Midway’s like a dance floor for amorous albatrosses

Published December 28, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott
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Albatrosses, which mate for life, return to the same spot year after year to nest. Couples are affectionate in the nesting grounds. ©2015 David Dow

MIDWAY ATOLL >> For the holidays, Craig and I are working 16 days in sweltering sun, driving rain and gusty wind. At the end of each day, we are dirty, stinky, tired and hungry. Yet we agree that this is one of the best Christmas gifts we could give ourselves. As volunteers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we’re counting albatrosses at Midway.

Consisting of 2.3 square miles of land, the atoll lies near the end of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, 1,260 miles from Honolulu. Human history here tells of shipwrecked sailors, telegraph workers, travelers, hunters and war. Today, though, Midway belongs to the birds.

Seventeen seabird species nest here, but our focus these two weeks is on albatrosses. Starting in November, about a million Laysan albatrosses return to the atoll to raise chicks, creating the largest albatross colony in the world. In addition, hundreds of thousands of single albatrosses also arrive on the atoll’s islands to find mates.

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DancingDuring the first three years of life Laysan albatrosses stay at sea, soaring over the waves and sitting on the water looking for fish, squid and flying fish eggs. Then, like sea turtles, the birds return to the island where they hatched.

The young, nonbreeding albatrosses turn the grounds into an avian rock concert as they sing and dance to attract members of the opposite sex. Usually the performance involves two birds, but sometimes a third and fourth join in, creating a circle of pure exuberance.

Albatross dance steps vary slightly with species, but they’re all similar and include beak touching, wing fanning, head bobbing and sky pointing, often while circling one another on tiptoes. At certain moments during the dance, each bird claps its bills like castanets, moos like a cow, honks like a horn, and neighs like a horse, all punctuated with the occasional owlish screech.

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It can take several seasons for a young albatross to bond with a mate, but when the chemistry is right the partying is over. The quiet couples kiss, cuddle and straighten feathers in touching displays of affection.

It takes eight to nine seasons of practice before a young couple successfully raises an offspring, but once they get it right, the two will breed for decades. A bird named Wisdom, at 64 the oldest albatross known, is here sitting on yet another egg.

We volunteer bird counters pay our own considerable expenses and work long hours in all weather. But if Christmas is about sharing memorable times with friends, appreciating the extraordinary life on our planet and feeling happy to be alive, well then, Midway is the gift of a lifetime.

For volunteer information: click here

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Susan in a sea of birds. Courtesy David Dow.