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Recently, a Laysan Albatross returned to the Hawaiian island from which she fledged. This is an uneventful occurrence on small islands more than 1,000 miles northwest of Honolulu, where most of the species breeds.
But this particular albatross — called V106 — is the first of a group of translocated birds to return to James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on the north coast of Oahu. Her return, after three years at sea, is a milestone for a collaborative program that includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Rim Conservation (PRC), and the U.S. Navy. V106 was spotted by PRC biologist Megan Dalton, who saw her “standing quite calmly in a bed of native coastal plants.”
Laysan Albatrosses are large seabirds that range across the North Pacific Ocean and breed almost exclusively in Hawaii, mostly on national wildlife refuges on remote islands and atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The area is protected as part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
However, the low-lying islands are threatened by sea rise due to climate change. In recent years, storm surges have wiped out thousands of albatross eggs and chicks. As a result, scientists have been looking to establish new colonies of several vulnerable seabirds on other, higher islands.
Albatrosses, however, cannot breed just anywhere. As ground nesters, they need a predator-free environment, which is rare on the main Hawaiian Islands. At the James Campbell refuge, a 3,700-foot predator-proof fence was built to create 16.2 acres of safe breeding habitat by excluding invasive mammalian predators.
The program began when albatrosses started nesting near an active runway at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, where they posed a hazard to aircraft. To reduce that risk, the Navy began placing eggs with foster parents that had unviable eggs, but in some years, there were not enough parents for all the eggs. So, every December for the past few years, the Navy has flown albatross eggs from Kauai to Oahu, where they are incubated by PRC.
Before hatching, eggs are placed with temporary foster parents so that chicks imprint on the correct species. A month later, right before a chick is thought to imprint on its birth colony, the fluffy chicks are moved to James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge.
From February to July, chicks are fed a slurry of fish and squid. After fledging, the birds spend years roaming the North Pacific. Laysan Albatrosses begin returning to their birth colony in 3-5 years and start nesting at 5-8 years.
“The return of V106 marks a milestone toward the long-term success of this project,” said Eric VanderWerf, director of science at PRC. “We hope this bird and others will continue to return and begin breeding at the refuge in the next several years.”
A total of 46 birds have been translocated from Kauai to Oahu. Scientists have also attempted to entice other Laysan Albatrosses to the refuge with a “social attraction” project that uses speakers and decoys. Many albatrosses have visited and a pair nested for the first time earlier this year.
Scientists also recently started a translocation program at the James Campbell refuge for Black-footed Albatross. Fifteen chicks from the remote Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge were transported to James Campbell in February 2017.
Birders can see Laysan Albatross from November to July at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai (Hotspot Near You No. 98). They are also a rare occurrence on pelagic birding trips out of ports on the west coast of the mainland United States. — Jason A. Crotty
Jason A. Crotty is an attorney from Portland, Oregon. He also wrote about El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, Hotspot Near You No. 247, Virgin Islands National Park, No. 255, and Ramsey Canyon Preserve in Arizona, No. 270. For BirdWatchingDaily.com, he has written about warblers that winter in Puerto Rico, the designation of Elfin-woods Warbler as endangered, bird populations in western Great Lakes forests, what the greatly expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument means for birds, and plans to re-introduce condors to the Pacific Northwest.
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