Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, January 12, 1998

Observing - and counting - the Laysan albatross

LAST week I was knee-deep in Laysan albatrosses. Everywhere I looked, these goose-size birds dominated my view. They sat on lawns, under golf carts and in the rungs of bicycle racks.

Some took naps in the middle of the road; others soared gracefully past my face in the stiff, cool breeze.

I couldn't walk without nearly stepping on a bird, couldn't talk without lifting my voice over their songs and couldn't sleep without dreaming of bird dances.

And my absorption with the species was mutual. When I sat on the ground, inquisitive Laysans picked my pockets, untied my shoelaces and gently pecked my cameras. Once, when I held out a hand, an albatross delicately touched each of my outstretched fingers.

Where on earth was I?

Midway Atoll, of course, home of the largest Laysan albatross colony in the world.

Over 50 percent of the world's Laysans nest on the three islands of Midway, about 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. How many Laysans are there right now, during the height of the breeding season?

Good question. While I was there, volunteers were just finishing the annual Christmas bird count, begun by Audubon Society members nearly 100 years ago as an alternative to shooting birds over the holidays.

The point is to count only the birds you see in a particular place, thus enabling researchers to determine trends over time.

Counters at Midway had recorded numbers for dozens of species of birds this year, but the Laysan albatross tally remained blank.

"Can't find any Laysans?" one visitor teased veteran birder Bob Pyle. "I saw a couple over at the parade grounds." (Hundreds of thousands of albatrosses are currently nesting on this flat, expanse of grass.)

Pyle, a Honolulu resident, took the joke well, then explained the problem.

FIRST, there are two distinct groups of Laysans on the ground: walkers and nesters. The walkers are mostly birds from 3 to 8 years old that have not yet formed a pair bond with another bird. These walkers are a hoot since they are actively singing, dancing and cruising the island looking for Mr. or Ms. Right.

Once two walkers fall in love, the bond they form is lifelong, broken only by death or disappearance of the partner.

Such monogamous couples are the nesters. These no-nonsense adults find one another quickly each year, mate, then begin the serious business of incubating their egg and raising their chick.

You can see the counting problem. Walkers move around, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups of five or more. With nesters, sometimes only one parent is at the nest, and sometimes both are present.

Making sure you're counting each bird only once is tough.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service solution is to count nests, double the number, then estimate the number of walkers and chicks.

LAST year the nest count was about 388,000. My own guess for this year, which includes the chicks that will hatch this month, is more than 1 million individuals.

So people on Midway's main island, about 3 miles square, really are knee-deep in albatrosses. And they love it.

Midway is now open to the public, making it possible for anyone to experience this miracle of marine life.

For information about visiting the atoll, call toll free 1-888-574-9000 (Kauai residents, 245-4718). Air fares and room rates are being reduced, and student rates are in the planning.

If you can't get to Midway, you can see Laysan albatrosses nesting at and flying around Kaena Point right now. You won't see a million albatrosses, but spotting four or five of these magnificent seabirds will still make your day.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at honu@aloha.net.

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