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