For four days I watched the quiet progress of the first chick to work his way out of his egg. There is little variation in the hatching times of albatross chicks: 65 days, with 2 days on either side, covers the great majority.
The first day there was a teeny, tiny hole. It was so small I put my stronger glasses on to make sure of what I was seeing. If the egg had not been so clean, I probably would not have seen the new opening. The pin-prick hole would not have shown on any photo that I could have taken.
The next day the hole was large enough so I could grab my iPhone and quickly get one photo.
KP304 has raised 5 chicks successfully and knows the drill. An albatross parent will not try to help the chick during the hatching process, other than to bend over the egg and offer sounds of encouragement. That vocalizing is important. The majority of Laysan albatrosses live in large colonies. Hearing a parent’s voice frequently can help the chick to find Mom or Dad and get a crucial meal.
There is a calcareous growth at the tip of the bill that the chick uses to help break through the shell. It eventually falls off after the chick has hatched. Here is a picture of the egg tooth on a chick from a previous year. Often that is the first part of a chick that an observer will see as the chick pecks his way out of the egg-shell.
The third day, the hole was a bit larger. I could see the chick’s bill moving.
There was no way to predict exactly when this chick would get out of the egg. It is not uncommon for hatching to start out slow, then suddenly speed up. A healthy chick will gain strength as hatching progresses. Once he is out, the chick will be wet and exhausted, and the parent will keep him warm and safe. Once the other parent comes back and sees that there is a chick, the parents will switch off much more frequently than before, and not just because he chick will need plenty of warm fish oil produced by the parents. The parents are both irresistibly drawn to the fluffy little bird. Sometimes a shoving match breaks out between the two; how much cuter is a chick than an egg?
On the fourth day, KP304 did not want to stand up, and I certainly was not going to make him. I did get a glimpse of the wet chick, mostly exposed to the air but still wiggling out of the shell. What I cared about most was that he was moving.
On the fifth day, KP304 actually stood up long enough for me to grab a quick photo with my iPhone. The chick was sleeping on Daddy’s webbed feet. His head was drier than his body.
KP304 hatched 14 years ago in the same area he has chosen to nest in. He is an interesting character, just like every other albatross I have ever studied.
Generally the male first returns to the nest within several days of the laying date. He takes over the longest incubation stint, 3 weeks or even longer. Laying an egg is exhausting for the female, she must return to the ocean to eat and to build up her reserves.
In 2009-2010, K674 laid her egg on December 4th. When she had been sitting on it for 6 days, KP304 returned and sat next to her. The next day, he was gone. The day after that, he returned and spent a couple of days with her. He disappeared and spent 6 days away from the nest. He finally relieved her the day after that.
So K674 spent a total of 15 days sitting on the egg she laid, while KP304 was coming and going.
This is highly unusual behavior for an albatross. Did I tell you that words like “never” and “always” should be stricken from an albatross observer’s vocabulary?
The couple did not nest in the 2010-2011 season.
In the 2011-2012 season, KP304 took over incubation duties the day after K674 laid the egg, just the way he is supposed to.
2012-2013: K674 was left alone on her egg for 12 days. Then KP304 showed up but did not sit on the egg. A week after he returned, after sitting some distance away from the nest, he finally replaced his mate on the nest. K674 had laid her egg, then incubated it for 17 days before she was relieved of her duty.
2013-2014: KP304 showed up 8 days after the egg was laid. He changed regularly with his mate after that.
2014-2015: KP304 was on the egg two days after it was laid. Unfortunately, their chick died within a few weeks.
2015-2016: He took on the first incubation shift in a timely manner. His mate came back to relieve him and was on the nest for 18 days before he came back to sit next to her. He was gone by the next day, and she continued to incubate their egg for a total of 29 days, a very long incubation period.
One thing is certain. He will be a good father to this chick. No matter how reluctant he may sometimes be to assume his incubation duties, he has always proven that once the chick is here, he is all devoted dad. He will clack at anyone, bird or human, who gets too close to his baby. He will find food for the chick, a job that becomes increasingly time-consuming and exhausting as the chick grows and requires more nourishment.
No matter what his foibles, quirks, and peccadilloes, he is first and foremost an albatross.
And that makes him pretty special.