An albatross making difficult choices

One character who has been here since I moved to Princeville in 2001 is 531. He raised 6 chicks with his former mate, 467, between 2004 and 2010. In November of 2010 they had an egg but treated it differently from previous ones. They did not build a nest. 467 laid it on bare ground and they both abandoned it soon after. 467 left Princeville and did not return until the end of December.

Meanwhile, 531 stayed behind and started meeting and displaying with other birds. These birds spend more time on land than they are given credit for in the literature, which is primarily written by people who do not observe them more often than once a week, or even less. They miss a lot.

One of the birds he interacted with was A378. He spent more and more time with her, and 6 times they engaged in the quiet contact typical of couples. It may sound as though 6 times is not very much, but couples have nested together after fewer instances of that behavior. The two seemed to quickly develop a close relationship, spending more and more time together. In contrast, 467 was in close contact with 531 only once.

The next season, both 467 and A378 laid eggs. 531 made his choice, he relieved A378 on her egg. Eventually, 467 abandoned hers.

531 and A378 went on to raise two chicks together. Then last season, 531 abandoned their egg. It was generally a bad year for nests; out of 34 nests, only 10 chicks hatched. But when they finally reunited, 531 and A378 spent many hours in close contact. When both were here, they were always together.

Unfortunately, at the end of January A378 was hit by a car. The rehab experts at Save Our Shearwaters thought that her auxiliary band actually protected her leg from more serious injury. Fortunately her leg was not broken and she was released here about a week later. She flew away soon after.

531 was not around when A378 was hit by a car, and he was not there when she was released or on the one day in March when she returned to Princeville. As far as he could see, she was gone. He began to spend time with K407, who had been nesting with another female since at 2001 and possibly earlier.

K407 and her mate, 466, had six failed nests from 2008 until 2013. Every year after their nest failed, they would decide where to meet the following year and spend about two weeks in that spot. Last season was no exception, they sat in front of a neighbor’s house. But K407 started hanging out in the area where 531 always nested. I saw her display with him five times, and four times they were engaged in quiet grooming sessions. In contrast, I saw her grooming with 466 just twice. K407 was in Princeville on at least 42 days after the nest failure, 466 was there just 15 days.

This year, K407 and 531 were among the first albatrosses to return to Princeville, and on November 25th 531 was sitting on an egg. That same day A378 sat near him, but he acted aggressively towards her, biting at her.

The next day A378 was sitting on an egg about 2 feet away from 531’s nest. She had abandoned it by December 6th. 531 continued to sit on his current mate’s egg, but when K407 returned on December 10th to relieve him, he moved over and sat on A378’s egg. He certainly gave the appearance of being the father of that egg.

531 was gone by the next day, leaving A378’s cold egg alone.

On December 24th, A378 had returned and was walking not far from K407. I continued to collect data on other birds when I heard a loud scream coming from that direction. 531 had returned and was attacking his current mate, K407, stabbing at her with his bill. He then went over to A378, who was sitting on her old nest, and attacked her. He was doing the screaming both times and was clearly very agitated. For the next 20 minutes or so he sat next to A378 and they gently groomed each other as K407 watched. In all of my years of observation, I have never before seen an albatross attacking the mate on their nest, nor have I ever seen one grooming another bird while the mate sat on their egg and watched.

In this film, 531 is on the left, A378 is sitting to the right of him, and K407 is sitting on their egg in the background.

531 would periodically try to sit near K407, but she clabbered at him and lunged at him. In the second film segment below she included A378 in an apparent display of her emotions. Is it anger? Frustration? Fear of losing the only albatross who would have any interest in helping her raise her precious chick? All of the above?

In this segment 531 approached K407. After all, he had come back to relieve her at their nest. That is a very strong motivation for an albatross. Clearly K407 was not ready to allow him to get close to their nest, and they had a hearty domestic squabble. Again, I have never seen this behavior in a nesting couple. Did he then return to A378 to be comforted?

On December 25th, 531 was on the nest, K407 was sitting close to him, and A378 was sitting about 8 feet away from them.

On December 26-28, K407 was gone, 531 was on the nest and A378 was sitting about 2 feet away from him. She was also sitting near him on December 31st, January 1st and January 2nd.

Since then, 531 has been sitting on the nest alone, with neither A378 nor K407 nearby.

My feeling is that 531 will help raise the chick, I have never seen an albatross abandon a chick. But is impossible to predict his choice of nesting partner for next year.

They are complicated creatures, these albatrosses.

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2 Responses to An albatross making difficult choices

  1. This is amazing, Cathy! Thank you for documenting all this in your blog…not an easy task! Thankfully 531 and A378 didn’t have a chick last year, as it definitely would not have survived once A378 was hit by that car…but who knows what long-term effect that ‘unfortunate’ (!) human intervention has had in terms of the albatross relationships that you’re now witnessing!

  2. tradewindsla says:

    I am seeing big differences in how close albatross couples are, just in terms of how much time they spend together when they could be flying at sea looking for food. They do not always mate for life, and the data collected in years when they are not nesting may help to predict which ones may separate in the future. Or, it may not. That’s how complicated these birds are.
    And fascinating.

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