Imagine that you are an albatross chick on an island in Midway. Unless you go in circles, if you walk in any direction you will end up at the ocean. Fledging is a matter of lifting off from the beach into an ocean breeze, heading out over the sea, and avoiding dangers like the big sharks that wait for descending chicks. If you have survived chickhood to the point of fledging, you will at least know where to go.
What if your nest is in someone’s back yard about 200 feet above the ocean? What if you can’t even see the ocean from your nest? How do you know where to fledge from? Until I started to observe these albatrosses, I assumed that they would somehow smell the ocean and make their way to an appropriate takeoff point. I now believe that fledging from Princeville is often more complicated than that. Fledglings have ended up in garages, under houses, by the highway, walking across the busiest road in Princeville, and in a little park surrounded by houses, among other places.
There are some spots that are perfect for fledging. Despite the possibility of being clobbered by an errant golf ball, the chicks on the golf course have an easy path for a takeoff. The breezes off the ocean blow down the fairways, and chicks need to head into the wind to fly. The maintenance staff keeps shrubbery at the ocean bluff very low, so there are no obstacles to get in the way of a departing chick. I wrote about the golf course chick who had decided to move away from his nest and into fairway 6. I checked on him one afternoon and he was gone by the following morning. I used to watch him make little practice runs from the side of the fairway, which angles down towards the center, then walk back to the side and try again. He probably just kept going on one of those practice flights, right out over the ocean.
On the other hand, a chick who has grown up in someone’s back yard may have more difficulty making his way to an ocean bluff. The wind blowing into his yard may not be coming from the ocean, so he starts his journey in the wrong direction. Or there may be no wind to guide him; he will walk. One year a chick made his way to the bluff but instead of taking off, he climbed down it to a beach below. It took him all day to do it, scrabbling down through vegetation that covered a cliff that was nearly vertical in places, and he fledged from sea level like the Midway birds, not long after he first hit the sand. The part-time resident who watched him take his first flight was so astounded that she forgot to take a photograph of it.
Even chicks next to the golf course may fly into winds that are not off of the ocean. One year a chick within sight of the ocean ended up in the parking lot of the Sandpiper Condos, nowhere near the ocean. Fortunately a USFWS volunteer found him before he wandered out onto a surrounding road. Adult albatrosses can run down a street flapping their wings and manage to take off; I have never seen or heard of a chick who could do that.
As of today, we have had 11 fledgings, with 7 chicks left. I have not seen one of them leave. Most of them just disappeared, so I don’t even know their stories. I will be sharing some of the incidents surrounding their departures, and two of my neighbors were able to see chicks fledge and to take photos of them. If anyone reading this saw one fledge in Princeville, please let me know, I would love to hear about it.
I know there are people who do actually get enough of hearing about albatrosses, but I am not one of them. I belong to an elite group of albatrossophiles. Our numbers are growing, judging from the increasing number of visitors we get here and at the Kilauea Point NationalWildlife Refuge every year, and from all of the residents who watch out for our local birds. We don’t have any meetings or conferences or secret handshakes, but we are the best friends an albatross could have. We are willing to stand in the background and admire them from afar because we take pleasure in watching them ignore us while they reward us by acting naturally, and we will stand up for them when anyone invades their parallel plane of existence. The only thank you we need is a glimpse of behavior that is only visible to patient observers, a view into a world that is ancient and alien, yet familiar and totally addictive.