ARTICLES ON HAWAIIAN
BIRDS AND BIRDWATCHING AND OTHER
The Laysan Albatross (Diomedia immutabilis)
The Laysan Albatross is the most abundant Albatross species in the North Pacific. It is a relatively small Albatross which breeds on atolls in the Hawaiian Archipelago during the northern winter and is pelagic during the non-nesting season, when it disperses into the North Pacific. Historically the population of Laysan Albatross has been very large, with many millions of birds present, however after suffering heavy losses through hunting, military development and accidental losses at sea through long-line fishing, the population is currently estimated at about 2.5 million. This still makes it the most abundant Albatross in the region and the second most abundant Hawaiian seabird.
Historically the species was found on Johnston Atoll, Wake and the Marcus Islands, as well as the Izu Islands. Hunting by Japanese feather hunters at the beginning of the twentieth century decimated populations and the species has found it hard to recover. Marcus Island once had an estimated population of one million birds (Rice and Kenyon 1962). On Midway and Laysan Island the same process was occurring and more than 300,000 birds were killed on Laysan alone in 1909.
Today Laysan Albatross breed on islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago from Kure Atoll to O'ahu; on Guadalupe Island, off central Baja California and a few on San Benedicto Island and Isla Clarion in the Revillagigedos and at Alijos Rocks, off Mexico, and the Bonin Islands. During the non-breeding season birds can be found at sea between the latitudes of 8 degrees N and 59 degrees N and longitudes 170 degrees E and 105 degrees W in the North Pacific Ocean. Birds are recorded annually in Alaska, the Bering Sea, the Aleutians and off California. Birds have been recorded inland in California and Arizona.
Movement of Birds
The species leaves the wintering areas at the end of October and usually arrives on its Hawaiian nesting grounds in mid November and leaves the nesting colony in July, when individuals return to wandering the Pacific. The homing ability of the species was tested by Kenyon and Rice (1958) on Midway, and the longest return made by a bird released in the Philippines was 6,867 kilometres, whilst the fastest return was from Washington State at an average speed of 581 kilometres a day. When the adults first arrive on the nesting grounds they are heavy with layers of fat, a feature designed to help them through the long periods that they spend attending the egg/chick and away from the ocean, however by the end of May a bird may lose up to 24% of its body weight.
The species main food items are squid, flying fish eggs, crustaceans and fish which are all scooped from the surface of the water whilst the bird is swimming, and foraging is mainly conducted at night. Some food items that the species feeds on emit light and may become more visible at night, also the Laysan Albatross has enhanced night vision (high levels of rhodopsin). Individuals may forage as far as 1,770 kilometres away from the nest, although most will forage less than a days flight away during this time. Kuroda (1986) found that the intestine is long relative to the wing length, which accommodates large intermittent meals. During incubation birds do not eat or drink and water loss is reduced by breathing moist air when the bill is tucked under its feathers.
The species is rather clumsy-looking on land though is capable of fairly long walks, which is characterised by a plodding motion. In flight the species is supreme, with long, narrow wings on which they can glide effortlessly for long distances (as much as a mile without flapping). The species usually flies quite close to the water with slight twists and turns to take advantage of the available wind currents coming off the water/waves. In strong winds the species can often be seen banking and "looping" in large arcs rising and falling above and below the horizon. When birds come in to land at the nesting site if there is sufficient wind birds will often make a fairly smooth landing with a running finish, in lighter winds the species has more difficulty landing and birds are frequently seen tripping over, falling head over heels or collapsing onto their chests and heads. Some birds make crash landings in vegetation, perhaps to soften the blow. On take-off the species usually takes a small run, flapping its wings before catching the wind and gliding away. In very strong winds some birds seem to be able to jump into the wind and do not require the run-up. At sea the species eats and sleeps whilst sitting on the water.
Whilst at the nesting sites the species can often be faced with extreme weather conditions - sun, rain and wind. Temperatures in the Hawaiian Islands can reach 32 degrees Centigrade and strong dry winds can blow across exposed sites. Torrential rain can appear quickly and last for several hours. To cope with the extreme heat birds will balance themselves on their hind feet and raise their webbed feet off the ground, this allows for convective cooling of the feet and reduces heat gain from the hot ground. Birds will also sit in the shade or orient themselves so that their feet are in the shade of their body. During wind and rain storms birds will sit with their heads tucked under their wings and face into the oncoming wind to prevent water seeping under the plumage.
Laysan Albatross do not start breeding until they are eight or nine years old, with males starting a year earlier than females. Birds are monogamous and few birds change partners over the course of their life as it reduces breeding success. The pair bond is developed over several years and courtship displays may be developed over three or four years before nesting occurs. Pairs take part in ritual courtship displays, especially during the first few weeks of return before the egg is laid. During this time both birds spend much time "dancing" and calling to each other and displays include foot stomping, wing flapping, ritual preening, wing tucks, neck and bill stretching, bill clapping, bill "fencing" and vigorous neck swooping. A number of different calls are given also and these are shown below:
Significance of Laysan Albatross vocalizations.
Courtship (given more by males)
After the adult male and female arrive copulation may take place within 24 hours (Fisher, 1971). After mating the birds circle the nest site, bill-touch, mutual-preen and call to each other. Within a few hours both birds depart to sea and remain away for about eight days before returning to lay a single white egg. Most eggs are laid between mid-November and mid-December and eggs hatch from about the third week in January to the middle of February. If an egg is lost or broken the pair will not lay another egg that year. Most fledging occurs in mid- late July, although many chicks leave by mid-June and some are still present at the nest in late July.
When adult, the chicks will return to their natal site, although not apparently at the exact nest site where they were born (Rice and Kenyon 1962). Males breed on average 18.3 metres from their natal nesting site and females 25 metres away. Once birds have nested they will return to the same site year after year, and even the same nest, even if recognisable landmarks have been removed (Rice 1959, Fisher 1971).
The total length of the breeding season from arrival of the adults to their departure is 290 days (Whittow, 1993).
Survival and Life Span
Sixty-nine percent of females and 65 percent of males survived to age 17 years. Five percent of fledglings banded in 1944 were recaptured alive at the age of 29 years. In 1972-1973 there were >11 birds of 40 years of age or older. Some bands could not be read, suggesting even older birds. Fisher (1976) estimated the composition of his breeding colony at Midway to be: 54% prime reproductive birds aged 10-19 years, 31% breeders 20 years old or more, and 15% young inexperienced breeders. New breeders were recruited from the Midway colony itself (Whittow, 1993).
Birds that start breeding early in life tend to die young (Fisher 1975). Annual mortality rates are highest during the 3rd to 6th breeding years. In years 1,2 and 7-9, mortality is half that during years 3-6.
Predation occurs on Laysan Albatross, especially to chicks. In the Main Hawaiian Islands dogs appear to be the main threat and on Kaua'i many birds have been lost through "escaped" dogs breaking through fenced colonies and killing birds. Rarely do the dogs do anything but kill the birds, ie. no consumption takes place. On O'ahu Mongoose take some birds and in the Northwest Islands rats may take eggs and chicks. Once the young birds fledge and are alighted on the sea, Tiger Sharks can pose a serious threat, and many Laysan and Black-footed Albatross are lost this way every year.
Human activity has also taken its toll with feather, egg and guano mining in the early 20th century and later from war activity at sites like Midway. In 1964-1965 communications attenas on Eastern Island, Midway killed more than 3,000 adults (Whittow 1993). Also at Midway 54,000 birds were killed as a result of control measures to reduce risk of aircraft collision (Harrison et al. 1984). In the Main Islands human disturbance usually has little effect on nesting birds as most are in protected or semi-protected areas. Those in "open" sites are more likely to be affected by dogs than humans. On Kaua'i birds are removed from Barking Sands Pacific Missile Base. Adults are usually translocated to Kilauea Point NWR on northern Kaua'i, although many (most?) return to Barking Sands. Eggs and chicks have been removed or destroyed at the site in the past, and this practice may still continue today (2002).
At sea many birds are killed each year when they become entangled or hooked on long-line fishing nets. McDermond and Morgan (1993) estimated that in 1990 17,548 birds were caught in nets, this represents 0.7% of the total population. High profile campaigns in the late 1990's and 2001 - 2002 have highlighted the problems these large nest pose to Albatross and it is hoped that by modifying nets and making them less attractive to the birds, that numbers caught will be significantly reduced.
Almost the total Laysan Albatross population occurs on Hawai'i with just a few elsewhere. Two and a half million birds are estimated to make up the population. Of these 800,000 are breeders and 53% of the total nest on Midway. Fisher (1966) estimated that 39% would be incubating eggs, 39% would be absent mates of those incubating and 22% would not be incubating eggs. The population is apparently expanding on Midway, Laysan and French Frigate Shoals.
Numbers of Laysan Albatross at Midway
1992 200,000 breeding pairs
(1922 figures: Fisher and Baldwin 1946; 1945 figures: Fisher 1949; 1992 figures: Harrison 1990).
All Laysan Albatross are protected on land in the Hawaiian Islands and off continental America, with most colonies situated on islands with restricted access and so these populations should be safe from most influences except unusual or severe weather. In the Main Hawaiian Islands exclusion of dogs from refuges and colonies and a stop to relocation of birds from areas deemed inappropriate (eg. Military bases) would help the population. At sea changes in the methods of fishing, such as long-line fishing, are needed to help prevent the death of foraging birds.
Observing Laysan Albatross in Hawai'i
O'ahu: Birds can be seen at Ka'ena Point, NW O'ahu. The population here is very small and birds are frequently disturbed. If full protection is granted at this site and predators secluded the population is likely to increase steadily. The islands off the eastern side of O'ahu occasionally hold birds, although nesting has not yet been successful.
Kaua'i: Birds can easily be seen at Kilauea Point NWR on the North Shore where up to 80 pairs nest, although nesting success is low. Birds are present from mid-November until mid-June, although less frequent as the season progresses. A few birds are often present at Princeville, on the open park grass areas. On the south side of Kaua'i birds are often present at Barking Sands PMF. Access is restricted here but a few are usually viewable from public areas.
NW Chain: The only island usually open to visitors is Midway Atoll, and as it is the centre of the population holds thousands of birds - they cannot be missed here!
At sea: Birds can easily be seen from Kaua'i from headlands such as Kilauea Point, Ha'ena Point, Nawiliwili Lighthouse, Makahuena Point and Polihale. Off O'ahu headlands along the north and east shores provide the majority of sightings. Elsewhere in the Main Islands birds are rather scarce but may be seen between Maui and Moloka'i and Lana'i or from headlands on the Big Island.
Pelagic: Most birds will be recorded in the sea around
the NW Chain and from boats from Kaua'i and westwards/northwestwards. Elsewhere in the Islands birds are more likely
to be encountered as singles and rather less frequently.
See the Annotated List of Hawai'i's Breeding Birds and Where to Watch Birds in Hawai'i pages.
THE LAYSAN ALBATROSS' LIFE
Right: Adult Laysan Albatross, Kilauea Point, Kaua'i, December 2000. © Christian Melgar 2000.
Adult birds arrive about early to mid-November and immediately start displaying and courting their partners from previous years. The single egg is laid after about eight days in small nest depression on the ground, either at the base of a tree or in the open. Nests located near vegetation and under trees are better protected from the sun, rain and wind, important factors for newly born chicks.
The nest is a simple depression in the ground with a few bits of vegetation, such as old leaves and needles. Quite often nests can be found adorned with "trinkets" picked up at sea, which are swallowed by mistake. Items found in Albatross nests (and stomachs) have included plastic fuel lighters, plastic toys, small bottles, bottle tops, string and food wrappers; discarded waste such as this can cause death in the birds through suffocation and poisoning.
Once the egg is laid adult birds can often be seen and heard "talking" to the egg, with soft "ah,ah,ah" noises, whether the chick hears this is of course unknown, but perhaps adult birds are passing along vital information for their long, future lives.
During the period when the egg has not hatched the adults take turn in incubating the egg. Whilst one cares for the new arrival the other will go to sea to feed, before returning and spending up to two weeks on guard at the nest. Once the egg hatches the visiting arrangements are maintained for a while until the chick can be left alone and both adults will go to sea to provide food for the chick, which continues every few days for the first couple of months. When the chick has increased in size and weight the visits become further apart and the adults visit the chick less and less often, sometimes only visiting every two or three weeks.
Right: Sub-adult Laysan Albatross, Kilauea Point, Kaua'i, January 2000.© Christian Melgar 2000. © Christian Melgar 2000.
After having spent the last few years entirely at sea, birds return to the colony where they were born and practice displaying and courtship dances to other young unpaired birds. The display consists of bill clapping, foot stomping, head swooping and stretching, mutual preening, wing preening and folding and bill shaking, all accompanied by low braying noises. Often small groups of birds will join together to perform these courtship dances.
Sub-adults arrive a couple of weeks later to the colony than adult birds, presumably so that their is no competition or distraction to the egg-ready breeding adults.
By the end of January and beginning of February many of the younger birds have left the colony and returned to sea for another year, although some may make return trips throughout the nesting season.
In this photograph two of the birds are bill clapping together whilst a third bird looks on. The furthest left bird is performing an underwing preen display, where it tucks its head under the wing as if preening, this is often followed by a neck stretch and a low nasal calling noise. Birds can often be heard calling throughout the night, although early morning sees most activity amongst the colony.
Right: Laysan Albatross chick, about two weeks old. Kilauea Point, Kaua'i, December 1998. © Christian Melgar 1998.
Chicks are born just a few weeks after the adult birds return, and start of as rather bedraggled, messy individuals with quite course looking feathering. When dry the feathers soon become softer and fluffier but when wet tend to become thin and greasy looking. Chicks of this age are usually attended by one adult for a considerable amount of the time, as at this stage chicks are vulnerable to the weather and to predation.
Right: Laysan Albatross chick, about three & a half months old. Mokolea Point, Kilauea, Kaua'i, March 1999. © Christian Melgar 1999.
After a few months of feeding by the parents, during which time they may undertake foraging trips to Alaska and Japan, as well as the west coast of America, the chicks soon pile on the weight and become large round balls of down. At this stage they are not so susceptible to the weather, but may still be predated upon by dogs and mongoose, and their reluctance to move away from the nest makes them an easy target. Unfortunately chicks which move too far from the nest may not be identified by the parent birds and will go unfed, and will eventually starve to death.
Right: Laysan Albatross chick, about 6 months old, Kilauea Point, Kaua'i, June/July 1999. © Christian Melgar 1999.
The chick has now replaced a large amount of its downy chick feathers and has adult -type feathering on the belly, breast, wings, back and mantle. The head and rear underbody in this individual still retain the younger feathers, although they will soon be replaced, just prior to the bird leaving the nest and undertaking its first flight. The first few minutes after take-off are crucial to the bird, as it needs to to be able to effortlessly fly away from the "danger" of land. Chicks excercise their wings and practice handling the wind whilst still in the nest.
Eventually the adults stop coming and the chick is forced to leave the land in order to feed itself. Sadly some adult birds do not return for one reason or another, such as food shortages or mortality and the second adult cannot cope with the ever-growing chick and may abandon it.
When the chick feels that the moment is right it will launch itself into the air and take its first few unsteady flaps before heading for sea, not returning to land for three to five years. Whilst at sea it may cover tens of thousands of miles and visit any area in the North Pacific, although favoured feeding sites are located in the Bering Sea and Alaska.
Right: Variant Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll, Fall/Winter 2001. © Christie Donnelly 2001.
The dark pigment usually seen in the upperpart feathers of Laysan Albatross have been replaced here with silvery-grey feathers. Normal plumaged birds can be seen in the background.
Right: Albino Laysan Albatross chick, Midway Atoll, Fall/Winter 2001. © Christie Donnelly 2001.
This downy chick shows completely white plumage and the typical pink bare parts (bill,
legs and eye) of albino individuals.
An interesting article on plumage variations and hybridization in Albatross was published in North American Birds in 2002 and is well worth checking out for details and photographs of Black-footed and Laysan Albatross hybrids. The full citation is:
McKEE, T. and P. PYLE. 2002. Plumage Variation and Hybridization
in Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses in North American Birds Volume 56:No.2. ABA, Colorado, U.S.A.
Age Record for Laysan Albatross by Chandler S. Robbins.
"Whilst looking up band numbers of Albatrosses that I had recaptured on Midway Atoll in February (2002), I discovered that one of them was a Laysan Albatross I had initially banded in 1956. This bird was incubating an egg when I banded it, indicating that it was at least five years old at that time. I had replaced the worn band in 1962, and other colleagues had replaced it again in 1985 and 1993. When I gave this bird its fifth sequential band in February 2002 it was brooding a healthy chick at the age of at least 51 years. This breaks the longevity record for North American birds in the wild, the previous record being for this same species at the age of 42 years and 5 months"
Chandler S. Robbins, USGS.
Wandering Gooney Birds destiny; IBRRC and each other A chance in 1.2 million that the birds end up together in California by Karen Benzel, PR/Media Relations, International Bird Rescue Research Center
“We suspect they’re a mated pair because of the displaying and brood patch on the female’s breast. And we know their history because of their federal bands. But how do you explain the fate of the two of them ending up at our center, together. Again?” asked Holcomb, director of IBRRC.
The birds are getting some R&R and waterproofing before their release, which will
occur out at sea. The center, which specializes in the rehabilitation of sea birds and waterfowl, found the birds
in good health, but not totally waterproof. “This is probably due to the fact they were on a barge, which they
most likely mistook for an island, “ Holcomb speculates. “We want to make sure their feathers are in perfect condition
before we release them.”
BENZEL, K. 2002. Wandering Gooney Birds destiny; IBRRC and each other A chance in 1.2 million that the birds end up together in California. PR/Media Relations, International Bird Rescue Research Center, California, USA.
FISHER, H.I. 1949. Populations of birds on Midway and the man-made factors affecting them. Pac. Sci.3:103-110.
FISHER, H.I. 1966. Airplane-Albatross collisions on Midway Atoll. Condor 68.
FISHER, H.I. 1971. The Laysan Albatross: its incubation, hatching and associated behaviors. Living Bird 10: 19-78.
FISHER, H.I. 1971. Experiments on homing in Laysan Albatrosses, Diomedia immutabilis. Condor 73: 389-400.
FISHER, H.I. 1975. Mortality and survival in the Laysan Albatross, Diomedia immutabilis. Pac. Sci. 29:279-300.
FISHER, H.I. 1976. Some dynamics of a breeding colony of Laysan Albatrosses. Wilson Bulletin 88:121-142.
FISHER, H. I. and P.H. BALDWIN. 1946. War and the birds of Midway Atoll. Condor 48.
HARRISON, C.G. 1990. Seabirds of Hawai'i. Natural History and Conservation. Cornell University Press. New York.
HARRISON, C.S., M.B. NAUGHTON and S.I. FEFER. 1984. The status and conservation of seabirds in the Hawaiian Archipelago and Johnston Atoll. Pp. 513-526 in Status and conservation of the World's seabirds. (J.P. Croxall, P.G.H. Evans and R.W. Schreiber, Eds.) ICBP Tch. Publ. No.2. ICBP, Cambridge, U.k.
HARRISON, P. 1983. Seabirds - An Identification Guide. Helm, Kent.
HARRISON, P. 1987. Seabirds of the World - A photographic guide. Helm, London.
KURODA, N. 1986. On the intestinal twistings in Gadfly petrels and comparative notes on the digestive ract in Procellariforms. Jap.J. Ornithol. 35.
McDERMOND, D.K. and K.H. MORGAN. 1993. Status and conservation of North pacific Albatrosses. Pp. 70-81 in The status, ecology and conservation of marine birds of the North Pacific (K. Vermeer, K.T. Briggs, K.H. Morgan, and D. Siegel-Causey, Eds.) Canadian Wildlife Service Special Publication, Ottawa, ON.
McKEE, T. and P. PYLE. 2002. Plumage Variation and Hybridization in Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses in North American Birds Volume 56:No.2. ABA, Colorado, U.S.A.
PRATT, H.D., P.L. BRUNER and D.G. BERRETT. 1987. The Birds of Hawai'i and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
RICE, D.W. 1959. Birds and aircraft on Midway Islands 1957-58 investigations. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special Scientific report Wildlife No.44.
RICE, D.W. and K.W. KENYON. 1962. Breeding history and distribution and populations of North Pacific Albatrosses. Auk 79.
RICE, D.W. and K.W. KENYON. 1962. Breeding cycles and behavior of Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses. Auk 79.
ROBBINS, C. S. 2002. Age Record for Laysan Albatross. USGS, U.S.A.
SPARLING, D.W. 1977. Sounds of Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses. Auk 94.
TICKELL,W. L. N. 1997. Albatrosses. Pica Press, U.K.
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WHITTOW, G. C. 1993. Laysan Albatross (Diomedia immutabilis). In The Birds of North America, No.66 (A.Poole and F.Gill, Eds.) Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences, Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
Christian Melgar. Worthing, West Sussex, UK. 2002.