Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Albatrosses Story

November 24th

The day before I returned from Hawaii Tanya decided it was time to see if the Layson albatrosses had returned. Before heading out she showed me a You-tube video of an albatross courting dance (see link below). Until then I had not known anything about these sea birds.

We drove to an area on Kauai which is near the sea bluffs, and entirely built over with homes. Strangely the albatross community decided that this was a good neighborhood to nest in, and a few years ago began showing up in relatively small numbers to set up their nests and raise their single chick in front yards, along the streets, and other seemingly random spots throughout the neighborhood. And they are big birds, with a wingspan of 12’ feet and they sit very calmly and unafraid. Impressive and regal.

If you’ve watched the March of the Penguins you have an idea of the commitment of these birds. First the male arrives and goes to their nest site. He pulls a few leaves and twigs and sets up a very simple nest. The site can be anywhere, not necessarily private, in fact, seemingly very public and in the open. He calmly sits there, patiently waiting for the female to arrive which can take several days. It is all the more unusual when you find out that they are a bird that does not touch lands for months, even years at a time, instead they fly the ocean air currents far at sea, landing only occasionally on water.

Within a few days the female arrives and the courtship begins. We were lucky to come upon a pair in the midst of their courtship and got a glimpse of the courtship dance which they performed after mating. It was quite a sight and Tanya said it was the first time she’d seen it. With one egg it is likely to be a fleeting event so we felt lucky.

After the female lays her single egg, the male will sit on the egg while the female returns to the sea for food. After a week or so they switch places. This goes on until the egg hatches and while they raise this single chick until maturity. If one of the parents die the whole family perishes, as they are entirely dependent on each other for food.

The chick has feathers that are long and fluffy and make it appear larger than the parents. And it is adorable. Tanya says it is funny to watch the adults as they walk to the bluffs to fly away. They actually walk down the suburban roads very deliberately and unafraid, with big floppy feet, slapping the ground as they travel, until they get to the local park to gracefully fly away.
We watched the mating pair above as they did their courtship dance, but my video is not as good as the one on youtube:
I had these birds on my mind for several days after, they are an impressive example of the adaptability of wildlife to our human culture.

Also, check out Tanya’s blog at www.Tanyahillblog.blogspot.com : She is an artist and naturalist living closely with the land on Kauai, Hawaii.

Some facts I've found:
Laysan Albatross is a beautiful seabird that loves the open sea. Albatross is an open-ocean species that may not set foot on land for many years at a time, a nomad of the ocean.The Laysan albatross has a wingspan of 13 feet and weigh as much as 25 pounds. Albatross live from forty to sixty years, often remaining out at sea for five years, then returning to the same island they were born on. They remain faithful to their mate, which they rendezvous with each year at the same nest. This is the only time they stay on land - to raise their one chick.An albatross can float on the air currents and not flap its wings for hours,


I finally got a chance between other plans, flooding rivers and rainy days, to get out on a paddle board. I wish I had discovered it sooner, it is a great way to enjoy the waters there safely, although I would probably do it mostly on my knees until I got the hang of it!

It was unsafe to swim in Hanalei Bay while I was there, with the high surf and undertow (and big warning signs saying so) coupled with murky waters from swollen rivers, which made it hard for the sharks to tell if you are human or not (they generally avoid us). In fact, there was a ‘shark alert’ for the better part of my stay as one was seen milling around the surfers. My first innocent days there it was a full moon and I suggested that we go out swimming in the full moon, and got a strong look and suggestion that I shouldn’t do that, night time is when the sharks are out hunting in force. That took away that romantic notion!

Best to be on the safety of a board, it appears. Next time there I will find me a board to borrow so I can float about on the warm waters of Hanalei Bay. I started out on the calm waters of the Waipa' river outlet (dammed up again by a sand bar, so it's like a lake), then tried the waters of the bay. Bill said I wouldn't last 10 seconds on the open waves. He was right, I guess I made it 5 seconds. After falling down a few more times, (I didn't put those photos in!) I just tooled around on my knees, that was fun enough...