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!


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

On Endangered Species Day: Open Letter to Judge Castagnetti

The Honorable Jeannette Castagnetti
First Circuit Court of Hawai‘i
Ka‘ahumanu Hale
777 Punchbowl Street
Honolulu, HI 96813

Dear Judge Castagnetti:

Christian Gutierrez and the two juveniles involved in the massacre of Hawai‘i’s native Laysan albatross deserve to be sentenced to the fullest extent of the law.

Allow me to explain.

Read more

Politics Aside: We Must All Be Mothers of Nature

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
-Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead

Albatross DepartureLate last year, at the same time the Presidential election results shook the nation, the majestic Laysan albatross started returning to Kaua‘i. They dropped their spatula-like feet and touched land after months of knowing only air and wind and a wet, watery world. As of November 8th, six had returned to the colony I monitor, here to meet up with their partners and start the creation of another generation of majestic flyers. I knew a bit of history about five of them. I knew this because of the bands around their legs. Read more

Do Animals Have Personality?

My thick, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, defines “personality” as “the quality or state of being a person and not an abstraction, thing, or lower being: the fact of being a individual person: personal existence or entity: capacity for the choices, experiences, and liabilities of an individual person.”

There are six varying definitions of the word.

Another one: “the complex characteristics that distinguishes a particular individual or individualizes or characterizes him in his relationships with others.”

But what about Hawaiian monk seals?

hawaiian monk seal, pup
Experienced Monk Seal Mother Calls to Her Two-Day-Old-Pup.

Last week, I went to monitor a two-day-old Hawaiian monk seal pup. When I got to the beach, the pup was poking its mother in her neck, her back, her broad hips, everywhere, it seemed, except the magic spot that released nourishment to see this pup to weaning. At one point, the pup rolled over onto its back, losing its young muscle control, tail flippers fluttering in the air. There, it seemed to discover its pectoral flippers, flapping them as if the marine mammal were thinking it might take flight. And, then, with a stream of urine flowing from its mid-section—more specifically its penile opening—the infant revealed its sex. A boy.

From behind the cover of some bushes, I uttered, “Little kolohe,” the Hawaiian word for “mischievous” or “rascal.”

Later, I would post on Facebook that he was quite the personality, much more energetic than other monk seal pups of his age that I’ve monitored.

In the confines of the cardboard covers of my dictionary, I am guessing Phillip Babcock Gove, Ph. D., and his editorial staff would not include monk seals in their definition of “personality.” Or dogs. Or cats. But those of us with pets would argue that pets have personalities in the sense that they have characteristics that distinguish them from others of their species.

My dog Nickel surely does. Personality drips off her the way water flies off her coat after a swim in the ocean and a good shake of her body. Take the way she responds to a boring carrot when offered to her. Versus the exciting peanut. Or the way she stops dead in her tracks on a walk when I turn left and she wants to go right. She’ll drop her head, stiffen her legs, and lean backwards, meeting every exertion of mine with an opposing force of her own. Plus, there’s the look she gives me when she wants to sit in my lap.

My dictionary holds a 1961 copyright. The publisher boasts that the dictionary carries the reputation of a company that got its start in 1831, about the same time scientists were performing animal vivisection—experimental surgeries and dissections on live animals without the use of anesthesia. Views on animals have changed much since this time, just as the words in the dictionary have, as well.

Fifty-five years ago this month, Jane Goodall stepped into the wilds of Africa and started her groundbreaking research on chimpanzees. A few years later, when she submitted an article for publication in a scientific journal, its editor kicked the paper back to her, because she’d done something verboten in scientific research at the time—she named her research subjects and referred to them as “she” and “he” instead of “it.” She refused to make the requested changes, and the paper was published anyway.

In May, the government of New Zealand passed The Animal Welfare Amendment Bill providing animals with legal status as sentient beings and, in effect, acknowledging animals are not objects or things but living creatures capable of experiencing emotions.

Last week, a new book published by Carl SafinaBeyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel—in which he emphatically and eloquently presents an updated perspective on animals: Animals are not the unthinking, unfeeling automatons considered by some of history’s most famous philosophers, including Rene Descartes. Animals may not speak English, but they communicate. They love. They suffer. The play. They connive. They grieve.

One of the many things Carl’s new book impresses upon me is that animals are not so different from us and—this is important—we are not so different from animals.

“Species differ—but are often not very different,” he writes. Only humans have human minds. But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons. Of course, we can see elephants’ skeletons. We can’t see their minds. But we can see their nervous systems, and we observe the workings of minds in the logic and limits of behaviors. From skeletons to brains, the principle is the same, and if we were to assume anything, it might be that minds, too, exist on a sliding scale.”

When I looked at the monk seal and called him kolohe, I was committing a sin against science, one that has long been labeled, “anthropomorphism,” or the attribution of human characteristics onto an animal.

Carl says, “Certainly projecting feelings onto other animals can lead to us misunderstanding their motivations. But denying that they have any motivations guarantees that we’ll misunderstand it”

Pretending animals don’t have feelings was bad science, according to Carl. “Peculiarly, many behaviorists—who are biologists—chose to overlook the core process of biology: each newer thing is a slight tweak on something older. Everything humans do and possess came from somewhere. Before humans could be assembled, evolution needed to have most of the parts in stock, and those parts were developed from earlier models. We inherited them.”

In truth, we inhabit the same world, all us animals. And, in my opinion, in a world where 50-year-old elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks, wolves are shot the moment they step foot outside the boundaries of a national park—not for their teeth or pelts or anything except misguided notions—and killer whales are trapped in 180-foot–long pens when they will swim up to 75 miles a day in the wild, anything that brings humans closer to their non-human cousins, albeit a walk in the words, an African safari, or a book is a good thing, a vital thing, a requirement for the survival of all—humans and non-humans alike. Because I have found the more interest we have in something, the more we understand it, the more respect we have for it, and the better care we’ll take of it.

I’ll never forget the night I sat in an auditorium and watched a slide show by nature photographer Susan Middleton. The image she flashed on screen of a dead Laysan albatross with a belly full of plastic has never left me. It propelled me to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge to assist in census research. It led me to survey albatross courtship, breeding, and chick rearing for six years now. It inspired my refusal of single-serving plastic bottles of water and soda and juice.

In Carl’s new book, he takes a deep dive into the emotional and thinking lives of, primarily, elephants, wolves, and killer whales. He shares the known science and his and other biologists’ personal stories about the animals they research, including those things science has yet to explain.

As a result, let me warn you right now: I have a new albatross. I don’t mean a burden or a curse as popular culture thinks of an albatross, but an omen of good as the presence of an albatross following a ship originally signified. Because I consider it good that my new animal fascination, after reading Carl’s book, is the killer whale.

I mean, their basic social unit is a close-knit, stable family—with both daughters and sons remain with the mother for her life. Their society is matriarchal, possibly explaining why females live decades after their childbearing years are over—into their 70s and 80s—playing a crucial role in their family’s survival, adult children included. Adolescent females help care for the family’s young. They hunt cooperatively and methodically to take down prey even larger than they are but often share food, giving it to another member of their family before eating themselves. Killer whales possess a culture that they pass down to their young, be it their pod’s specific hunting strategies or their pod’s distinct set of vocalizing calls. Too, killer whales have spindle neurons in their brains, once thought to be unique to humans. For animals with 28- to 32-foot bodies and four-inch teeth, they are rather peaceful among their own kind, even those of other families and pods. What’s more, no free-living killer whale has ever killed a human. You read that correctly.

Carl writes, “What doesn’t make sense is: gigantic mega-brained predators patterned like pirate flags who eat everything from sea otters to blue whales and spend hours batting thousand-pound sea lions into the air specifically to beat them up before drowning and shredding them; who wash seals off ice and crush porpoises and slurp swimming deer and moose—indeed, seemingly any mammal they come across in the water; yet who have never so much as upended a single kayak and who appear—maybe—to bring lost dogs home.”

Killer whales may even enjoy a bit of music.

“Argentina is one of the places where killer whales sometimes burst through the surf to drag sea lions right off the beaches,” Carl writes. “You see a video of this and you think it would be insanity to stroll near the shoreline. Yet when park ranger Roberto Bubas stepped into the water and played his harmonica, the same individual killer whales would form a ring around him like puppies. They’d rally playfully around his kayak and come as, by names he gave them, he called to them.”

I mean, really, how cool are killer whales?

The other thing about killer whales, and other animals, Carl says, is they have personalities. Maybe Webster’s needs to redefine the word “personality” in light of today’s view of animals. Or, better yet, create a new word altogether. Carl suggests, “individuality.” But I’m thinking there’s a better word. Something less clinical than individuality with its hard syllables. Something with more, well, personality. Or, maybe, we just need to change the definition of “person.” Whoa! Now, there’s a can of worms;-)

In the mean time, I’ll just say that young Hawaiian monk seal pup: He’s a character.