The next 4 blog entries are all about a six-year old albatross that I was fortunate enough to see on his first hours back since fledging. Everyone with even a little knowledge about albatrosses knows that when a chick fledges he will not be coming back to land for at least 3 years. I have found that they usually come back when they are 4 to 5 years old. I keep lists of all of the chicks from Princeville from 200o-2001 until the present, and whenever I see one for the first time during a season I check off a box for that year. By the time I see one for the first time, the bird has usually re-learned living on land. Even checking every day I have not seen very many who have just returned, and I have never before filmed one.
I had to break the film into segments shorter than 2 minutes each because inserting them into the blog takes such a long time. So in the last installment, I have included a link to the entire 20 minute film.
From January 31 until June 28th of 2008, my back yard was home to a particularly endearing albatross chick that my sister named Tater. Since Cindy was closest to the nest and had to listen to the monotonous clacking of one female for many evenings, she earned the right to pick a name, more than those of us who slept in clack-free peace. The chick had two mothers who had successfully raised an older brother in my yard the year before. In both years the moms each laid an egg and ended up incubating an infertile one.
Brenda Zaun of USFWS and John Burger of the Pacific Missile Range Facility cooperated to replace unviable eggs on the north shore of Kauai with good ones from the navy base, where the albatrosses are unwelcome residents. The navy had always been afraid that one of the birds could collide with an aircraft. It is a fact of albatross behavior that a bird will return to the area where he was raised. So the eggs were gathered and kept in incubators to await placement with new parents.
People have asked me if the albatrosses ever reject the new egg. The egg swap is done underneath a big lid from a plastic container or under a clipboard or other large object. There is no dawdling, the exchange takes seconds. Even when an egg is candled and must be removed from underneath the parent, as long as the bird doesn’t see what is being done they don’t seem to notice the absence of their egg. They look uncomfortable, they stand up and rearrange how they’re sitting, but they never seem to know that the egg is gone. One time a PMRF egg hatched en route to the north shore. Brenda carefully removed the infertile egg from underneath the female at a nest in Princeville and replaced it with the chick. The adoptive mom immediately started vocalizing to the chick and was clearly elated that the egg had finally hatched.
On January 28th our chick started to peck his way out of the egg, and on the fourth day of pipping he hatched. This was my first view of Tater.
We watched him grow and learn how to be on his own, as his mothers took more and more time finding enough food to feed him. As the non-nesters started to disappear and the time between feedings grew longer, we anticipated the day when Tater would be leaving us.
On the morning of June 28th, 2008, Tater was very agitated. He walked across the street and I followed him. Often when a chick is getting ready to fledge he leaves his comfort zone, the area around his nest. When his nest is not on the bluff he may get himself in a spot that is not conducive for a chick’s first flight. Adults can run down a street and flap their wings and take off. A chick cannot.
Fortunately Tater seemed to know how to find a good spot. He led me out on the bluff in front of my neighbors’ houses and ended up at the spot overlooking the ocean where many of our neighborhood birds take off and land. As though he were an experienced flyer he ran off an ocean bluff and launched himself into the air. It was not a very windy day, and he seemed to descend more rapidly than fledglings usually do. I held my binoculars to my eyes for as long as I could, about 20 minutes, until my arms started to ache. And I was afraid for him.
He kept coming down in the ocean after very short flights, then taking off again. When there is a strong breeze to buoy them up, they seem to fly quite a long distance before coming down. I had never seen a fledgling whose flying was so up and down. Would he tire himself out before he could find food? How long does it take a chick to find the first meal not brought to him by a parent?
The more I learn about albatrosses, the more I realize how little I really know about them.