Monthly Archives: January 2015

Laysan albatross population proliferates at Kaena Point

Published January 26, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

A Laysan albatross pair. Courtesy Mark Grantham

A Laysan albatross pair. Courtesy Mark Grantham

I was recently asked whether Laysan albatrosses were really nesting at Kaena Point. They sure are. The albatrosses there are one of Hawaii’s best conservation success stories.

Laysan albatrosses are peacefully sitting on eggs at Kaena Point because of years of hard work by countless people, aided by the birds’ strong drive to raise chicks. In that, these big birds (wingspan 6.5 feet) are unwavering — a good thing since we nearly wiped them out.

The albatross decline in the main Hawaiian Islands began with the arrival of Polynesian settlers about 1,000 years ago, and the drop continued with the influx of European colonists.

In the early 20th century, the birds suffered devastating losses due to feather and egg collecting, introduced predators, military operations and fisheries bycatch. The number of albatrosses nesting on Oahu dropped to zero.

But even being shot at, having eggs crushed by trucks and eaten by cats, dogs and mongooses, some birds kept coming to Oahu, guided by their instinct to raise offspring near the spot where they were raised. In 1947 one chick was found on Moku Manu Island off Mokapu Peninsula. By 1978 adult albatrosses were appearing at several Oahu locales, with Kaena a favorite.

After moving to Hawaii in 1983, I hiked to the point to see my first-ever albatross. To my horror I found men in trucks shooting the birds. That ended in 1991 when the state made the area a nature preserve and banned off-road vehicles. The first Kaena albatross chick fledged in 1992.

albatross

To further help the seabirds (shearwaters nest there, too), workers in 1995 began trapping cats, rats and mongooses. In 2011 a predator-proof fence was built around the point.

Researchers Lindsay Young and Eric Vanderwerf report this is a record year for Laysan albatrosses inside the fence: 94 couples are nesting, accompanied by uncounted adolescents there to sing, dance and find a mate.

The birds that come to Kaena are not just offspring of the local population. Many are explorers displaced from other islands and searching for a new place to breed. Because albatross pioneers are mostly females, Kaena Point hosts more females than males. Young and Vanderwerf determined that about one-third of the nesters there are female-female pairs successfully raising chicks.

I go often to Kaena Point in winter, and each time I come home with a song in my heart and a spring in my step. The preserve is a one-­hour drive from town and a 5-mile round-trip hike.

albtross


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott

When a turtle needs aid, call help via shell-phone

Published January 19, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

Amy the turtle waits for her ride to the animal hospital. ©2015 Susan Scott

Amy the turtle waits for her ride to the animal hospital. ©2015 Susan Scott

Everyone who cares about Hawaii’s sea turtles will want to enter these numbers in their cellphones: Turtle Rescue: 808-725-5730 and 808-288-5685. I wish I had earlier. (see below for other numbers.)

Last week while snorkeling on the North Shore, I found a little turtle (shell about 20 inches long) struggling on the ocean floor. A fishing line trailed from the turtle’s mouth, wrapped around its head and neck, and bound both front flippers, the right one so tight that the fin dangled. In its struggle, the turtle had snagged a loop of monofilament on a rock and couldn’t surface to breathe.

I dived down, freed the line and swam ashore with the exhausted animal.

Several people rushed to tell me that I wasn’t supposed to be touching a turtle. (Bravo, Hawaii residents, for speaking up for our wildlife.) Of course, seeing that the turtle was injured changed everything. Beachgoers ran to find knives and scissors to help cut the line.

turtle

Turtle experts ask that citizens not pull on fishing line embedded in a turtle’s flesh or mouth because that can further injure the animal. This line, however, was strangling the poor creature and had already nearly severed a flipper.

We gently removed the line, but the turtle clearly needed medical attention. A heartwarming number of people fetched their cellphones — but not one of us knew whom to call. We searched, called, failed, searched some more, called, failed …

After 30 minutes one caller reached a turtle rescue organization on the mainland, which called someone in the state, who called a member of the federal rescue team on Oahu. An hour later a friendly worker arrived. Daniel examined the turtle, thanked everyone warmly and took the turtle to a veterinarian.

turtle

Because people cared, this story with the ugly beginning had a good middle and a happy end. Still, having these numbers in our phones would have shortened the suffering of Amy, the name we gave the turtle because it means “much loved.”

Amy’s vet removed her severely damaged flipper and closed the wound. When Amy has recuperated, workers will bring her back to her North Shore home. Turtles can live with only three flippers.

Daniel of the turtle rescue program takes pictures before transporting the turtle. ©2015 Susan Scott

Daniel of the turtle rescue program takes pictures before transporting the turtle. ©2015 Susan Scott

My fellow beachgoers were right. It’s illegal to handle sea turtles, protected by state and federal laws. But use common sense. If an entangled turtle is drowning, help it breathe and call for help.

The first rescue number is for weekdays 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; the second for all other times.

The sight of that poor turtle broke a lot of hearts that day. The good news is that next time it happens — and it will because turtle entanglements are common on Oahu — we have the right rescue numbers in our phones.

Web Extras:
For after hours phone numbers for all islands check this website:
http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/marine_turtle/strandings.php

For stranded Marine Mammals, like Hawaiian Monk Seals & Whales call the Marine Mammal Stranding and Entanglement Hotline 1- 888-256-9840.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott

Albatross egg discrepancy explained by 2-female pairs

Published January 12, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

COURTESY GREG JODER / U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

Wisdom is in her 60s.

I couldn’t join the albatross-counting team on Midway this year, but my heart is there with the 14 volunteers and the million or so of my sweet feathered friends.

Because albatrosses evolved with no predators, the birds really do feel like friends. Repeat volunteer Raquel Dow emailed, “Midway is as wonderful as ever. This afternoon, while I was waiting for my team, I sat on the ground and a Laysan albatross came up and started nibbling at my glove and sleeve.”

I’ve had similar experiences. Once, while I stood taking pictures, an albatross untied my shoelaces. When I bent down to retie them, another albie pulled tissues from my gaping pocket.

Some birds also feel like old friends because they come back to the same spot year after year. There’s the one nesting in the bike rack, the one next to the dining room steps, and so on.

And then there’s Wisdom. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that Midway’s remarkable Laysan albatross, Wisdom, has laid yet another egg.

Midway biologists gave the bird this fitting name when they discovered that she had been banded at Midway in 1956 when about 5 years old. (Fledged albatross chicks remain offshore until they are sexually mature, about five years, and then return to their birthplace to find a mate.) That makes Wisdom at least 63, raising chicks most of those years.

Soon after biologists discovered this bird’s age, I parked myself near the barracks where Wisdom sat brooding her egg. I shot photo after photo, and when she finally stood up — no leg bands. I had been taking pictures of Wisdom’s most recent husband.

Albatrosses have strong pair bonds — until death do they part. But if one dies, the other finds a new partner and carries on raising offspring. Researchers believe Wisdom has survived several mates.

Albatrosses (and many other birds) practice social, but not sexual, monogamy. If all the males in an area are taken, female albatrosses sometimes pair up, soliciting sperm donations from neighbor males surely happy to oblige.

Each female lays a fertile egg, but because two adults can feed only one chick, the females push one egg from the nest and raise the other.

Before DNA testing revealed that female-female pairs existed, Midway residents swore that some albatrosses laid two eggs, when researchers insisted they lay only one. We now know the reason behind the apparent discrepancy.

We women might not want to be raising kids at 63, but we sure can envy Wisdom’s appearance. Our old friend doesn’t look a day over 5.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott

Coconut crab in the road no monster, merely thirsty

Published January 5, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

This coconut crab was photographed south of Hawaii on Palmyra. ©2015 Susan Scott

Coconut crabs got a lot of attention recently when residents found one walking down Salt Lake Boulevard. A thoughtful person coaxed the non-native animal into a box and notified authorities. When news of this got out, the crab became a celebrity.

As it should. But not because of the sensational reporting, which made the crab sound like the spawn of Godzilla whose presence in Hawaii was a plot toward world domination. No, the coconut crab deserves publicity because it’s a magnificent creature that urgently needs international protection.

On Palmyra Atoll I fell in love with coconut crabs after helping weigh and measure them. The crabs are protected there, but lack of data prevents the overhunted species from being officially listed as endangered.

The coconut crab is a land crab, but its survival depends on the sea. After mating, the female carries her eggs tucked under her folded abdomen until they’re ready to hatch. She then walks to the shore and drops her tiny offspring into the ocean.

After three to six weeks adrift, the lucky survivors, being of the hermit crab family, look for snail shells to call home. Two years later the crabs have outgrown all seashells and spend the rest of their long lives, up to 60 years, naked.

crab

Such exposure leaves the hermit crab vulnerable to dehydration, making a high-humidity environment crucial to its survival. As natives of the steamy rain forests of certain tropical islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, coconut crabs cannot live in Hawaii’s relatively cool, dry climate.

Coconut crabs come in a rainbow of stunning colors arranged in dots, spots, bars and blotches. With two red stalked eyes, four waving antennae and eight gangly walking legs, the crabs look like a cross between a spider and a lobster. This makes the animals creepy to some but beautiful to those of us who admire nature’s amazing designs.

crab

Part of the coconut crab’s fame is its two big front claws, which generate silly headlines like “Coconut crabs ate Amelia Earhart!” But those mismatched pincers have practical functions. One claw strips husks off green coconuts; the other cuts into the hard inner shell. Even with such efficient tools, it takes a mature crab 24 hours to get to the center of a coconut.

No one knows who brought the 4-pound crab (they grow to 8) to Hawaii, or why it was wandering down a city street, but it’s in good hands now with a coconut crab expert guiding its care.

After being kidnapped, chilled, desiccated and deserted, and then portrayed as a vicious monster, I hope our unwilling visitor is treated to a big bag of shredded coconut.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott