An albatross biography, KP505

This is KP505 sitting with Lanea*, the chick he raised with his mate last year.  Lanea had decided that a tree stump next door was a much better spot to rest in than the nest her parents had built and maintained for her.

Lanea and Dad

Lanea and Dad

Both KP505 and KP792 tried to get her to come back to the nest but she would literally not be moved, like most chicks who have selected a new spot to sit in.   That is why people who golfed the sixth hole on the Makai Golf Course last year were warned to watch out for a large seabird sitting in the middle of the fairway.  The chick would not move back to the nest site in the weedy center of the course.

Chick on fairway 6

Chick on fairway 6

Two of KP505’s grown chicks from previous years were taking care of their own chicks while he was helping to raise Lanea, so we had three generations of albatrosses in my neighborhood last season.  One daughter from 1993 has been nesting in Princeville since 2004.  Gator hatched in 2006 and nested last year for the first time, very close to where he hatched.

Last year, KP505’s chick from the 2003-2004 season, Mystery, showed up on Midway.  I had never seen this bird since he fledged.  The only reason he caught the ranger’s eye was that he tapped on the door to his office.  Princeville birds are very polite.

I knew that KP505 was captured and banded as an adult in 1989 at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, then rebanded here in 2004. Since there is no way to determine how old an albatross is, it is assumed that one is at least 3 years old when banded as an adult.  Of course he could have been older than that.  There is one nesting on Midway who is at least 63 years old.

Since I observe the Princeville albatrosses almost every day that they are here, I have mounds of data.  I have Excel spreadsheets on which I record every day’s activities from the first adult’s appearance to the last chick’s fledging.  With the spreadsheets I can easily follow an individual bird’s time in Princeville.  So I decided to look up KP505, to see what his story is.  I already knew the basic outlines, but I wanted to see what I had missed, to color in the portrait.  After all, he is a patriarch of the albatross community here.

KP505’s mate from 2003 through the summer of 2006 did not return the following season.  KP505 returned in November and hung out in my neighborhood without really interacting with other birds until mid-December, when he displayed with KP729.  He displayed and engaged in quiet contact with both KP729 and KP792.  Quiet contact is the gentle grooming you see the nesting couples doing with each other, what my sister calls albatross canoodling.  I do not know if either of these females nested with anyone in previous years.  Since they were both banded as adults about 10 years ago I have no way of knowing their histories.

In the 2007-2008 season he came back on November 15th and nested with KP729.  Even though I was checking this area every day, I never saw KP729 until a day before she laid the egg.  Their chick hatched but when I found him he was dead.

In the 2008-2009 season, he again nested with KP729.  Yet the day he returned to Princeville, November 15th, he displayed with KP792.  Both females had nests.  I saw him copulate with KP729 but I could easily have missed seeing him mating with KP792.  He shared incubation of Kp729’s egg, and KP792 abandoned hers.  He helped raise a healthy chick that the homeowners named Obama.

KP505 was back on November 23rd of 2009, but his mate, KP729, did not return to Princeville until January 20th, much later than nesters usually come back.  I saw him display with 6 different females, and he copulated with one of them.  Most surprisingly, he never interacted with his mate during the 10 days she was here.  After she left he started to spend more time with KP792.  I saw 4 instances of quiet contact between them.  That may not sound like a lot, but it is a special behavior that indicates a close connection.  Furthermore, even though I check them almost every day I certainly miss a lot of behaviors.  If I observed them less frequently, I would see a much more fragmented life story.

On November 11, 2010, one of my neighbors observed KP505 land near KP792 and copulate with her, and they spent several hours in quiet contact.  They were gone by the next day, and KP792 was back and sitting on an egg on November 19th.  KP729 returned to Princeville on November 20th.  I first saw her standing about 12 feet from her former mate’s new nest.  She has not found a new mate since then, and she often sits on my lawn now, calling out to albatrosses flying overhead or walking around the neighborhood.  She has displayed with other birds but does not have a regular partner.

KP505 raised two chicks with KP792, Coconut in 2010-2011 and Lanea in 2012-2013.  They took the year in between off, and during that time I saw one or both of them on 34 days.  I saw 13 sessions of quiet contact, a record for my observations.  They were a very close couple. Unfortunately I have not seen KP792 this season.  KP505 arrived back on November 14th and has been here on more than 30 days so far, always in the yard where he raised two chicks with KP792.  He has even built himself a nest to sit in.  I have seen KP729 visiting him, but he does not show any interest in interacting with her.

KP505 in his nest

KP505 in his nest

Occasionally he has displayed with other albatrosses, and he always returns to this spot.  I will not attempt to psychoanalyze him.  He is a bird, after all.  I have no interest in attributing human motives to him.  Perhaps he is continuing to wait for his mate, maybe he has given up and is looking for another, or maybe he just wants to rest his weary bones.  My job as an observer is to describe what he does, not to try to describe what he thinks. There is a chance that his mate could still return, but she was always one of the first ones to come back to Princeville in November.  Sometimes when albatrosses lose a mate, they start looking for a replacement that same season.  I have seen other birds take several years to find a new one; some are still alone.  I will be watching to see it KP505 finds someone this season.

If you had told me when I first moved here that I would find birds that are as charismatic as the chimpanzees I worked with at the Los Angeles Zoo and that I would regularly plan my vacations around their schedules, I would have rolled my eyes and told you that there was no way a bird could ever affect me the way my dear old friend Toto did.  It is true that no albatross ever did a double take when he caught a glimpse of me and rewarded my mere presence with the gift of an elaborate pant hoot display.

But it is their very wildness that touches me, their reluctance to acknowledge the humans that live at the edges of their avian world.  The result of millions of  years of evolution is walking across my lawn, nesting in my garden, clacking at me when I get too close.  If I can make their sojourn in Princeville a little bit safer while sharing my growing awareness of their unique personalities with people who still find delight in the natural world, then I will have earned my keep as an albatross observer.



* I really do not like to refer to albatrosses as “it.”  So even though I do not know the sex of Lanea, I use “she” since this chick was named after the homeowners’ delightful young granddaughter.

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6 Responses to An albatross biography, KP505

  1. Mona Gardner says:

    Wonderful story. Thank you!

  2. Ann Jensen says:

    Dear Cathy — this is the second time I’ve written this response to your wonderful email. I am asking you to email it to my daughter Holly, and I had to go back and look up her email address. She would love to see this one about KP 505. Her email address is:
    Thanks so much for doing this Cathy. She will LOVE it. Love you, Ann

  3. Jesse Sagun says:

    As a former resident of Midway Island (1971-1974) where the Laysan albatross makes there home as well, I can understand and relate to your passion of these amazing birds. I’ve visited Kaui a few times but have not have an opportunity to visit when the goonie bird arrives. But I will some day soon and i will use your information to locate these amazing birds.
    Jesse, Torrance, CA.

    • tradewindsla says:

      The albatrosses usually arrive in mid-November and the last chick is gone by late July, or early August. If you are able to come, let me know and I’ll take you on a tour of my neighborhood. I would love to hear your stories about Midway!

  4. I’ve been binge-reading your blog posts for the past fews days, Cathy. You have a gift for writing. Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge with us and for furthering our understanding of these fascinating creatures.

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