Tag Archives: Laysan Albatross

Isolated Midway still has creature comforts

Published December 23, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

A pair of Laysan albatrosses sing and dance. The birds bond for a lifetime. ©2017 Susan Scott

 

When I mentioned that Craig and I were going to work at Midway counting albatrosses over the holidays, the questions people asked made me realize that few people know anything about the place.

Reasonably so. Midway may be in the Hawaiian Island chain, but it’s 1,200 miles from Oahu. And even though the atoll holds the Battle of Midway National Memorial, is part of the Papa­hanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and has long been Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the atoll is not included in the state of Hawaii or even the U.S. You need a passport to go there.

Midway, however, is owned by the U.S., its official designation being a “U.S. minor outlying island.” But don’t dust off your passport. Due to funding cuts to the managing agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the atoll is closed to the public.

When the Navy occupied the place, they called it Midway Island, but Midway is a typical atoll. It consists of three islands totaling 2.4 square miles bathed by a lagoon encircled by a coral reef.

Most people who go there are volunteers for Fish and Wildlife, but getting us there is a monumental task. Given the distance and the poorly named Pacific Ocean, going by boat is not an option. The largest island there hosts an airport, managed and staffed by a few Federal Aviation Administration workers. But no commercial planes currently fly to Midway except in emergencies, which is one of the reasons the government keeps the airport facility open and functional.

We volunteers pay our own charter airfare, up to about $2,500 per seat now, as well as our own meals. Housing is in renovated (and charming) World War II-era buildings that provide electricity, Wi-Fi and private bathrooms.

Not being part of the U.S. means that the contracted manager of the atoll’s facilities, Chugach Alaska Corp., can hire foreign nationals. As a result, about 50 Thai workers maintain the facilities that make Midway life so comfy. A chef named Pong manages the buffet-style meals, half Thai and half American. We albatross counters walk 8 to 10 miles per day, but I still gain weight on Pong’s feasts.

Since 1988, Craig and I have been jumping at any chance to work in this glorious wildlife refuge containing millions of albatrosses, Bonin petrels, white terns, green turtles, monk seals and other animals. But not this year. Due to an airplane glitch, 12 of us volunteer counters aren’t going.

The good news is that the six counters who went on an earlier flight report that the million or so albatrosses there are fine and don’t care if we count them or not. (Biologists care, but that’s another story.) Also, Wisdom, Midway’s 67-year-old Laysan albatross, has laid another egg and is looking as fit and beautiful as ever.

Instead of going to Midway, Craig and I will visit the Kaena Point albies and spend the holidays with our ohana here on Oahu. With alternatives like that, it’s hard to be disappointed.

Merry Christmas, dear readers. You make writing this column a continued joy.

Laysan albatross joins birds visiting isles for the holidays

Published December 16, 2017 in the
“Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

This time of year is perfect for reading about a fictional Laysan albatross’s tale in “A Perfect Day for an Albatross” or watching the documentary “Midway: The Edge of Tomorrow,” which covers the significance of the atoll during World War II with the wildlife that lives there now. ©2017 Susan Scott

Here on Oahu, the holidays are for the birds — shorebirds and seabirds, that is.

In November, we plover lovers added to our list of thanks the first-ever-seen white (called leucistic) kolea, spotted foraging at Heeia Pier.

Late fall is also when Hawaii’s wedge-tailed shearwater chicks leave their burrows and soar to sea. Some youngsters, disoriented by street and shoreside lights, crash-land. Sea Life Park and other caring individuals embody the giving season by helping downed wedgies with rest, nourishment and redirection.

In addition, Honolulu residents and visitors get to enjoy the city’s own version of a white Christmas in the current flurry of white tern egg-laying and chick-rearing.

Topping off our island’s feathery Christmas cheer are Hawaii’s magnificent Laysan albatrosses, returned to nest again at Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve.

Before putting on your hiking slippers to visit the albatrosses (parents are now sitting on eggs, and young birds are singing and dancing for mates), I highly recommend first hitting the couch to read a book and watch a movie.

The book is “A Perfect Day for an Albatross,” written and illustrated by Caren Loebel-Fried, an award-winning author and artist from Volcano, and published by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Loebel-Fried’s work of art is a children’s book in the way Pixar films are for children. Kids love the pictures and story, but the art is so stunning, and Malie the albatross’s tale so well told, that it’s a treat for adults too. A bonus in the book for teachers and home- schoolers is an educational guide for grades 1-3.

The partnership between Loebel-Fried and Cornell is a fine example of the lab’s mission of conservation work through combining scientific research, art and citizen science.

Similarly, the recent documentary “Midway: The Edge of Tomorrow” artfully combines the military significance of the atoll during World War II with the wildlife that now rules there.

You can watch the movie free on Amazon Prime or rent it for $5 for 48 hours. We rented it at a friend’s house, and she emailed that she watched it two more times before it expired. It’s that good.

Speaking of Midway, I’ll be writing next month’s columns from there because I’m going again as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife volunteer to help count albatrosses. The work is strenuous and the cost high (volunteers pay their own airfare and food), but it’s so worth it. See goo.gl/VX4Ph6 for information about volunteering.

Here in the islands, the spirits of Christmas forage, fledge, fish and fly. There’s no place like Hawaii for the holidays.

Albatross killings at Kaena Point were slaughters of innocents

Published July 15, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

On Dec. 27, 2015, two male Punahou students and one alumnus drove to Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve with a baseball bat, machete and air gun and proceeded to butcher 15 Laysan albatrosses, smash their eggs and steal researchers’ equipment. Parts of this atrocity were posted on social media.

There are so many things wrong with that paragraph, it boggles the mind. But one reason so many people are so upset about this planned act of violence is that these are not little-known birds in a run-of-the-mill park. Kaena Point is like a constellation outlining an extraordinary corner of our island, the albatrosses nesting there its twinkling stars.

It was not always so. In 1983, Craig and I walked to Kaena Point to see our first Laysan albatrosses. There we found roaring vehicles tearing around wrecked dunes, spewing sand on hikers and drowning out the sound of the ocean. We were thrilled, however, to find three albatrosses, standing together on a rise, their white chests gleaming in the noonday sun.

And then someone in a pickup shot them. The photo our friend took just before the killing haunts me to this day.

For years I watched the Kaena Point battle between conservationists and off-roaders. When the state piled up boulders to block vehicles, someone would drive a backhoe out there and open a passage.

Eventually the state got big enough rocks, and without trucks the reserve quickly began to blossom with native plants and animals. A few albatrosses chose to nest there, and gradually a colony was reborn.

Private and public workers have worked diligently for decades to protect and improve Kaena Point, and today it’s a must-see place for both visitors and residents.

Besides being angry over the criminals’ defilement of this special place, we albatross admirers are outraged over the slaughter because bludgeoning albatrosses is like bludgeoning golden retriever puppies.

Laysan albatrosses evolved with no land predators and therefore are not afraid of humans, making the birds a delightful blend of tame and wild. At Midway a curious albatross once untied my shoelaces as I stood talking. When I squatted down to take a picture, another bird pulled a tissue from my gaping pocket.

While working at Tern Island, I once wrote the following: “Cradling a Laysan albatross in my arms was a joy like no other, the bird’s feathers so soft that my work-calloused hands could barely feel them. But my lips could. When it was my turn to hold, I would lower my face to the bird’s head, inhale its fresh smell of the open ocean, and press my lips to its velvety feathers. With this touch, I delivered to the bird a message: You are magnificent and I adore you.”

The Kaena Point incident is a stark contrast to the aloha spirit we enjoy in Hawaii, but the sentencing is done and it’s time to move on. I look forward to November when our albatrosses return to Kaena Point and once again I can walk in the cluster of our island’s brilliant stars.

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.

laysanchick

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

Kaena Point is cleaner, safer than it was before

Published February 3, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

 Last week, I took some family members on a hike to Kaena Point. This was my first visit there since my car was trashed in the parking lot a year ago. Determined not to let paranoia spoil the walk, I removed everything from the car, left the doors unlocked and headed down the road.

My precautions were probably unnecessary because changes have occurred in this state park over the past year. Neat boulders line the parking lot and beginning of the trail, prominent signs forbid littering and motor vehicle riding, and the area looked cleaner than I had seen it.

Most important, the new Kaena Point ambassador, Reuben Mateo, was an obvious presence. When I met him, he was sitting near the entrance of the park greeting visitors in his state pickup.

I complimented him on the improvements. “I haven’t done much,” he said. “I’ve only been here two months.”

Still, the attendance of this friendly man with the big smile made all the difference. The message is that this jewel of a park is worth spending some money and effort to protect.

Mateo agreed that the number of vehicles in the park is still a problem. A future permit system may fix that.

But my family and I didn’t dwell on the noise and dust of the trucks and vans. We hiked past them in a brisk two-mile walk, then entered the nature park. There we enjoyed one of the best whale shows I’ve ever seen from shore.

Several groups of humpback whales were as active as they get. Two whales held their pectoral fins high out of the water as if “sailing” in the strong winds. Several others began tail-slapping. Others occasionally leaped from the water in spectacular breaches.

What a show it was, made even better by our having viewed the new IMAX film “Whales” the night before in Waikiki. “I’m so glad we saw that movie,” my sister said as we watched one whale slap its tail on the surface over and over. “Now I know what’s going on under the water too.”

The film, produced and partly written by former Waikiki Aquarium director Leighton Taylor, is well worth seeing. The footage of Hawaii’s humpbacks, both here and in their summer Alaska feeding grounds, is superb. The exciting coverage of right whales reminded me that there are other whales in the world to visit. Argentina’s Peninsula Valdez is now on my list of must-see places.

Kaena Point is a must-see place too, and not only for humpbacks. When we could finally tear our eyes from the sea, we discovered that other marine animals were practically sitting at our feet.

A group of Laysan albatrosses stood on a hill singing and dancing up a storm. We lowered our voices and kept our distance so as not to disturb them. Then along came a family with a big dog on the loose. We cringed, hoping it would not find and kill the albatross sitting on an egg near the path.

Such deaths will continue until people stop bringing unleashed dogs into the park.

I wished there was some way to shoo the courting albatrosses to the other side of the island. There, off Sea Life Park, private and public agencies have set up a little seabird paradise at Kaohikaipu Island.

On our way home, goat-like braying echoed from the cliffs above. These are the unusual calls of white-tailed tropic birds nesting on the mountainside. Despite years of looking, I have never seen one of these seabirds here.

This day was different. When I looked up, I spotted one of these lovely white birds flying toward the ocean.

“Now I understand why you like to hike so much,” my sister said when we returned to my untouched car. “With places like this around, walking is really fun.”

Walking to Kaena Point is fun. And with increased protection, it’s getting better all the time.

 

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.