Tag Archives: Albatross

1867 sailors showed heart, unlike Kaena Point vandals

Published April 4, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
Biologists working at Midway Atoll stand next to a fearless Laysan albatross. Because albatrosses evolved without land predators, they have no fear of people. ©2016 Susan Scott

Biologists working at Midway Atoll stand next to a fearless Laysan albatross. Because albatrosses evolved without land predators, they have no fear of people. ©2016 Susan Scott

After reading about my experiences at Midway, home of the largest albatross colony in the world, Mililani resident Jim May emailed me excerpts of letters his great-grandfather Edward May wrote. Edward was the paymaster aboard the USS Lackawanna when its captain claimed possession of Midway for the U.S. in 1867.

After raising the American flag, the crew explored Midway’s two islands. “Both are fairly covered with birds that don’t care any more for a man than for one of their own kind,” Edward wrote. “They won’t move off their nests unless you push them over.”

Edward killed 16 albatrosses for food, writing that he felt “mean for pegging away (hitting) at them and abusing their confidence.”

Jim thought I might be appalled by the description of the men bludgeoning the docile bird. I am not. Sailors had to eat.

What is appalling is the subsequent slaughter of millions of albatrosses for feathers on women’s hats. And even more appalling is the recent butchery of Kaena Point albatrosses. The fact that some 19th-century sailors felt bad about killing albatrosses for food says a lot about the depravity of the Kaena Point vandals.

There are, however, bright sides in Hawaii’s albatross history. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt stopped the mass killing of seabirds in Hawaii’s northwest chain, and today the enormous area is protected as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

In the early 1980s at Oahu’s Kaena Point, I saw men in pickup trucks shooting albatrosses. Now Kaena Point is a jewel in the state’s Natural Area Reserve system, and the public was outraged over the December bird killings there. The case is pending.

Innovation is also at work today with multiple groups working together to create a new albatross colony at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku. The refuge is, understandably, closed to the public.


It’s easy to get discouraged about wildlife conservation in Hawaii, but consider how far we’ve come. John Berger, the range complex sustainment coordinator at Barking Sands, said it perfectly in an email he sent about last week’s column. He appreciated the article for “recognizing not what we did, but what we are doing, and what we can expect in the future.” Thanks to all for writing.

New Oahu albatross colony required a huge team effort

Published March 28, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott
These albatross chicks, with an adult decoy, were raised at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku. ©2016 Susan Scott

These albatross chicks, with an adult decoy, were raised at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku. ©2016 Susan Scott

Last week I visited the cutest albatross chicks in the world, balls of down so bottom-heavy they look like beanbag toys.

OK, all baby birds are adorable, but these aren’t your average chicks. They’re subjects in a grand experiment to start a new albatross colony in a protected place.

This story begins in the 1970s when albatrosses began laying eggs at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai’s west coast. Besides the big seabirds being aircraft hazards, dogs destroyed their eggs and killed their chicks.

Workers tried shooing the birds away, but the albatrosses came right back. Next, biologists caught the birds and drove them in pet carriers to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge where other albatrosses nest. Albatrosses, however, raise their chicks where they themselves fledged. Back to the missile base they flew.

So workers collected the birds’ freshly laid eggs and placed them under albatrosses with infertile or lost eggs at the Kilauea Point colony. But because there aren’t enough eggless adults there for all the PMRF eggs, some had to be destroyed.

Conservation workers from multiple agencies thought: Why waste albatross eggs? And they hatched an intricate plan. . Biologists flew the fertile PMRF eggs to Oahu, warmed some in incubators but placed most under chickless adults at Kaena Point.

After a month, long enough for the youngsters to learn they’re albatrosses, biologists collected the foster kids, drove them to the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku and fed the toddlers fish slurry. Success. Ten chicks fledged from that haven, hopefully to return in two to five years to raise their own offspring.

This year workers are feeding 20 translocated chicks in the locked-gate sanctuary, safe from aircraft and vandalism and elevated enough to protect the colony from sea level rise. A predator-proof fence is on the way.

Last week I watched biologists lovingly feed those 20 butterball babies. Five days later the Navy invited me to tour the Kauai’s PMRF, where I met adult albatrosses, some likely the parents of the James Campbell chicks.

“Go to Oahu,” I wanted to shout to the lingering adults. “Your chicks are there, fat and healthy.”

The planning, money, permitting and hard work involved in creating a secure place for a new albatross colony, and then persuading the birds to use it, required tremendous team effort. But caring people in the Navy, Pacific Rim Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the American Bird Conservancy, additional agencies and countless volunteers got together and made it happen. Now it’s up to the birds.

To donate money or time to this project, see bit.ly/1ShWM5r.


Workers find plenty to like about their feathery friends

Published January 4, 2016 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2016 Susan Scott

Albatrosses at Midway are curious about volunteers on the atoll, but because they evolved without land predators, are unafraid. ©Susan Scott

MIDWAY ATOLL >> Why do 18 people with a range of backgrounds pay their own expenses to count albatrosses on a remote atoll over the holidays? We’re nature lovers, of course, but we have another link: We think living with albatrosses is fun.

Everyone marvels at the goose-size birds’ boisterous songs and delirious dances, but albatrosses have nearly endless endearing behaviors. When I asked each of my five team members to name their favorite, the response was the same: “I have to pick just one?”

Martha chose egg talk. Every once in a while a brooding bird stands up, lowers its beak to the egg and murmurs, “Eh, eh, eh.” No one knows what this means, but it’s likely voice recognition between parents and offspring, crucial when mom or dad return with a meal to a colony of hundreds of thousands of wandering, identical-looking chicks.

Craig likes shift change. For the 63-day incubation period, albatross couples take turns keeping their egg warm, the on-duty bird sitting for up to three weeks. Yet even though the sedentary bird’s digestive tract is empty after the first few days, the sitter hates to quit work. The resulting circling, murmuring and nudging by the relief partner goes on for so long that witnessing the actual transfer is a noteworthy event.

Ann-Sheree is fond of the way couples groom each other’s feathers in affectionate nibbles with those big sharp beaks. The recipient closes its eyes and turns its head and neck as if getting a massage. Then it’s the other’s turn for a tender feather fix.

Breck and Luke picked as their favorite behaviors some albatrosses’ show of utter indignation when annoyed. Each bird has its own personality, and a few are quick to issue a snappy bill-clacking warning to back off when a bird dances too near a nest or a human steps too close. A few plucky individuals deliver a peck.

These seldom connect, but when they do it’s a pinch of a pant leg or, at worst, a scratch on the skin. Afterward the bird looks smug, as if to say, “Well, I warned you.”

As for me, I love that albatrosses, lacking natural land predators, aren’t afraid of me. When I sit on the road taking pictures, young walkers often stop by and gently touch my shoe, shirt, camera or arm. What are you? I imagine them thinking as they stare up at my face. Looking into the eyes of an albatross as it calmly gazes back makes me happy to be alive. I know I speak for us all when I say that working at Midway is the privilege of a lifetime. It’s also really fun.

Check out volunteer opportunities at Get Involved.

Midway’s like a dance floor for amorous albatrosses

Published December 28, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott

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.


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.


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


Susan in a sea of birds. Courtesy David Dow.

Albatrosses receive help to prep for high sea level

Published August 17, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott


A Laysan albatross. The native birds need our guidance to nest on higher ground. ©2015 Susan Scott

Just when I’m feeling low about how humans treat wildlife on our planet, in comes the following news release from a local nonprofit group called Pacific Rim Conservation: As of July 1, 10 Laysan albatross chicks fledged from James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on Oahu’s North Shore. The young birds’ launch signals the first success in a three-year project to create a new albatross colony.

The birds need new colonies because 99 percent of the world’s Laysan albatrosses nest in the low-lying atolls of Hawaii’s northwest chain. With sea levels on the rise, it won’t take much ice melt to flood the nurseries.

But persuading adult albatrosses to nest on higher ground is next to impossible. With the exception of a few pioneers, such as those that began a colony on their own at Kaena Point, albatrosses are hard-wired to nest where they were raised.

So rather than move adults, workers moved eggs.

For both albatross and human safety, each fall since 2004 workers at Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility have collected albatrosses and their eggs from the runway area and taken them to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, home to a long-established albatross colony.

Adults released there consider their eggs lost and fly to sea to try again next year. But not all eggs are lost. Biologists tuck some under albatrosses whose eggs were either broken or infertile. Because there aren’t enough foster parents to brood all the PMRF’s runway eggs, leftovers are donated to researchers.

This year, though, in a translocation experiment sponsored by multiple agencies, biologists “candled” the extra eggs to find live embryos, flew those to Oahu and placed them in incubators.

Upon hatching, the tiny chicks were flown back to Kauai to foster parents whose eggs didn’t hatch. This crucial move caused the chicks to imprint on the correct species.

At a month old, the age when chicks get a fix on their birth location, the youngsters were flown back to Oahu’s James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge. There, amid a pretend albatross colony of decoys and recordings, workers for five months fed the chicks fish and squid slurry.

To everyone’s joy, all 10 chicks grew up and flew to sea, hopefully to return in three to five years to James Campbell. When they mate and start raising their own chicks there, a new colony will be born.

Learning the details of how countless people studied, carried, drove, candled, flew, incubated, flew again, fostered, flew another time, fed and sheltered those chicks renewed my faith in human compassion toward wildlife. Not everyone is out there shooting lions.

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

©2015 Susan Scott


Readers’ stories illustrate concern for marine animals

Published February 9, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott


My recent turtle and albatross columns, plus a fish bloom, prompted readers to email me some of their own encounters with marine animals.

Not all the stories were positive. One man threatened to sock a turtle lover with a sinker for asking the angler to fish somewhere besides a turtle hangout. Even so, all the stories are encouraging. They show that people care.

In my turtle rescue column I gave two phone numbers (725-5730 and 288-5685) to call to report injured turtles. But those Oahu numbers left neighbor islanders wondering who they should call. The following website gives current turtle rescue numbers for all islands: 1.usa.gov/1uy2piC.

Our monk seals have a different team of guardians and therefore different phone numbers. The Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline for monk seals injured or in trouble is 888-256-9840. Phone numbers for specific islands are at 1.usa.gov/1ysKPN8.

Now my cellphone contacts named “Turtle” and “Seal” have websites, too.

One reader saw a Japanese tour group taking pictures not 5 feet from a monk seal at Kaena Point. She explained that people must stay at least 150 feet from resting seals, but the visitors didn’t understand. Her good suggestion is that the English signs in the preserve should also be in Japanese and Chinese.


Another Kaena Point concern was that nesting albatrosses were being disturbed by students weeding and planting inside the closed area. The reader worried because the birds were flying and vocalizing far more than in the past.

Having worked with albatrosses, I’m confident that the planters were not disturbing the nesting birds. Albatrosses evolved without predators and don’t fear humans — or hardly anything else.

Years ago on Midway, when the Navy still managed the atoll, I watched nesting albatrosses sit calm and collected as workers rode roaring lawn mowers in circles around the birds’ nests.


The exuberant activity at Kaena right now is from young albatrosses singing and dancing to attract a lifetime mate. The partying is a sign the colony is growing because the birds that pair off at Kaena this year will return next year to raise chicks.


And finally, several readers wrote to report sightings of flying gurnards. The fish don’t fly. Their name comes from winglike fins that fan the ocean floor to uncover shrimp and crabs.

Last fall Hawaii’s flying gurnards had such a population explosion that in some places they were washing ashore.

Think of the pictures you took of these usually rare fish the way I do my letters from readers: as gems to save.

Thank you all for taking the time to write.

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

©2015 Susan Scott


Kaena Point is hard to beat for watching nature’s glory

Published November 25, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A Hawaiian monk seal basked at Kaena Point last week. ©2013 Susan Scott

Last week I hikedto Kaena Point, a daylong excursion (about a one-hour drive from Honolulu, and a 5-mile round-trip hike). A few days later I got a text from a friend: “Hiking to Kaena Point. Wanna come?”

Leaving Oahu’s mass of buildings and lines of vehicles and walking into that world-class wildlife sanctuary had been like stepping through a magic wardrobe. Could I turn down another such journey? Of course not. I accepted instantly.

In the 1980s the state banned motorized vehicles from the 59-acre space to allow the plants and animals of this rare dune ecosystem (one of the last in the main Hawaiian Islands) to recover. And that they did, especially after the 2011 installation of a cat/rat/mongoose-resistant fence.

During my visits, Laysan albatrosses worked the wind, soaring as only albatrosses can. Other albatross parents had already hunkered down on newly laid eggs, and a few were singing and dancing in their search for mates. About 400 of these native seabirds spend the nesting season at Kaena Point, and the numbers continue to grow.


Wedge-Tailed Shearwater chick. ©2013 Susan Scott

Layman Albatross. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

Layman Albatross. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

 Wedge-tailed shearwaters (the “wedgies” I wrote about two weeks ago) also nest here. Full grown but still downy, chicks are emerging from their underground burrows, blinking in the bright sun. The youngsters are gearing up for the big leap, their first flight to the sea.

Kaena Point is also an ideal place to watch humpback whales and winter waves. Besides the beauty of big surf, the 20-foot-tall waves pounding the shore during my first visit caused four Hawaiian monk seals to choose a sleeping place exceptionally high on the beach. Several residents and visitors, a monk seal expert and 91 Punahou students admired the seals from a respectful distance. (To read about Kaena Point’s seals, and others spotted around the islands, see monksealmania.blogspot.com.)

Kaena Point

©2013 Susan Scott

This westernmost corner of Oahu gets our youngsters out hiking and, at the same time, teaches in the best way: by showing rather than telling. A troop of Kame­ha­meha students arrived as we left.

A sparkling diamond on the pinkie finger of Oahu, Kaena Point proves that given protection from vehicles and introduced predators, wildlife and humans can, even on a crowded island, coexist.

This special state preserve is a good place to visit any time, but especially so this week of Thanksgiving. If anything on this island makes me feel thankful to be alive, healthy and living on Oahu, it’s the precious point we call Kaena.

I’m already planning my next trip.

monk seal

Juvenile Monk Seal, Kaena Point. ©2013 Scott R. Davis

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

©2013 Susan Scott

There’s hope albatrosses might make a comeback

Published January 13, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Every now and then, we nature lovers get discouraged about the state of the world’s wildlife.

Too many uncaring people, not enough money, more and more species getting listed as endangered . . .

I was feeling like that last week, brooding in particular over the fact that so many of our black-footed albatrosses are getting killed by long-line fishing hooks that the species may soon be listed.

Then I got a message from Gail Kaaialii, coordinator of the Laysan albatross project at Kaohikaipu Island off Sea Life Park.

Gail had good news: An albatross had settled down on the island for three entire days.

My mood suddenly soared.

If this low-budget program staffed mostly by volunteers is starting to work, there’s hope for the future.

The Laysan albatross project began three years ago as a joint effort among federal, state and private agencies to entice pioneering albatrosses to breed in safe territory.

Uninhabited and predator-free Kaohikaipu Island is such a place.

To lure the sea birds there, workers made and put out decoys that look like Laysan adults and chicks.

Compact discs also continuously play albatross mating songs.

The theory is that passing pioneers will see and hear other members of their species and rightfully think the island a good place to set up housekeeping.

Once a few real birds nest there, the colony will grow on its own since most albatrosses nest in the place of their birth.

To monitor its effectiveness, volunteers watch the island from Sea Life Park and record activity.

The past two years have been encouraging but not great.

Some birds have stopped to check the place out, then left soon after.

This latest bird seems to be more serious. It was even dancing with one of the decoys.

But one bird doesn’t make a colony.

“We’re so close, and yet so far,” Gail told me. “The bird on the ground still has to attract another flying by.”

There’s a good chance that will happen.

Over the last decade or so, Laysan albatross numbers have been increasing throughout the North Pacific, making colonies in Hawaii’s northwest chain more and more crowded.

Pioneer birds are thus venturing to Oahu.

The problem is that the birds are trying to nest in places dangerous to both themselves and humans.

One such area is the Kaneohe Marine base runways of Mokapu Peninsula. Another is Kaena Point Nature Park where mongooses, cats, dogs and people routinely kill hatchlings in their ground nests.

The Kaohikaipu project is a good effort to help wildlife return to Oahu.

Now if long-line fishermen will voluntarily use anti-sea bird fishing techniques, we may see some black-footed albatrosses here. too.

If you love to birdwatch, you can help with this project by calling Gail Kaaialii at 528-4241.

Long-line fishing hooks threaten mighty albatross

Published September 30, 1996 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1996 Susan Scott

WHILE visiting Midway about a year ago, I saw a black-footed albatross with both ends of an enormous hook poking out of its neck. The bird seemed unfazed by this involuntary body-piercing. It strutted the nesting grounds like an outlaw. “Stand back,” the albatross seemed to say. “I’m bad.”

Even though the bird was apparently unharmed, refuge manager Ken Neithammer decided the hook must go. It was both a handicap and a potential danger for this native seabird.

Three people worked to remove the 3-inch-long hook, embedded in the superficial flesh of the animal’s neck. When the bird was released, it huffed away, disgruntled but healthy looking.

I picked up the beefy hook and turned it over in my hand. “This is some hook,” I said.

“It’s from a long-line fishing boat,” Ken said.

“I thought long-line hooks hung down really deep,” I said. “How would the bird get to it?”

“They dive for the bait as the fishermen set them out.”

“Is this common?” I asked.

Ken waved his hand over the black-footed albatross nesting grounds. “No one knows. But the number of birds in these nesting grounds is dropping each year. We’re worried.”

TODAY, wildlife managers are worried more than ever. The rate at which albatrosses and other seabirds are being killed on long-line fish hooks worldwide is so high that some species are approaching extinction. The world population of the wandering albatross, a southern hemisphere bird, has declined 41 percent in the last 30 years.

Wandering albatrosses continue to dwindle about 10 percent per year, a rate that can’t go on much longer if the species is to survive.

Other albatrosses, such as our black-footed albatross, and the critically endangered short-tailed albatross (only about 600 remain), also are suffering severe losses from long-line hooks.

Long-line fishermen are getting the word about this problem. In Australia and New Zealand, laws already mandate that fishing lines have bird-avoidance gear on them. No such laws exist in the United States, but unless long-liners voluntarily adopt seabird preservation measures, it’s inevitable.

LAST week, Honolulu workers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Western Fisheries Management Council had a meeting with Hawaii’s long-line fishermen to discuss the problem and ways around it. The point is to stop catching seabirds before the problem causes more trouble for both the birds and the fishery.

The fishermen, who seemed interested and willing, don’t want to catch seabirds. Not only does it waste bait and time, the fishermen need these birds to show them where the fish are.

At little or no cost, long-liners can nip this problem on their own. They can:

 Set long-line gear at night. Albatrosses are most active during the day and at dusk.

 Decrease lights that illuminate the water at night. Lights only help the birds find the bait.

 Throw hooks into the water from the lee side of the boat. Hooks sink faster there than on the turbulent windward side.

 Haul in gear as fast as possible and keep the line coming up at a steep angle to the surface.

 Thaw bait completely. Frozen bait floats.

 Only buy bait with deflated swim bladders. Air trapped in bait bodies makes them float.

At some cost to fishermen, they can:

 Buy and use bird lines. These contain lightweight flags that scare off birds.

 Use weighted hooks to help them sink faster.

Albatrosses, the legendary guardians of the ocean and seamen, are in big trouble. If long-line fishermen don’t take care of this problem, the federal government surely will.