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Two Laysan albatross chicks born last week on Oahu’s North Shore are giving conservationists hope as they race to establish safe habitats for the threatened seabirds.
Nearly all of the world’s Laysan albatross, an iconic seabird that spends much of its life soaring throughout the central and northern Pacific Ocean, breed on low-lying atolls in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
But scientists are concerned about the longterm viability of those nesting grounds because of sea level rise and other effects of climate change. Stronger storm surges already destroy thousands of nests annually.
The North Shore Community Land Trust has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawaii Marine Animal Response, Turtle Bay Resort and private landowners to create suitable habitat on a few dozen acres near Kalaeokaunaoa, commonly known as Kahuku Point.
“We’ve been working out here since 2015 just chipping away at it, one ironwood tree or invasive species at a time,” said Tim Tybuszewski, the land trust’s director of conservation.
A team relying heavily on volunteers has been pulling weeds, trapping predators and stabilizing dunes with replanted native species to restore the land near Oahu’s northernmost point.
There are now six albatross nests in the Marconi area, private land that’s being subdivided and sold off next to a golf course at Turtle Bay Resort. Tybuszewski said the Colorado-based landowner has been supportive of their restoration work.
Sheldon Plentovich, Pacific Islands Coastal Program coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an email that she’s excited that “for the first time in a very long time we have albatross chicks on the north coast of Oahu around Kahuku Point.”
“We hope more chicks are on the way and we will continue to work hard to protect this revived colony that may be very important as sea level rises,” she said.
Fossil evidence indicates that seabirds were not only present, but abundant in the main Hawaiian Islands before the arrival of humans, according to a Pacific Rim Conservation study. And they had in recent years been attempting to nest at Kahuku Point, but were unsuccessful.
The goal is to eventually install a predator-proof fence, which has proven effective at neighboring James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge, where black-footed albatross breed, and at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve.
A predator-proof fence was installed in 2011 at Kaena Point on the westernmost tip of Oahu. Now that a 59-acre area is virtually free of cats, dogs, mongooses, rats and mice, a record 106 albatross pairs attempted to breed there last year. And endangered wedge-tailed shearwater chicks have more than tripled in the last seven years, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
When albatross are about 1 month old, they generally imprint on their home and will come back to it to lay their eggs. Tybuszewski said the hope is that the two albatross chicks at Kahuku Point, which will fledge sometime around July, will start a new colony there.
When the chicks first take flight, they head to the North Pacific. They spend the next three to five years foraging for food and learning to fly, going as far as the Bering Sea, according to the North Shore Community Land Trust.
Volunteers are monitoring four other Laysan albatross nests in the area and hope to see them hatch soon.
Meanwhile, the world’s oldest known banded wild bird, a Laysan albatross called Wisdom, had another chick last week on Midway Atoll, the species’ most important breeding ground. More than 70 percent of the worldwide population nests on Midway.
Laysan albatross generally only lay one egg at a time, and usually not every year. But Wisdom, now at least 68 years old, has come back to the same nest and hatched an egg each year with her mate since 2006.
Midway is a national wildlife refuge and protected as part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which includes all the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the waters extending offshore 200 miles. But as with other atolls in that stretch of the archipelago, sea level rise and more intense hurricanes are growing threats.
“The contribution of even one bird to the population makes a difference,” said Bob Peyton, Fish and Wildlife project leader for Midway Atoll Refuge and Memorial, in a statement last week.
Wisdom has now raised at least 31 chicks, the agency said in a news release.
Albatross return in October to reunite with their lifelong mates and spend approximately seven months incubating their egg and raising the chick.
For the first years of their lives, albatross grow and mature at sea. Starting around age 5, juvenile albatross return to their home colony during breeding season and begin the search for a mate, the release said.
“During nesting season, juvenile albatross all over Midway Atoll practice elaborate courtship dances or dozens of ritualized movements,” the release said. “When they find that special bird to dip, bow, and preen with, the pair stays bonded for life.”
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