Playing house

I was going to write one or two lines about an albatross couple playing at being nesters, with a cute photo, of course, but as usual this couple brought to mind so many other things about albatrosses that I became weighted down by the bigger picture.

I think that the purpose of my blog is to present life histories of individual albatrosses, the stories I observe every day; not to gloss over that and to just write stuff that has already been well-written in books like Carl Safina’s “Eye of the Albatross.”  Why bother observing them if I do not share the details of how I have seen them living their lives?  Furthermore, since there are some “facts” about albatrosses that are not actually supported by my observations, I would rather let their behaviors speak for them.

This ran through my mind when I was observing one of my favorite individuals, Charlie.  He has always been an interesting bird.  I speak not just for myself, but for neighbors who have come to know him.

First of all, Charlie’s parents are not typical.  He had two mothers.  About 30% of the couples here are female/female couples.  One of Charlie’s mothers was originally banded at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, the other was banded as an adult in Princeville in 2005.

The only times Charlie’s moms ever had a viable egg were when their infertile egg was replaced with a good one from the PMRF.  This happened three times.  Once the egg broke during incubation, once their day-old chick died, and the third time, in 2009, Charlie hatched.

So many times I have seen couples pick out a spot to nest in the following season.  They meet each other there for a week or more, then both return to that spot in November.  Charlie’s mothers did not do this in 2010-2011.   They had not chosen a meet-up spot, so when they returned from their time spent flying over the ocean the following season they were always sitting in different places.  Sometimes they were both here at the same time, but they missed seeing each other.

Could that happen in a crowded area like Midway, where there are usually close to half a million nests?  Are there ever couples who do not find each other when they return to their nesting areas there?  It may depend on how close they are to each other when they first land.  Charlie’s mothers were never actually very far apart, as the albatross flies.  But when there are houses in between, it becomes more complicated.  Each bird seemed to be waiting for the other one to appear, but they did not get up and walk around and look for each other.  I did finally see them together once, in February.  Sadly, I never saw one of the females again after that day in 2012.

The other one has returned each year, spending many days here, in fact.  She has occasionally displayed with other birds, but I have not seen her spending time with one special bird in the quiet contact I think of as “married couple behavior.”  Most of the time she is sitting by herself, often on her favorite corner, watching the albatrosses that fly overhead, occasionally greeting one or even displaying with one.  But the overwhelming majority of her time here she spends by herself.  That is something that they are not supposed to do, by the way, sitting here in Princeville, not doing much, when they can be spending their time getting food, or at least in the energetic pursuit of a mate.  She has been here anywhere from 41 to 62 days in a season, often spending the night here.  Hasn’t she read the books?

Charlie lived in the middle of my block., away from the ocean.  When it was time to fledge, he flew into the wind, as the chicks always do.  Unfortunately, the wind was blowing the wrong way for fledging, and he flew away from the ocean.  My sister and I rescued him as he was flying further away and brought him to an ocean bluff, where he fledged.

This is why when someone tells me that they would love to have chicks on their property that is not on an ocean bluff, I advise them that it would be a selfish thing to do.  My friend Bob Waid calls it “lawn ornament albatrosses.”  The chicks need to be near the ocean.  They will fledge into the wind, whichever way it is blowing.  If it is not blowing off of the ocean, they can end up in some dangerous places.  During fledging season I check on the chicks every day, and residents, Princeville Patrol officers and visitors to Princeville report anything that does not look right.  One time, a chick who had grown up within sight of the ocean ended up a mile away in the parking lot of landlocked condominiums.  Another time one ended up by the side of the highway.  A ranger from the KPNWR happened to drive by, so the chick was taken to a safe fledging spot.  These birds will not automatically fly to the ocean, they fly into the wind.  They need help if they get lost.

Furthermore, if someone living on an ocean bluff tries to encourage albatrosses to nest there, they had better be willing to put that part of the land into a conservation easement, because the birds will keep returning to that spot for years to come.  If somebody buys it who wants their dogs to run around there, there is nothing anyone can do about it.  We have to look beyond the lifetime of one owner to see what will happen if someone buys it who is not crazy about albatrosses.  Unfortunately, being able to afford to live on land overlooking the ocean does not automatically come with an appreciation for wildlife.

One person who has set land aside for the use of current and future albatrosses is Mrs. Joyce Doty, who built the Na Aina Kai Garden in Kilauea and is leaving it for future generations of human visitors and albatross residents.  She deserves the thanks of everyone who loves these birds.  The albatrosses on her property live in correctly fenced colonies and those birds will always be safe, now and in the future.  Furthermore, there are volunteers dedicated to observing them and recording the data for posterity.

Thanks to all of you!  If anyone wants to see a colony of albatrosses that live on Kaua’i, I recommend Na Aina Kai Garden.

And, as promised, here is a photo of Junior showing Charlie how cute she looks in a “nest.”  I hope to be able to share a photo of their real nest next season.

Charlie and Junior and their "nest"

Charlie and Junior and their “nest”

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