Life as an Albatross Chick on Midway, in 20 Photos

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Growing Up Gooney

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Spending a week at Midway Atoll with the Oceanic Society expedition was an amazing experience, but it was made all the more so by getting a first-hand look at what life is like for chicks growing up on the atoll. I came home with literally thousands of photos of them expressing the various sides of their personalities, from decorating their nests to investigating passers-by to enduring rainy weather and waiting for parents to come home and provide them with a meal. Here are some of my favorite photographs showing the Black-footed and Laysan albatross chicks on Sand Island.

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Good Morning, Midway

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

We want to start the week off on the right foot, so we're sticking to the happier side of life on Midway. The life of a chick is not easy -- sometimes parents don't come back, sometimes disease or a gut full of plastic will get the better of them, sometimes storms or even the rare tsunami causes devastation. This is part of the reality, and we are addressing this during our series of posts on Midway. But for now, it's Monday so let's focus on the incredible cuteness and personality of these fuzzbuckets -- starting with when they wake up in the morning and take a big yawn!

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Yawn, Then Stretch

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

This little chick took advantage of a breezy morning to stretch its wings and test the wind. While not even close to being ready to fly, many chicks seemed to sense something wonderful when the wind picked up, and they often spread their wings to both keep cool and because it just feels right. Eventually, this Laysan chick's wingspan will grow to over six feet, and it will use those wings to fly thousands of miles in a matter of days thanks to their specialized ability to lock their wings and glide on the wind without expending much muscle effort.

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Come Out and Play

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

The Albatross nest all over the place, and we were lucky enough to have a number of fuzzy greeters at Charlie Hotel, a old military barrack-turned-hotel and residence for staff on Midway. This little guy greeted me at the gate one day, as curious about what was going on inside as I was about what was going on outside. Many of the houses used on Midway have these knee-high gates to keep the albatross from nesting right on the walk-way.

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Get Off My Lawn

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the first things to know about albatross nests is that some are in prime spots and others, not so much. For this Laysan chick, the parents picked a nice patch of grass near the Fish and Wildlife Services Visitors' Center that will help to keep the chick cool on hot days. This is a non-native grass, but its density helps to keep other invasive weeds down. As it isn't in many places on the island and doesn't seem to cause much trouble for native flora or fauna, it isn't a high priority to eradicate it.

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A Scenic Spot

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Some parents know the real estate mantra of location, location, location. This chick's nest is on a high dune right near the water. While it can be a bit tough when the wind kicks up and hot on especially sunny days, on calm days there's no shortage of things to watch to stay entertained. Chicks have to be in their nest cup when a parent returns to feed, or it runs the risk of missing a feeding or even being disowned. Wandering off is frowned upon, but the chicks do get bored waiting days for a parent to return with a meal.

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The Wrong Side of Town

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

This chick is in a less scenic spot. The parents found a spot out on the concrete near the old seaplane hangar, where residents of Midway pile up the recyclables. Behind the chick is the pile of marine debris such as nets, floats, and other tangled fishing gear that has washed up on shore, and later collected by FWS workers, volunteers and staff so it can't do damage to wildlife. While it is not as beautiful a spot, the chick draws our attention to the major problem of plastic pollution and debris littering the ocean, which this chick will face for itself as soon as it fledges.

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The Ideal Location

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

The most ideal terrain on which a chick can grow up on Midway is in a nest cup on the sand tucked up in naupaka, a native plant that provides shade and shelter that an albatross can easily get into and out of. The naupaka helps to build up dunes, which can protect the chicks from storm surges, and doesn't pose a threat to the parents in getting tangled up, a problem some non-native vegetation like Ironwood trees and verbesina cause. In the naupaka along the beach is where we found this content chick.

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Pretty Looks, Ugly Truth

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

And this is the verbesina mentioned in the previous slide. While it looks pretty, especially with a downy chick face-deep in the blooms, this plant is the bane of albatross and other bird species on Midway. The plant is an invasive species, and boy does it invade. It can grow tall and thick, choking up areas of land so that albatross can't nest, or if they've made a nest they can't easily take off or land from flight. Meanwhile roots break up the soil which collapses the burrows of Bonin Petrels and the nests of other burrowing birds. It is a pain, and massive efforts have taken place -- with successful results -- to get rid of verbesina on the islands. They're pretty yellow flowers, sure, but there's nothing nice about this plant.

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I'll Name You Spike

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

The Laysan and Black-footed albatross chicks have a diet of rich fish oil, squid and flying fish eggs. At this point in their lives, as biologist Wayne Sentman with the Oceanic Society put it, they're mostly just a giant stomach with a head. I can't argue with that -- their big bellies speak for themselves -- except to add that they're a lot of fluff too. Their thick down help to keep them warm, though on hot days we noticed quite a few chicks panting and stretching their legs out to the side in an effort to cool off.

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Big Stomach, Big Mouth

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

If you have a big stomach, you must need a big mouth to fit all that food in, right? Right. This chick shows off just how wide their mouths can become to take in the food parents bring back. It's kind of amazing just how wide around they can stretch!

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Baby Albino Albatross

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

There are three chicks on Midway this year that stand out from the crowd -- they happen to be all white! Each year there seems to be at least one or a couple albino or leucistic chicks. This year there were three. Two of them happen to be growing up right across the road from each other, about 10 feet apart. They're creating quite the special neighborhood. Check out more photos of these three unique albino albatross chicks.

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Playing Dress Up

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

The albatross chicks are full of personality, and while they are most often feisty, sometimes they are flat-out ridiculous. When they're waiting around for a parent to show up with a meal, they can get in to a lot of stuff. Sometimes that's a problem, such as when they eat chips of lead-based paint near old buildings (more to come on the massive lead-paint remediation project happening on Sand Island) -- the lead eventually causes a neurological disorder called droop-wing and the chicks don't survive to fledge. However, much of the time it is less dangerous silliness, such as this chick trying out a new fashion statement.

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Left Out In The Rain

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Not every day on Midway is sunshine and soft breezes. Sometimes it rains. Photographer Rebecca Jackrel and I couldn't wait for the short shower to stop before heading out to photograph the sorry state of these drenched chicks. It was pretty funny to see the new hair-don't's these chicks sported in the rain, such as the one above. The healthiest chicks eventually shook themselves off and preened, while the weaker chicks in need of a meal just sat still, hoping for the sun to come back out and warm them up. (Don't worry, the chick above was one of the ones that shook itself off and puffed back up.)

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A Little Attitude

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Without a doubt, the chicks of Midway are a fierce lot. They're cute and fluffy, but they defend themselves. Walk too close and you'll have a wary chick snapping its beak at you. Some are more defensive than others -- in fact some are more curious about you than anything else -- but all of them have a built-in attitude.

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Nap Time!

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Naps are an important part of the day for chicks on Midway. The little guys are busy growing, and fast, so sleep is a big deal. Usually they look like fuzzy rocks, with their head tucked behind them or into a wing. I caught this little one falling asleep sitting up during the late afternoon. You can't help but go, "Awww!" when you see these chicks nod off.

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Quality Time With Parents

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

The chicks look hardly anything like the sleek, elegant adults they will grow up to be. This Black-footed albatross chick is adorable in its own right, but once it fledges and matures, it will be one beautiful bird. There isn't a lot of time spent with parents as the chick grows up, since the parents are busy gathering as much food as possible for their baby. Most of the time the adult stays around only long enough to feed the chick, perhaps rest for a short while, and then head off again. The bulk of this chick's day is spent hanging out in its nest cup near other chicks and a whole bunch of courting albatross adults.

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Focusing on Fledging

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

Albatross are big birds and it takes awhile for them to grow from pint-sized chicks into the large juvenile that is big enough to head out to sea. Laysans and Black-Footed are on the smaller side of the albatross family, and chicks can take anywhere from 140 to 170 days to fledge. When the day comes that the chick sheds all its down and has its flight feathers grown in, it is on its own for getting out to sea and feeding itself. It's hard to imagine that this little brownish grey ball of fuzz will look just like the adults behind it in only a matter of months.

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At The End Of The Day

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

When it comes down to it, waiting for parents, redecorating your nest cup, wandering around a bit to test out your legs and explore, dodging courting adults who sometimes dance right on top of you, and dodging incoming adults as they navigate landings can really take it out of a chick. Luckily, there is often a beautiful Springtime sunset to enjoy on Midway Atoll before drifting off to sleep for the night.

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An Extraordinary Life

credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

All in all, chicks growing up on Midway have an extraordinary upbringing. There's little that is easy about it, and a lot can go wrong. These chicks are the offspring of two endangered and near-threatened species -- Black-footed and Laysan albatross respectively -- that are facing incredible human-made challenges, from vast amounts of deadly plastic that is mistaken for food, to pollution, to rising sea levels and more severe storms from climate change, to trying to bring back numbers after overhunting and habitat disruption. Every single one of these chicks is important. Watching them each day, as they dealt with the ups and downs of life on Midway, was a humbling experience. We hope that all of the chicks featured here make it to adulthood and return to Midway to start families of their own.