aleutian Islands and in the Bering Sea.
Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge - since 2006 part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument - has actively planned to host a nesting colony for more than a decade, and this conservation effort seems to be paying off. Short-tailed albatross were rarely seen on Midway Atoll before the effort began. This season marks the pair's first known mating and nesting attempt. Refuge staff and volunteers will continue to monitor the nest daily with the use of a remote video camera.
Barry Stieglitz, Project Leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex of which Midway Atoll is a part, said of the hatching: "This hatching - significant in and of itself - is really part of two stories. The first is about what the dedicated staff of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge were able to accomplish on a shoestring over many, many patient years; slowly drawing these magnificent birds to Eastern Island with recorded calls and decoys. The second story started in 1903 when President Teddy Roosevelt sent the United States Navy to protect the albatross, sea turtles, and monk seals at Midway from poachers. These initial efforts grew into a larger vision to preserve and restore the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands ecosystem. We may not see this story finished in our lifetimes - it will be written over the decades to come, building on the work accomplished in the decades of the past."