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The chicks had a terrible case of bed head, but it wasn’t from the 1,300-mile boat ride they took last month to Oahu from deep within Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
That’s just how black-footed albatrosses look when they are about a month old, Kate Toniolo, the monument’s deputy superintendent, explained during a visit last week to James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge.
Federal officials, with help from scientists at the non-profit Pacific Rim Conservation, brought 19 chicks from Midway Atoll and four from Tern Island to live on 16 predator-proof acres near Kahuku Beach on Oahu’s North Shore.
They are trying to establish a colony in the main Hawaiian Islands to help ensure the species’ survival against rising sea levels, storm surges and other effects of climate change.
“They’re early avian climate refugees,” said Robby Kohley, an avian ecologist with Pacific Rim Conservation.
He was giving a chick its daily slurry of Pedialyte, anchovies, herring, squid, salmon oil and vitamins via syringe. He also recorded its weight, all in a matter of seconds to limit human interaction.
“We’re raising them to be wild birds,” Kohley said as the chick pecked at his hands. “Some of them hate us more than others, but that’s all part of the goal. We’re not raising pets.”
The black-footed albatross chicks will grow from about 1 pound to nearly 9 pounds. They will fledge, developing their wing feathers suitable for flight, at about 5 pounds. That’s when they will take off from the refuge, likely in June or July, and spend the next five or six years at sea before coming back to the refuge, scientists hope.
Black-footed albatrosses, which are darker in color all over compared to the mostly white Laysan albatrosses that nest at Kaena Point, are listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which assesses the health of animal and plant populations worldwide.
Aside from sea level rise, the birds are threatened by plastics and other ocean debris as well as longline fishing, which inadvertently kills thousands of albatrosses each year.
Even though the population is now considered stable, the birds remain vulnerable because they live almost exclusively on low-lying islands and atolls in the Pacific. They nest on the ground near the shoreline, making them one of the first to be affected by climate change, Kohley said.
Scientists relied on long-term modeling that showed the James Campbell refuge to be protected from sea level rise, unlike some of the the islands in the monument.
Lindsay Young of Pacific Rim Conservation said the chicks are chosen for translocation based on whether they were in “imminent danger” of washing into the ocean.
She said the nest of one of the chicks that was moved last month from Tern “was about to become its own floating island.”
“For some, the next storm, they’re gone,” she said.
Scientists try to take the chicks at three weeks of age. That gives them some time to develop with their parents but is about a week before they make a mental imprint of the nesting site.
Albatrosses migrate each year, covering thousands of miles, but will often return to within a few feet of their original nest. Scientists hope the batch they moved to James Campbell will imprint at the refuge and return there when ready to mate and breed.
With the exception of a few refuges, such as Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, the albatrosses and several other types of seabirds do not have a safe place to relocate to on their own. Dogs, cats, mice and mongooses present constant threats throughout the main Hawaiian Islands.
“Many would’ve been found historically in the main Hawaiian Islands but aren’t able to exist with the predators we have now,” Young said. “We’re showing them where a good spot is.”
At James Campbell, a 3,690-foot fence encloses 16 acres. Completed in October 2016, Pono Pacific built it for $337,500, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The enclosure is about three-fourths the size of the total nesting area on Tern Island, which boasts 240,000 nesting pairs of seabirds. More than 500,000 birds call that speck of land in the Pacific home.
Midway is home to the largest colony of black-footed albatrosses, estimated at about 28,610 pairs, roughly 40 percent of the entire population.
Aside from physically bringing birds to the refuge, the scientists at James Campbell are also trying to attract albatrosses by planting decoy birds and playing albatross sounds out of a megaphone.
The goal is to establish 50 to 100 albatrosses at the refuge, after which the colony may be established and take off on its own, Young said, adding that it will probably take five to 10 years before there are breeding birds at the site.
Back at the refuge, Kohley and his crew, including Leilani Fowlke and Erika Dittmar, were packing up the empty syringes from orally feeding the chicks and taking down a makeshift shelter where they weighed them.
“The reality of what people think we do and what we actually do is a completely different thing,” he said, explaining that the vast majority of their time is spent prepping the meals and cleaning equipment.
“I call myself a bird janitor,” he said. “Everything has to be completely clean and sterile. Those boring little details make a huge difference.”
Pacific Rim Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working to open James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge to the public on certain days, beginning in April. Details will be posted on their Facebook pages and www.islandarks.org, which has more details about expanding the habitat for seabirds at risk due to sea level rise.
“The key to recovery is working together with other people,” said Megan Nagel of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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