I wasn’t always a birder. In fact, I don’t consider myself one now. I don’t keep a life list, other than in my head, and you won’t find “birdwatching” or “birding” under my list of hobbies on my Facebook page. But yesterday, I found myself traipsing along the coastline of Kauai’s North Shore looking for Laysan albatross nest sites, as a growing north swell echoed its way for Hawaii and a confused sky alternately produced a menacing scowl and a cheerful smile.
What is it about Laysan albatrosses that I enjoy so much? Is it their beautiful faces that I like to call works of art? Is it their soaring grace in the sky? Or is it their ability to go to sea for three to five years before returning to land that amazes me?
I’m not the only one with bird love. While I hoped to find a few Laysan albatross nest sites on Kauai, across the globe, other people were bidding on John James Audubon’s book, "Birds of America," featuring 435 hand-colored, life-size illustrations. It was originally published in 1827, and it fetched more than $10 million at auction, making it the world's most expensive published book.
Yesterday wasn’t the first time I’ve trekked and crawled and searched for these feathered beauties with a six-foot wingspan. In late 2008, I spent two weeks on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge helping count some half-million albatross nest sites on behalf of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (Think “voluntourism,” or, simply, volunteering on vacation.) And last spring, I helped band Laysan albatross chicks. Yesterday, I was helping the U.S. Navy identify nest sites for an egg swap project.
Maybe it’s the scenery that gets me. Let’s be honest, the sights from Kauai’s North Shore rank right at the top of anyone’s most beautiful list. From one vantage point yesterday, I spied two huge Green sea turtles lounging on a sandy beach below me. From another, I watched a series of waves as they crested into perfect barrels. There’s no denying Kauai’s beauty. But I think the hold these birds have on me has to do with something more than the scenery.
Laysan albatrosses nest on the ground, sometimes under a bush, sometimes in the shade of a tree, and other times smack in the middle of a grassy meadow but always near something approximating a “runway” to aid in the take-off and landing of these so-called “Gooney Birds,” a nickname given to the species based on its land waddle. When an albatross finds a spot it considers perfect, it plops itself down—gracefully, of course—and pivots in a circle, reaching out with its bill to pull twigs, rocks, pinecones, gravel—whatever is within reach—to create what scientists call a “nest cup.” Some nest cups are nothing more than a ring of grass; others are so elaborate and built up that the word “throne” comes to mind. I haven’t asked, but because albatrosses tend to return to the same site year after year to nest, my guess is that the thrones belong to the elders of the species. But I’ll have to confirm this.
Yesterday was no different. I found nest cups under low-hanging bushes, nestled between exposed roots of trees and in the full glare of the sun. I found some in groups—those albatrosses who prefer life on a suburban street—and others far removed—those opting for the country life. And, then, I found K024 Sharing one wall of her nest cup with an adjacent one, she had chosen apartment living.
It’s not easy to distinguish between male and female albatrosses. Some say the males a slightly larger with a wider forehead. Some say the males are “snappier,” clacking their bills when another creature—human or bird—approaches. Me? I really have no idea.
I’d already logged five nest sites when I found K024 on her nest cup, scratched together with the twigs of an ironwood tree under which she sat. When I approached, K024 stood, as if to show off her prize.
And prize, it was.
Because it takes the supreme effort of two adults to feed a growing chick, Laysan albatrosses lay just one egg a season, Typically, when the egg is laid, the male takes the first incubating shift—anywhere from two to three weeks—so the female can replenish energy stores lost from growing and laying an egg. Her foraging efforts may take her west to the islands of Japan or a couple thousand miles north to the Aleutian Islands off Alaska. Or, she may head northeast of Hawaii toward the Pacific Northwest. Laysan albatrosses consider the whole of the North Pacific their range and will fly wherever they need to in order to find food—using their hooked bill to capture fish and scoop floating fish eggs, squid and sometimes plastic off the surface of the water.
Laysan albatrosses are known for their pair bonding—they mate for life—and nest site fidelity. I’ve watched exchanges before in which the returning bird has to shove its mate off the egg. Sometimes, there’s a bit of a tussle, like two children fighting over a toy. The pair take turns incubating the prized egg for 65 days—coming and going for over two months before a downy critter emerges from its calcium enclosure.
When K024 stood for me, she revealed her prize—two eggs. One smeared with the dried blood of its mother; the other egg fairly clean.
Two eggs in the same nest cup indicate a female-female pair, a phenomenon scientists feel is the result of an imbalance in the population males and females. It turns out that while Laysan albatrosses choose mates for life, that doesn’t mean they are sexually monogamous. And that’s a good thing for the perpetuation of the species.
Two hours away, on the opposite side of Kauai, Laysan albatrosses nest at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, a U.S. Navy base. But because a six-pound bird with nearly a seven-foot wingspan can pose deleterious effects if it impacts a plane in air, the eggs are scooped up when they are laid. Scientists “candle” the eggs to see if they are viable and, if so, they swap them with other inviable eggs on Kauai’s North Shore—say a female-female nest site with two eggs that have not been fertilized. The program’s been in place for five years now, and the “adopting” parents don’t miss a beat. They continue to incubate the egg until it hatches and, when it does, they feed the chick for the next five months until it fledges.
As I write, I am beginning to think my intrigue with Laysan albatrosses has something to do with nature alright--nature’s ability to adapt. It’s a skill that I hope inhabits my body somewhere, somehow, and that it helps me navigate the sea of change in which we live—be it an economic downturn, the loss of a friend, or the evolution of my aging body.
Next week, this season’s eggs will be swapped, and I’ll monitor their progress over the next six months—six months to marvel over the beauty of Kauai’s North Shore and contemplate the intrigue of Laysan albatrosses. I wonder if I’ll finally call myself a birder then.