After walking across the small Eastern Island, our small group of ecotourists stopped and followed the pointing finger of biologist Wayne Sentman until our eyes landed on it -- a big black ball of downy fuzz sitting near two large decoy birds. The Short-Tailed albatross chick was far larger than the Laysan and Black-Footed chicks sitting near it and stuck out like a sore thumb. It wasn't just its size difference, but the fact that it was the only one like it anywhere around. This one is special, special because it took over a decade to see Short-Tailed chicks hatch here in the Midway Atoll. Eleven years of sound recordings and setting up decoys and hoping. But finally on November 16, 2010 the first signs of a nesting Short-Tailed Albatross pair were discovered on Midway, a first for the species in modern history. And this is the second chick hatched by the pair.
The Near Disappearance of Short-Tailed Albatross
The Short-Tailed Albatross, also known as the golden gooney, has been listed as endangered since 1970. It was nearly driven to extinction by the hunt for their feathers in the late 1800s. The largest albatross species in the North Pacific, the adults sport golden plumage across their head and neck. And while they were thought to be the most abundant species, they were soon nearly wiped out. By some estimates, more than 10 million birds were sought for their plumage, and it is no wonder considering the beautiful white, brown and golden feathers they sport. But by the 1930s, only two populations where left on Torishima Island in the Philippine Sea and Minami-kojima Island near Taiwan in the East China Sea, and by 1939 the species was thought to be extinct -- at least that's what was thought until after World War II.
Bringing Short-Tailed Albatross Back From The Brink
After fledging, albatross spend anywhere from five to eight years out at sea. After that time, they're sexually mature enough to come back to land to find a mate and raise a chick. It seems that years after the last of the Short-Tailed Albatross disappeared from Torishima after a volcanic eruption, a handful of juveniles returned to where they were born. Spared during the years they were off maturing, they became the hope for the species. Decoys were placed around the island to entice the species to breed and the strategy worked.
Over the last 35 years, a man named Hiroshi Hasegawa has worked to recover the Torishima breeding population. As Wayne Sentman notes, Hasegawa has "painstakingly terraced their nesting areas and established nesting sites in less lava prone areas of the island. He is also the person that has banded almost very single STAL [Short-Tailed Albatross] and is the reason the folks on Midway can recognize individual birds each year and [identify the] same couple returning year after year before successfully nesting. The bands provided the sure ID of these individuals."
See, the problem with Torishima as the only breeding site for the Short-Tailed Albatross is that it happens to be an active volcano. Should the volcano one day blow its top it a catastrophic way -- even if it happened outside of breeding season -- it is possible that the species wouldn't survive without a place to reproduce. This very issue came up in 1939, when their main breeding grounds were covered over with 30-90 feet of lava. The Short-Tails have enough to worry about with dodging longline fishing boats and plastic pollution, they don't need the loss of their nesting sites as well. Midway, with its status as a safe place for wildlife, seemed a perfect place to try and entice the birds to begin nesting. Now, decades later, the same strategy of decoys and sound systems as used on Torishima was enlisted by conservationists on Midway Atoll.
The use of sound recordings and decoys were based on the work of seabird biologist Stephen Kress. Kress has been a pioneer for the use of decoys and sound systems as a way to attract seabirds to an area to establish colonies. In fact, Kress visited Midway in 2000 to help with the set-up of a decoy plot on Eastern Island -- a safer location than Sand Island where most of the human activity takes place -- and volunteers with an Oceanic Society trip to the atoll helped to paint some decoys to look like Short-Tails.
But it was years until any Short-Tailed Albatross was spotted hanging out on Midway. It wasn't until 2011 that a pair -- a male banded as a fledgling from Torishima in 1987 and a female banded as a fledgling in 2003 also on Torishima -- made history for the species.
Short-Tailed Albatross Making History on Midway Atoll
According to Fish and Wildlife Services, "The pair first "met" at Midway Atoll four breeding seasons ago (2007 - 2008). During the first season they were observed spending only a little time together; the second season (2008 - 2009) they spent more time together; and the 3rd season (2009-2010) they were observed spending a great deal of time together, including having both arrived to the breeding colony together in October and building a nest."
Finally in their fourth breeding season (2010-2011), they laid an egg on Eastern Island on the atoll, which hatched successfully -- and that marked the very first time a Short-Tailed chick hatched outside of Japan in recorded history. That chick lived through some incredible struggles, from two severe storms to the tsunami that hit the island in March of last year, washing the chick over 90 feet away from its nest site. Perhaps because of the odds set against it, the fact that it survived to fledge is all the more poignant. And a second chick this year (hatched just hours after a visit to the area by marine conservationist Dr. Sylvia Earle in January) shows that perhaps things are looking up for Short-Tails. Perhaps the toughness of these chicks is a sign of the resilience of the species.
Having gone from just 10 nesting pairs back up to a population or 2,400 birds, the Short-Tailed Albatross is a species on the recovery. However, it will take more than just a lot of decoys and a second breeding site to keep the birds safe.
A Long Road Ahead For Short-Tailed Albatross
As FWS states, "Establishing a new nesting colony is one of several important steps needed to continue the rare bird’s recovery... The species’ recovery also depends on reducing the threats of contaminants, especially oil contamination at sea and plastic ingestion; reducing bycatch of these seabirds from commercial fisheries; and addressing invasive species and other competitive species at nesting colonies."
Longline fishing hooks, bits of plastic floating in the water mistaken as food by the albatross, sea level rise, and pollution are major problems with no fast or simple solution. It takes dedicated effort by people in many facets of conservation to see long-term survival for the species. The grim fact is we may never see it happen. But as our small group of ecotourists looked out toward that black ball of fuzz, the truth is we know it's worth the struggle.
Barry Stieglitz, Project Leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex of which Midway Atoll is a part, said of the hatching: “This hatching – significant in and of itself – is really part of two stories. The first is about what the dedicated staff of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge were able to accomplish on a shoestring over many, many patient years; slowly drawing these magnificent birds to Eastern Island with recorded calls and decoys. The second story started in 1903 when President Teddy Roosevelt sent the United States Navy to protect the albatross, sea turtles, and monk seals at Midway from poachers. These initial efforts grew into a larger vision to preserve and restore the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands ecosystem. We may not see this story finished in our lifetimes – it will be written over the decades to come, building on the work accomplished in the decades of the past.”
A portion of this week-long trip to Midway was sponsored by the Oceanic Society. If you're interested in visiting Midway, be sure to check out trip dates!