al ba tross \ ‘albetros\ n : any of a number of large web-footed seabirds that are related to the petrels, that form a family (Diomedeidae) of the order Procellariiformes, and that include the largest of seabirds, being capable of long-continued flight and often appearing at great distances from land chiefly over southern seas—see BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS, LAYSAN ALBATROSS, SOOTY ALBATROSS, WANDERING ALBATROSS
An albatross is the grandest living flying machine on Earth. Read more →
Today was the annual Christmas Bird Count in Hawaii. I’ve participated in a few of these over the years but never in Hanalei Valley where I was stationed today.
As you may know, the event is hosted by the Audubon Society, getting its start in 1900 during the early days of the conservation movement. Because I didn’t know much about the history of the event, I flitted over to the organization’s website to do some research.
Apparently, prior to the 20th century, a holiday competition known as the Christmas Side Hunt was popular, in which hunters shot as many birds as they could. It just so happens that only months before, the last known passenger pigeon in the wild was sighted. And shot.
According to the Chipper Woods Birds Observatory, at one time, the passenger pigeon was probably the most populous bird on the planet. Population estimates ranged from 1 billion to 4 billion individuals, comprising up to 40% of the total number of birds in North America. Let that sink in. Its range covered the primary forests east of the Rocky Mountains. Their flocks could darken a sky for hours and days and were estimated to measure a mile wide and up to 300 miles long. Let that sink in, too. That would have been in the mid 19th century. The very last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in captivity in 1914. That’s a short span of time to go from billions to zero.
In response to all this killing of birds, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman devised an alternative–the Christmas Bird Census. That first year, twenty-seven birders participated in 25 locations, tallying some 90 species. Nowadays, tens of thousands of people participate. Last year, 2,403 different species were counted. The data is used to study the status of bird populations across North America.
I spent the morning traipsing through mud and, on occasion, tall, wet grass in and around the taro fields of Hanalei Valley. Not a bad assignment. Not bad, at all. There were other counters in other areas. I haven’t heard the final tally yet, but the majority of our birds were Hawaii’s endemic and endangered waterbirds–the cute and scurrying coots; the stately moorhens; honking ducks; brooding geese; and slender and long-legged stilts.
But due to a sore shoulder, I didn’t carry my Big Girl Camera. In fact, I’m pretty sure my shoulder troubles stem from lugging the new-to-me, super-serious, super-telephoto lens around the past couple months. So, I didn’t snap any bird photos today. However, when I was still hefting The Beast around, I snapped this series of shots of a Laysan albatross taking off.
Laysan albatross, as you know from reading my meanderings, are a long-winged seabird that spend most of their lives soaring over the ocean. Hence, their legs are positioned toward the backs of their bodies, making them as aerodynamic as possible. They are, you could say, front heavy. Their walk is slightly awkward, leading to the nickname given to them by military personnel at Midway–gooney bird. For what it’s worth, I do not like that nickname. It is not accurate. Not at all. It does not come anywhere near capturing any of the bird’s unique characteristics. It doesn’t speak to their grace in the air. The way they can soar across oceans with only a few beats of their wings. Or the fidelity they display to their mates. Or the amazing built-in GPS in their brains that allows them to fly tens of thousands of miles over several weeks and, then, land on a dime next to their chick awaiting a meal in its nest.
I digress. What I want to share is how they take off.
When the winds are blowing like the last couple days, all a Laysan albatross has to do is spread its six-foot wings and pop into the air. But when the winds back off, it takes a little more effort to get airborne. Their paddle-like feet slap at the ground as they run and flap their wings. It looks like this. Scroll down really quickly to get the general idea;-)
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.