Monday, January 15, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, January 15, 2001

Rare birds socializing again at Midway

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Columnist

The golden gooney, or short-tailed albatross, is expanding is numbers at Midway Atoll, but not through mating.

There was one adult female on the main island, Sand Island. Then another bird showed up on the neighboring island, Eastern. Then came a third short-tail, which visited Eastern, then moved to Sand Island, a hundred yards away from the female.

They couldn’t seem to find each other, perhaps because of the disruptive presence of tens of thousands of their nesting cousins, the Laysan and black-footed albatross.

The short-tailed albatross is among the most endangered seabirds in the world. There are only about 1,150 of them left, about half of mating age.

Two years ago a wildlife manager carried the new Sand Island bird to the Sand Island female, hoping it was a male. The birds appeared to court briefly, but then she flew away and the other bird returned to its original spot. No fertile egg resulted.

This year the female was behaving oddly. She was at a new place, away from her traditional haunt on the southwestern side of the island. Last week biologists found out why: a new golden gooney had appeared on Sand Island, a young bird within 15 feet of where the old female had been hanging out.

The juvenile was spotted by 9-year-old visitor Dolan Staton of Maui. A band around the bird’s leg identified it as an 8-year-old that had been banded in 1993 at Torishima Island off Japan, the species’ main breeding area.

The young bird has not yet developed the characteristic yellow head and neck feathers that give the short-tailed albatross its nickname, and wildlife officials have not been able to determine its gender. One of the ways it was readily distinguished from the Laysan and black-foots was through its bright pink bill.

For the first time there is limited evidence of some golden gooney interaction that has not required hands-on involvement by humans. It isn’t clear whether that means anything, but the wildlife folks on Midway are hoping.

"We’ve taken some extra measures to protect our new visitor. We’ve temporarily closed the nearby trail to avoid human interactions. Our usual minimum 100-foot buffer surrounding all threatened and endangered species at Midway also is being strictly enforced," said Nancy Hoffman, a wildlife biologist at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

"Maybe if they get along and are the opposite sex, next year they’ll mate. It’s too late this year to mate.

"It would be exciting to have a short-tailed chick on Midway," Hoffman said.

Jan TenBruggencate is The Advertiser’s Kauai Bureau Chief and its science and environment writer. You can e-mail him at

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