Huge albatross population creates spectacle on Midway Atoll

1/19/2017 | 0

Wisdom, the world's oldest known banded bird in the wild, sits on an egg on Midway Atoll NWR. Photo by Pete Leary/USFWS.

Wisdom, the world’s oldest known banded bird in the wild, sits on an egg on Midway Atoll NWR. Photo by Pete Leary/USFWS.

The totals are astounding but true. Nearly three million birds nest on Midway, including Bonin Petrels, endangered Laysan Ducks, and the largest population of albatross on the planet. According to the Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, nearly 70 percent of the world’s Laysan Albatross and almost a third of all Black-footed Albatross also nest on the atoll.

The opportunity to visit Pihemanu, as Midway is known in Hawaiian, does not come around often. The refuge has been slimmed by several federal budget cuts. When the atoll was last open to research and ecotourism in 2012, only 330 people were given permits in the entire year. In 2013, even fewer were granted access. One of them was writer and photographer Hob Osterlund, the founder of the Kauai Albatross Network and a fellow with the Safina Center, who volunteered to count albatross nests.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and she describes it in a beautifully illustrated article in the January-February 2017 issue of BirdWatching. Her article is an excerpt from her book Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors (Oregon State University Press, 2016).

On August 27, 2016, President Obama greatly expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, in the Pacific Ocean. Until late October, when Antarctica’s Ross Sea was designated a marine reserve, Papahanaumokuakea was the largest protected marine area in the world. Midway Atoll, or Pihemanu, is located within the sanctuary.

The Laysan Albatross known as Wisdom, the world’s oldest known banded bird in the wild, returned to Midway Atoll and laid an egg in November 2015. Wisdom was thought to be at least 65 years old at the time. Her egg hatched on February 1, 2016, and the chick was named Kukini, Hawaiian for “messenger.”

By mid-July, after months of feeding and brooding by Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai (“love of wisdom”), Kukini was no longer being sighted on the atoll, leading refuge staff to speculate that the young albatross had learned to fly and was now foraging in the recently expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The bird is not expected to return to land until it is ready to find a mate, in three to five years.

The January-February 2017 issue of BirdWatching containing Hob Osterlund’s article about counting nests on Midway is on sale now at Barnes & Noble and other newsstands.

What Papahanaumokuakea means for birds.

Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Kauai Albatross Network.


New to birdwatching?

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, descriptions of birding hotspots, and more delivered to your inbox every other week. Sign up now.

See the contents of our current issue.

How to subscribe to BirdWatching.