People often say that some of the stories I share about the Princeville albatrosses sound like a soap opera. Pull up a chair and listen to anther one while the violinists warm up in the background.
KP736 is a female who has raised 5 chicks with her mate, male KP730. This year she laid an egg in a beautiful spot, an area in some vegetation that the homeowners had trimmed just for the albatrosses. She and her mate had raised a chick here before, Niko.
She sat on the egg for 3 days. When I checked on the fourth day, 736 was gone and 730 was sitting across the street from the nest.
Not on the egg, within sight of it. Not much help to a cold egg. He must have taken over incubation before his mate left or she would have stayed at her post. He probably walked across the street when he knew she was gone.
The next day he was actually incubating it, but I heard from others that he had been leaving it alone from time to time. This is very unusual behavior for this guy. He once tried to hatch a fluorescent green tennis ball. This is the kind of behavior that does not appear in books like Eye of the Albatross.
How is the decision made to raise a chick or not? Who gets final say, and how is this communicated to the other bird? Is it communicated? Is it dictated by physiology? If food is scarce are they less likely to nest? All good questions that need some answers.
He was gone for the next week. Five days after he left, KP943, a female who has raised two chicks with her mate, had taken over nesting duties.
In all of my years of observation, I have never seen an experienced nester sitting on an abandoned egg. In the ethogram of behaviors I have created for the Laysan albatross, this would fall under “other.” Sometimes non-nesters will sit on abandoned eggs as if to show possible mates that they look natural sitting there. It is not necessary for a nester to attract a mate, and clearly any chick that would hatch would not be carrying her genes.
The next day, KP944 showed up at the nest and took over incubation duties from his mate, KP943; he had no reason to think that she had not laid the egg. A few days later, KP730 returned and stayed sitting across the street for a bit over 2 weeks. Since he never showed any interest in the egg, even when a non-related bird started to incubate it, I am guessing that he was just waiting for KP736 to return.
She did return, after he had finally left the area. When she came back she found another female sitting on her egg. KP943 had returned to relieve her mate and had been at the nest for a week.
Unfortunately, I did not see their first meeting. I found KP736 sitting about 4 feet from the nest, looking directly at it, and at the interloper who had taken over her egg. To make the scene even more tantalizing to an observer, Niko, the albatross that K736 had raised with her mate in the same location, was sitting about 5 feet away from her.
A huge coincidence?
Kp736 stayed there, watching her nest, for 3 days. On the fourth day, she and KP943 were gone. The egg was cracked and liquid had oozed from it into the nest. There was no embryonic chick inside. The egg had been sitting untended for 5 days, there was no way it could have survived.
I know that I will see both couples together here again this season. It always amazes me how much time they actually do spend here, even when they are not nesting. It doesn’t quite fit the picture we have been given of these birds, but that is one of the biggest motivations for observing them every day. Just when I feel like an Albatross Whisperer who can predict their behavior, they let me know that the more experienced we observers are, the more likely we will learn how much we have left to discover about these birds.
That is my joy, and that is my curse.