How Extreme Birds Inspire Us to be Better Humans

Memorial Day. Graduation. Father’s Day. The solstice. For most people, one of these marks the beginning of summer. For me, these calendar events signal the coming completion of albatross season. Albatross? You mean those big white birds with wingspans longer than I am tall who glide over the surface of the sea as gentle as a leaf loosed from its tree in fall and floating on currents of air? Yes, those. They can soar for hundreds of miles, skimming the ocean’s waves and wheeling up into the sky, with barely a beat of their wings. Read more

Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors

In the days before Cook introduced Hawai‘i to the world and an onslaught of foreigners arrived. Back in the days before the old religion was abolished and missionaries arrived on scene. I’ve read that winged creatures represented messengers of the gods, because, unlike mere humans, birds can fly to great lengths and heights. Places far over the sea. Places high in the mountains, where as the scientific phenomenon known as the orographic effect explains, that are often shrouded in mist and clouds and a sense of the ethereal. Birds can easily mix between the mortal and immortal. Read more

The Art of Taking Off.

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;-)

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan Albatross Take Off-5

Laysan albatross

Laysan albatross

Laysan Albatross Take Off-2

Laysan albatross

The Many Faces of Laysan Albatross Chicks

You’ve got your Elvis with the long sideburns. You’ve got your classic Bozo. Sometimes, there’s a Mohawk in the crowd. Even a Jarhead. But the goal is a chrome dome, a Telly Savalas.

As the longest stretch of time—four months—a Laysan albatross spends on land comes to a close, our chicks are near fledging. Their downy feathers float into the wind that will soon carry this year’s cohort to the far horizon. (Two of my group–I called them “super chicks”–have already fledged. They hatched early and got well fed by their dedicated, experienced parents.)

From the neck down, most of these chicks look like adults, with white body feathers and grey-brown feathers on their wings. But from the neck up, it’s anyone’s cut.

Once they fledge, chicks spend their longest stretch of time at sea—three to five years—before touching land again. These are special times in Laysan albatross’ life.

Before that happens, Laysan albatross chicks must endure an awkward stage, some might even describe them as ungainly, or—gasp—ugly. Not me, of course.

All this reminds me of my teenage years when my girl friends sported the look-alike locks of Farrah Fawcett, and all the stick-straight strings hanging from my head could muster was a halfway decent Dorothy Hamill.

My hair has never been my strong suit. I could never pull off Julia Roberts’ bountiful curls from Pretty Woman, Princess Diana’s layered pageboy look, or the Rachel cut. You’d think I could have managed Gwyneth Paltrow’s pin-straight hair, but I was uninterested in taking a flat iron to my head each and every morning.

It’s only today, in my 50s, more than ten years after I stopped coloring my hair that I finally have headline hair. I know that because the boxed ads on Facebook are telling me #grannyhair is in. That grey is the new black. I know this because complete strangers—men and women—tap me on the shoulder and whisper in my ear, “I love your hair,” and I know they’re not referring to the cut. But the color.

So, H005 and H023 and H014 and all the rest of the 35 Laysan albatross chicks that I am watching stretch their wings and gather at cliff sides as they face their first flights, know this: The awkward stage will end. It just may take a few decades. Take Wisdom. She’s your tribe’s spokesperson—known as the oldest, living wild bird in the world. She’s 63, a senior citizen, and she snags all the avian headlines. She even has her own Facebook page.

These may be some of the last photos I’ll share of Laysan albatross this year. They’re best viewed as a slide show. Just click on the first image in the series, and then click the right arrow button.

This blog post is dedicated to my best friend Tommye Lou Morris. Not because she’s older than I am or has better hair;-) But because she sent me the most benign-seeming text after I posted a recent photo of a Laysan chick on Facebook: It is interesting how the fluff comes off the chicks.