ROB LOWE COURTESY OF U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE
An undated handout photo shows volunteers counting nesting pairs of albatross last year on Sand Island in the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. CLICK FOR LARGE
Midway's albatross population to be counted
A volunteer team of 17 will also band birds in the sanctuary
Seventeen people from Hawaii and the mainland will spend their Christmas holiday counting the albatrosses of Midway Atoll.
The volunteer group leaves Sunday for the only portion of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument that has a place to house and feed that many people.
The group will include bird-lovers from California, Minnesota and Oregon, some of whom have volunteered for this unpaid mission in years past, said Beth Flint, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife biologist who will lead them.
The volunteers, some of whom are Fish & Wildlife Service employees on leave, will systematically count nesting pairs of both types of albatross that live on Midway Atoll's two main islands: Sand and Eastern.
Midway Atoll is by far the largest nesting spot for Laysan albatross in the Pacific, with about 408,000 breeding pairs, or about 70 percent of the species total, according to agency statistics.
Midway is tied for largest population of rarer, black-footed albatross, about 21,000 pairs -- the same number as found on Laysan Island, which is part of the new marine national monument.
The group will put bands on several thousand albatrosses to track them over several years, Flint said.
However, the volunteers won't address concerns raised by the American Bird Conservancy this week about albatross chicks on the island succumbing to lead poisoning, Flint said.
The problem comes from lead-based paint chips from old Navy buildings on the island that date back to World War II, Flint said.
Scientific studies have shown that as many as 10,000 chicks, or 5 percent of the ones hatched, might be killed each year by exposure to lead-based paint, the American Bird Conservancy said in a news release.
The chicks may suffer neurological damage that makes them unable to raise their wings and fly, dooming them to starvation, or other impairments.
"We recognize it's a serious problem, no doubt about that," said Fish & Wildlife spokeswoman Barbara Maxfield. But instead of spending $5.6 million to hire a contractor to get all the lead out at once, the service is attacking the problem bit by bit, she said.
"Last year we put black geotextile fabric around the buildings causing most of problems," to discourage birds from nesting there and to reduce access to the paint chips, Maxfield said. A plan to remove the lead-based paint, repaint the buildings and remove contaminated soil will cost about $1 million and take two to four years, using maintenance employees already stationed on the islands, she said.
Each albatross in a breeding pair trades incubation duty on a single egg, which is about six times larger than a chicken egg, Flint said, for the 60 days it takes to hatch.
Because the parent bird won't leave the nest when it's sitting on an egg, volunteers can systematically count all the nesting birds over a period of several weeks, Flint said. While one parent is sitting on the egg, the other is at sea, eating.
Albatrosses lay their eggs within a two- to three-week period each December, so that's when the counting has to be scheduled, Flint said.