Mark Twain: My Albatross.

Wisdom, the laysan albatross, oldest wild bird in world
The World Famous Wisdom (l) and Her Mate (r). Photo Credit: USFWS/Kiah Walker

The oldest known, living wild bird in the world is a Laysan albatross, at 64 years of age. She showed up recently at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, just in time for the breeding season. There are more photos here, if your voyeuristic nature is piqued, of what happens when she and her mate see each other again after months apart. (Hint: it’s not unlike that of lovers of another species, meaning ours;-)

I often wonder how she’s done it. How she’s evaded swallowing a toothbrush, mistaking it for a bit of floating squid, and it puncturing a lung or intestine or stomach. How she’s managed to steer clear of the tantalizing baited hooks zooming off the backs of long line commercial fishing boats. How no shark has munched on her while she was enjoying a rest on the surface of the sea.

But she has. She’s lived a good, long life, and she’s still going strong.

“You can’t reach old age by another man’s road,” said the man we know as Mark Twain. Today is the 180th birthday of Samuel Clemens, as he was christened. “My habits protect my life but they would assassinate you.”

I suppose the 64-year-old Laysan albatross could say the same thing. Clearly, she’s a tough, old bird.

And, now, that I’ve thrown two of my obsessions into the same blog post—Laysan albatross and Mark Twain—I might as well compare them to each other. Or, at least, the man to the bird.

If you pardon me the latitude, Mark Twain resembled an albatross a bit. During his later days, he had a head of white hair that I’ve read he preened with great care. He possessed a nose that would make an albatross proud. And, then, there was his well-known walk.

Nearly 150 years ago, in Hawai‘i, nearly everyone the young Mark Twain ran into commented on his gait. They said he walked like he was drunk. Even upon rising from bed in the morning—or afternoon as was more his style.

Mark Twain in 1867. Abdullah frères [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mark Twain shortly after his visit to Hawaii. Photo Credit: Abdullah frères [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But Twain later proclaimed he only got “tight” twice while “ransacking” the Hawaiian Islands. So, he wasn’t always drunk. He just walked like it. Naturally.

And, then, there are albatross. They are built for the air. With their bundle of soft feathers; six-and-a-half-foot, slender wings; and legs situated far back on the undersides of their bodies, they are the “grandest living flying machine on Earth,” according to ocean conservationist Carl Safina. And he should know. He wrote the biography of albatrosses.

As graceful as prima ballerina Anna Pavlova in the air, albatross are more awkward on the ground. Some compare their walk to that of Charlie Chaplin, but I’m lobbying for Mark Twain. I suppose, for that to be completely accurate, albatross would have to start smoking cigars.

The next likely beat in this essay might be to call Mark Twain my albatross. And it’s true that a project around which Mark Twain centers has followed me around for a few years. But it’s no heavy burden around my neck as many people associate with the bird species due to the 1798 poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In that situation, it was the action of a lone sailor not the bird itself that was considered bad.

The only appropriate metaphor for an albatross is wind. And for sailors, there’s nothing like a good wind to fill their sails and fly across the sea, exactly what I hope my writing projects gather—wind and movement—this coming year. Because there is nothing more fun for a writer than when the words soar from her fingertips. Except, perhaps, skimming waves and trailing a wingtip across the water like an albatross.

Happy 180th birthday, you old geezer.



Two Ways To Fledge

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.

laysan albatross, cornell lab of ornithology, #albatrosscam
My last screen capture of Niaulani the night before she fledged.

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.

Laysan Albatross Chicks: What’s In a Bolus?

On World Oceans Day earlier this week, I surveyed a colony of Laysan albatross chicks, mere weeks away from fledging. It was a clear day with bluebird blue skies and the slightest whisper of wind disrupting the lazy leaves of ironwood trees. But the chicks didn’t let the lack of air movement deter them. Many have roamed far from their natal nest sites into the open, onto rises of land, their faces pointing toward the ocean. Soon, they will launch themselves on their first flights and head to sea for an excursion that will last three to five years. I’ve already spotted the look on a few chicks’ faces, their eyes layered with yearning for that great body of water, their real home. It’s a look many sailors wear after too long ashore. Perhaps sailors were albatrosses in prior lives.

Laysan albatross chick.I consider albatross the canaries of the sea. Instead of coalmines, they bring us reports of the ocean. And on a day the United Nations declared worthy of celebrating our world’s oceans, one Laysan albatross chick gave me a strong message. One I expect every season. And, yet, this year, it came as a surprise.

The chick was sitting in a nest cup when I approached to check its band number and take a quick health assessment. We’ve had some issues with bone density this season, and I wanted to be sure all 35 chicks in my colony could stand on strong legs. This one hopped up as I neared—a good sign—its downy feathers still covering its head and neck like a mantilla. Between its webbed feet, I noticed a white rock.

My first thought was, how cute, the chick is already practicing incubating an egg, just like it’s already made a few nests, gearing up for its own reproduction efforts that won’t take place for another seven to 10 years.

Laysan albatross chick, plastic bottle cat
Laysan albatross chick with a plastic bottle cap in its nest.

Then, I looked closer and realized the rock was really a white bottle cap, and it sat amongst other bits of colored plastic and a few squid beaks. It was a bolus. The thing chicks regurgitate of indigestible items, and I quickly snatched it from the nest, because in their youth, albatross chicks will often mouth and, potentially, ingest non-edibles that happen to be around their nest site, like ironwood needles, chunks of wood, and anything that might be regurgitated in boluses—like plastic bottle caps and, even, plastic cigarette lighters.

As you may know from reading my blog, this chick, no doubt, was fed the plastic bottle cap by its parent, who mistook it for fish eggs or squid floating on the sea’s surface. Luckily, chick H015 was able to vomit up this plastic. I just hope there isn’t any more in its belly.

This is why I ask you to #resolve2refuse single-serving plastic bottles and cut back our use of disposable plastic.

For them.

For us.

Celebrate Oceans. Refuse Plastic.

Beach finds last week: Plastic toothbrush; plastic baby powder bottle; plastic hagfish (eel) trap; plastic coat hanger; and a sundry of unidentifiable bits and chunks of plastic in a rainbow of colors—none of it left behind by beach-goers but based on its snagged and worn condition, arrived by water.

I imagine a fisherman up early, brushing his teeth, when a fish hits his line. He grabs his rod and reel with both hands, and the toothbrush falls overboard.

I imagine a typhoon off the Philippines in the northwest Pacific Ocean, and a half-dozen, metal containers loaded with baby powder, baby shampoo, baby lotion tumble off a ship.

I imagine a local fisherman, setting eel traps, and the perforated, plastic cone getting loose, floating to shore on the tide.

But the coat hanger? What the heck is a coat hanger doing at sea?

laysan albatross chick
Laysan Albatross Chick Eyes the Ocean.

This is about the time of year when I start to look for boluses in the Laysan albatross colony I monitor. Typically, before they fledge, chicks will regurgitate anything their bodies cannot process. Things like squid beaks and bits of coral to which fish eggs may have once attached themselves. And plastic.

We’re talking chicks with webbed feet that have yet to touch the sea. Chicks that are unable to fly and have only ventured about 30 feet from their nest over the past five months of their lives. Chicks fed plastic by dedicated parents that have mistaken the non-biodegradable matter for food. Every year, some chicks starve to death–with bellies full of the invention that launched Tupperware.

Hawaiian monk seal pup
The Future G13. Days Before Weaning.

The same day I collected the toothbrush, baby powder bottle, coat hanger, and hagfish cone, our first Hawaiian monk seal pup of the season weaned after six weeks of nursing by its mother.

Now is the time we worry about monk seal “weaners.” Without mom, exploring more of the coastline, sampling various things to determine what’s good eating, now is the time they can get in trouble. Get hooked on fishing lines, entangled in fish nets, their muzzles stuck on eel traps. All which has happened before.

Many conservation groups in Hawaii celebrate today as World Oceans Day, a United Nations-recognized event to raise awareness of our planet’s precious oceans–and the need to keep them healthy. A healthy ocean contributes to a healthy planet, helping provide the air we breathe and the food many people eat. According to the Nature Conservancy, fifty-one percent of cancer-fighting drugs are derived from nature, such as coral reefs. So, no matter where you live, even in land-locked Middle America, our very human lives depends on our world’s oceans.

Today, I invite you to join me in celebrating our oceans–by taking the #resolve2refuse plastic pledge.

Plastic does not bio-degrade. Plastic poisons our food chain. Plastic threatens our wildlife. Plastic affects our health.

skeletal and plastic remains of an albatross
Skeletal and Plastic Remains of an Albatross

Disposable plastics are the greatest source of plastic pollution in our world. Yet I’ve found there are plenty of thirst-quenching beverages available in the more environmentally-friendly packaging options of glass and aluminum. So, please, the next time you find yourself thirsty and standing in front of a cooler full of water and soda bottles; energy, juice, and tea drinks; and other single-serving beverages, think about this: Two out of every three plastic bottles housing the liquid that takes you just a few minutes to drink lives in our house–our home, the planet, Earth, our environment–forever. Most single-serve plastic bottles are made with PET–Polyethylene terephthalate. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 31 percent of PET bottles and jars were recycled in 2012.

Here’s a simple idea: Refuse plastic. For our seabirds. For our marine mammals. For me. For you.

As for the plastic coat hanger, I still cannot imagine what it was doing floating around the ocean.

Endangered Species Have the Coolest Tongues

Laysan albatross adult feeding a chick
Laysan Albatross Feeds A Chick.

Albatross have pointy tongues. Humpback whales have tongues that are the size of Volkswagen bugs. The tips of Hawaiian monk seals’ tongues are bifurcated, a fancy word for split.

Pretty cool, huh. And that’s just tongues. Wait until we get to the throats.

Today is recognized as Endangered Species Day.

The goal of the day is to raise awareness about the importance of protecting endangered species and the everyday actions we can take to help prevent them from going extinct.

Extinct: Wiped out, destroyed, gone. Trilobites are extinct. So, too, are dinosaurs. And, more recently, passenger pigeons and the Caribbean monk seal.

Back in 1973, Congress declared that “Various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” The law went on to declare that species of “fish, wildlife, and plants have been so depleted in numbers that they are in danger of or threatened with extinction.” According to the Endangered Species Coalition, “In the United States alone, scientists estimate that more than 500 species have disappeared in the past 200 years.” Since its enactment, the Endangered Species Act has afforded protections to more than 1,400 species in the United States.

Personally, I’d rejoice if not another species was ever added to the ESA if it meant we humans had finally equated the success of the natural world with our own.

You won’t find Laysan albatross on the list of species protected by the ESA. Yet. But rising oceans due to climate change are expected to eliminate a significant portion of the seabird’s low-lying habitat in the north Pacific where 99% of Laysan albatross breed. This makes the small, re-emerging colonies on the main Hawaiian Islands of O’ahu and Kaua’i–like the ones I monitor–all the more important.

Humpback whale breaching
Breaching Humpback Whale.

At the other end of the endangered species discussion are Humpback whales.

After four decades of protected status and a resulting rebounding population, the 45-foot marine mammal may soon be de-listed, joining the ranks of once endangered, once protected species like Peregrine falcons, Gray whales, and Bald eagles that have staved off extinction.

But smack in the middle, staring extinction in the face with its own cute friendly mug is the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal with its bifurcated tongue. An estimated 1,100 live in the Hawaiian Islands with 85% of this population in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They face numerous threats, including the same habitat loss as Laysan albatross due to climate change; increasing competition for limited food resources; infectious disease, parasites, and toxins; male aggression, shark predation; entanglements with marine debris; deleterious interactions with humans such as getting hooked on fishing lines and boat strikes.

We lost a Hawaiian monk seal earlier this week to one of these threats.

On Monday, a year-old male monk seal, tagged F22, was found dead here on Kauai. Preliminary necropsy results suggest death due to a propeller and vessel strike. This is the kind of news that’s hard to swallow, especially when you’ve spent hours at the beach “pup-sitting,” as I did last year with F22. However, the spoonful of sugar that makes this devastating news more palatable is this: The very monk seal who gave birth to F22 last year pupped F22’s sibling early this morning.

Laysan albatross chick yawning
Yawning Laysan Albatross Chick.

Speaking of swallowing, I promised some interesting scientific tidbits south of their tongues. Let’s start with Laysan albatross. They can expand the muscles in their throats to ingest the awkward-sized yummy squid it likes to eat—and to yawn. The first time I saw a chick’s neck grow round like a golf ball, I remember thinking, “Whoa, how cool is that?”

But the real experts at this throat-expanding technique are the 45-foot Humpbacks. Twelve to 30 pleats run two-thirds the length of a whale’s body and expand like an accordion-folded fan during foraging to gulp enormous mouthfuls of water. The irony is these oversized mammals with the big maws only eat tiny fish and krill, because their throats are the size of grapefruits.

And the Hawaiian monk seal pup that entered the air-breathings world today will—with luck—one day weigh 400 to 600 pounds and display a neck so fat that pro wrestlers and football players will envy it. But instead of bashing its fellow species, Hawaiian monk seals use the strong muscles of their necks in the search for food, flipping over rocks that weigh as much as 70 pounds apiece to do so.

Pregnant Hawaiian monk seal
A Pregnant Hawaiian Monk Seal.

As a docent with several wildlife groups on Kaua’i, I often get asked, “What’s it matter if [fill in the name of an endangered species] goes extinct. As Carl Sagan and many scientists throughout the ages have said, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” While I cannot necessarily draw a direct line to the survival of a particular species and my own as a human being, I know all species are interlinked. I believe all are important for all the others.

But even if you don’t believe to the extent I do that our very survival is dependent upon that of all nature around us, I ask this very simple question: How boring would our world be without a large diversity of life like Laysan albatross, Humpback whales, and Hawaiian monk seals?