Meet Hawaii’s Avian Climate Refugees

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Among the hundreds of thousands of Laysan albatross that nest at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge also nests another albatross species—the Black-footed albatross—but in much fewer numbers. The Black-footed albatross is listed as near threatened by the IUCN Red List. Along with the Laysan and Short-tailed albatross, they are one of three species of albatross found north of the equator.

BFAL chick with decoy 2

We all have our preferences when it comes to where to raise a family. City. Suburbia. Country. Mountains. Islands. Valleys. Apparently, Black-footed albatross like the beach, as their nests can usually be found along the edges of the islands and islets across the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands making up Papahānamokuākea Marine National Monument.

But like all albatross, the Black-footed albatross is highly philopatric, meaning they return to the same place they grew up to find mates and build nests of their own, and they’re as steadfastly loyal to their nests and chicks as Laysan albatross, even in windstorms that sweep across the wintry Pacific and all but bury them in sand.

Unfortunately, these nesting preferences face some challenges. As ice caps melt at the poles, sea levels are rising. High tide line is moving higher, swallowing up beaches on these flat-as-pancake atolls in the central Pacific where 99.99 percent of Black-footed albatross nest. As ocean temperatures are warm, storms the world over are intensifying, generating winter waves big enough to roll over the rings of once-protective reefs encircling atolls and washing up, and in some cases over, nesting birds. On the beaches, Black-footed albatross are the first to lose their nests, their eggs, their chicks.

It’s fitting that yesterday, among Laysan albatross soaring in figure eights above my head, I spotted a dark shape. The color black isn’t always associated with good, but seeing a Black-footed albatross felt like good luck to me. It was my first sighting of the big black bird—with a seven-foot-plus wingspan—in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Hopefully, in a half dozen years or so, I will be seeing more.

A couple weeks ago, before the next big winter storm could sweep them out to sea, 22 Black-footed albatross chicks were rescued and brought to O`ahu where they will be hand-raised for the next four to five months. All this is part of an effort by multiple organizations to create a new colony of Black-footed albatross on the “high” island of O`ahu. It’s a repeat of a similar recent effort on behalf of Laysan albatross.

BFAL chick with decoy

Last year, I wrote a three-part series for Audubon about the (re)creation of a Laysan albatross colony on O`ahu’s North Shore. (You can read part one here, and part two here, and part three here.) Many of the same organizations are involved this year in the creation of a Black-footed albatross colony in the same place—at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge; however, the ones tasked with the monumental task of raising the chicks falls in the hands of Pacific Rim Conservation.

I also find it fitting that I first met Drs. Lindsay Young and Eric Vanderwerf ten years ago at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, where we counted albatross nests together. Since then, they started the non-profit conservation and research group called Pacific Rim Conservation. Their efforts can be summed up in their vision statement: Restoring biodiversity. Their goal in this project is “no net loss.” That is, restoring every square foot of seabird habitat that’s lost due to climate change. In 2017, Pacific Rim Conservation worked with 22 different bird species, banded more than 200 birds as part of their research, translocated four species of Hawaiian seabirds to safe breeding colonies, wrote three scientific journal articles and five management plans, built 3,200 linear feet of predator-proof fencing, eradicated non-native, terrestrial predators from 65 acres, and restored 18 acres of habitat by removing invasive weeds and replacing them with native plants. They’re busy people making an impact on Hawaii’s native birds by conducting pioneering science and implementing visionary conservation projects.

So, of course, I would choose Pacific Rim Conservation as one of Albatography’s #AlbatrossAmbassadoring recipients. For the month of March, 20 percent of Albatography’s net proceeds will go to Pacific Rim Conservation to help them feed a few Black-footed albatross.

Since I started this website late last year, Albatography has made donations to three different organizations working on behalf of albatross totaling $500. And it’s all because of you. When you add a little Albatography to your life, you help albatross. Mahalo!


Live! Albatross Chicks on Camera!

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Hatching is not easy. From the outside, it looks as if nothing is happening. Inside, a busy factory is at work making a baby albatross chick. What starts as a gooey mess transforms into bones and soft downy feathers. When chicks enter our light-filled world, they do so with a well developed muscle at the back of their heads and a special light-colored notch at the tip of their bill. Both aid in hatching. The muscle twitches, the head jerks up, and the scalpel-like notch, called an egg tooth, chips at the edges of the chick’s world until a pip, a hole, is made. The muscle keeps twitching. The egg tooth keeps chipping. The pip grows bigger until, hours that add up to a couple days later, the eggshell falls away. In a few months, the chick’s wings will grow to their full six-and-a-half-foot length, and the chicks will once again start pushing the edges of their—and our—known world.

The hatching process reminds me of what Michelangelo reportedly said about carving his famous statue of David—that David was inside all along and he, the sculptor, just had to discover him. This is almost exactly what a pohaku (rock) shaper said to me the other week. The rocks tell him what they are. The poi pounder, say, was in the rock before he touched it. Just as the glorious white-and-chocolate-colored Laysan albatross with the airbrushed smudge below her eye was inside the egg all along.

While life has been cooking along behind closed doors—or eggshells—it’s the big chick reveal that we tend to celebrate as the beginning of life. Those adorable fluffy chicks. I’m happy to report that in the month of January, thanks to a donation match by an anonymous albatross-adoring supporter, Albatography contributed to the next fun phase of albatross chicks: the gender reveal.

Thanks to your support of Albatography, Kauai Albatross Network will have the necessary funds to conduct DNA testing on the eggshells and linings of eight albatross chicks that will determine their gender. These aren’t just any chicks. These are chicks on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s #AlbatrossCam site.

And that leads me to February’s #AlbatrossAmbassadoring recipient: the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s #AlbatrossCam.


Already, since going live on January 25th, we’ve witnessed three chicks hatch on the #AlbatrossCam. We’ve watched their first feedings. We’ve cheered as the moms returned to relieve the dads who must have been quite hungry—perhaps, even, hangry—after their weeks-long incubation duties. Thousands of people from around the world have tuned in to see these parents lay eyes on their downy chicks for the first time, to listen to their eh-eh-eh welcomes, and hear the chicks respond with their softer squeaks. All these natural processes of nature that we admirers of albatross call miracles.

Some 99% of the Laysan albatross species nests in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. A few hundred—and growing—nest on Kauai, and thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we are privileged to watch. Five years ago, before the #AlbatrossCam went live, only a handful of biologists, kama`aina, and cultural practitioners in Hawaii knew the intimate details of a Laysan albatross’ life history. Then, on January 27, 2014, a chick named Kaloakalua hatched on the #AlbatrossCam, and the awareness and knowledge of (Laysan) albatross around the world soared. And this will do (and already has done) wonders for albatross conservation. Thus, it feels so good to announce that 20% of February’s net proceeds will go to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s #AlbatrossCam. Enter the magical world of mōlī; add albatography to your life!

Consider the Egg

A432 and EggConsider the egg. The obvious part, the shell, is made up of calcium carbonate crystals and on close examination, its grainy texture contains thousands of tiny pores. The shell is actually a semipermeable membrane through which air and moisture can pass. I figure that must also be how Laysan albatross are able to communicate and, possibly, imprint on their chicks, because as soon as an egg is laid, the parents start talking to their newborn. They’ll stand, point their serrated four-inch bill between their legs and speak every so sweetly, “Eeh, eeh, eeh.” Both parents get in on the action, because the world of albatross parenting is an equal opportunity endeavor. Read more

Introducing Albatography

Screen Shot 2017-11-30 at 10.27.26 AMFirst, let me introduce to you a seabird known as the Laysan albatross. Or mōli, in Hawaiian. This seabird is equipped with magical powers to cause your eyes to widen, your jaw to drop, your opinion of birds to change, and your understanding of an albatross to be anything other than a burden. Albatross will make you a birder. They will make you a science geek. A fan of physics. Albatross will make you a believer in the goodness of the world. A lover of nature. A protector of the ocean. A champion of the environment. Don’t believe me? Follow along throughout this breeding season, and let’s see what you say in seven or eight months. Read more

Help Protect Hawaii’s Seabirds

Hawaiian petrel 'ua'u
​’​Ua’u (Hawaiian petrel)

[Re-printed in entirety from a State of Hawaii DLNR press release that just landed in my in-box. Please help protect Hawaii’s seabirds.]

For immediate release
November 15, 2017


HONOLULU —  It’s Fall in Hawai‘i, and once again time to watch out for the “fallout” of young seabirds on our islands. At this time of year, native Hawaiian seabirds become disoriented by artificial lights during their maiden flights from their burrows out to sea.  Read more