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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 6, 2006

Safer nests sought for albatrosses

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Columnist

Japanese scientists plan this spring to bring as many as 10 Laysan chicks to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kaua'i, where there is already a small Laysan albatross colony, and to feed and rear them until they fledge. The young birds, if all the permits are granted, would be from nests in dangerous or threatened locations on Midway Atoll.

The birds would be stand-ins for their extremely rare cousins, short-tailed albatrosses. Scientists hope to use the rearing techniques to move short-tails from their main nesting site, on the slopes of an active volcano, and to create a new nesting site in a safer island location.

The short-tailed albatross, Phoebastria albatrus, is familiarly known as the golden gooney for the yellow-gold tint on its head. It is increasing in numbers, but there are only about 500 nesting pairs and roughly 2,000 birds in all. The largest population nests in an area susceptible to mudslides on an active volcano, on the Japanese island of Torishima.

"Habitat destruction from volcanic eruptions poses a significant threat to short-tailed albatrosses at the primary breeding colony on Torishima," the animals' draft recovery plan says. The plan is available at ecos.fws .gov/docs/recovery_plans/2005/051027.pdf.

Biologists in Japan and the U.S. hope to establish a safe alternative nesting population on another island, but since albatrosses faithfully return to their own nesting colonies when they mature, researchers plan to move chicks that are very young—so that when they mature, they will come back to the new site to nest.

The draft recovery plan suggests the golden gooney may once have been the most populous of the three North Pacific albatrosses. It was driven to near extinction after being aggressively collected for its feathers and fat. But a few survived, and they have slowly started rebuilding the population.

The animals once nested on numerous islands, but are now found only on two islands in the western Pacific. Scientists hope to establish the new colony on a non-volcanic island where birds will be free of human interference.

The short-tail is the largest of the North Pacific albatrosses, said Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species biologist Judy Jacobs, who helped write the recovery plan. The short-tail has a 7-foot wingspan, a large pink beak and while chicks are dark, adults have a white back with black wing tips. The Laysan has a white head but a black back, and the black-footed albatross is mostly black.

If you have a question or concern about the Hawaiian environment, drop a note to Jan TenBruggencate at P.O. Box 524, Lihu'e, HI 96766 or jant@honoluluadvertiser.com. Or call him at (808) 245-3074.