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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 9, 2004

Midway albatross count up sharply

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The bird count for Laysan albatrosses on Midway atoll has risen dramatically over the past two years, after a decline through most of the 1990s, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials aren't sure why.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials estimate there are nearly a half million pairs of Laysan albatrosses, shown above, on Midway atoll. A recent count indicates a 53.9 percent increase in the sea birds since 2001.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A team of 21 volunteers, with cans of spray paint and mechanical counters, marked and counted every single active nest on the atoll over the recent holidays, arriving at a total of 441,178 breeding pairs. That was a 53.9 percent increase from the count in 2001.

Midway has 75 percent of the world's distribution of Laysan albatrosses, which are among the largest sea birds.

Nests of a related species, the black-footed albatross, were also counted. The volunteers located 20,393 active nests, which represented a 7.2 percent rise from 2001. Midway has 35 percent of the world's black-footed albatross nests. Although most nest on Midway and others in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the birds also nest on islands off Japan.

Both male and females of the species take turns tending the nest, so each nest is assumed to represent two adult birds. There are also many more nonbreeding birds, which are not counted.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Beth Flint said scientists don't clearly know the reasons for fluctuations in the bird numbers.

"It could be that numbers have been down in recent years because of climate conditions, lack of available food, human impacts, or any of a number of other reasons," she said.

But generally, the agency believes Midway is a safer place for the birds than it was years ago as an active Navy base. Many of the antennas and buildings that birds used to fly into have been removed in the Navy's cleanup of the atoll.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.