Today, we said goodbye to the Laysan albatross chick featured on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology webcam for the past five months as she took to the air for the very first time. Just after sunrise, Niaulani hopped atop a rock wall, flapped her wings really hard, and stepped off a cliff, taking a leap of faith into the great unknown and winging her way for the watery horizon.
How this all happens is a wonder to me, from the split second timing of a cloaca kiss that leads to an ooey-gooey mess inside an egg to a fluffy, downy chick chirping at its parent for a meal of oily fishy goodness to this: a fully-fledged bird with a six-and-a-half-foot wingspan flying out to sea where it will spend the rest of its life foraging for squid and fish and fish eggs. (We won’t talk about the plastic for now.)
Some might wave their hand and describe this flying leap as instinct, saying that leaving the safety of land and the comfort of regular room service delivery from its parents is nothing more than, as the dictionary defines instinct, “a natural or innate impulse, inclination, or tendency.”
As if instinct isn’t miraculous.
Instinct instructed Niaulani’s parents to fly tens of thousands of miles over the north Pacific Ocean, perhaps as far as the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, in search of food. With a full belly, instinct told them to turn south and head for Kauai, a speck the size of a black pepper flake from the vantage of a satellite. Then, instinct directed those same parents to a bluff on Kauai’s North Shore and a landing within feet of its hungry, waiting, offspring.
Today, instinct commanded Niaulani to fly. In three to five years, instinct will guide her back to Kauai in search of a mate, where instinct will help her select the perfect partner to raise their own chicks, one at a time, over the subsequent four or five decades. In the course of Niaulani’s life, she will rack up nearly four million air miles.
Named by a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, Niaulani translates from Hawaiian to English in two parts. “Niau” as “moving smoothly, swiftly, silently, peacefully” and “lani” as “exalted, sky, heavens.”
Today, I also said goodbye to someone else: My uncle. He, too, is flying into the great unknown on a kind of voyage as intimidating as any I could imagine, another leap of faith. I have no idea what happens after death, if anything, but today, I am thinking of it as flight, an exalted fledging, and I imagine Uncle Randy flying smoothly, swiftly, silently and peacefully to the heavens.
A hui hou Niaulani and Uncle Randy. Until we meet again.