Almost two weeks ago I got a call from a friend who lives next to the Makai golf course. She had seen one of the chicks walking down the fairway straight towards the ocean, with the confident stride of one who knows where he is going. That is the sure sign that a chick will be heading out to sea for his first flight, the one that ends his childhood and throws him into the big, adult world of the Pacific Ocean.
Of course I hurried over to watch. It was Moses, the oldest of the chicks. There were three of us humans there, and we watched him wander around the fairway a bit. Then we followed him across to the center of the golf course where four more chicks are located. He riled up a couple of them. They were the first albatross chicks he had ever seen.
The first chick he met was Glitter. That’s Moses on the right. Glitter was interested in this new bird, but was not very welcoming.
I love their squeaky, high-pitched albie chick vocals.
Then Moses checked out the Pacific Ocean. His nest was in a yard halfway down the fairway, so he had not really seen the ocean before, except as a distant band of blue.
He wandered around the course a bit more, just missing some golfers aiming at the seventh hole, then met the chick Dory. Dory is the first child of Dixie, who was named by my neighbor Heather for the Dixie Chicks. Dixie fledged from my neighborhood in 2007, and this is her first chick. Her parents are currently raising a chick named Paris in Heather’s yard.
Moses made a few more practice runs. Chicks cannot sustain much height when they fly, unless they have consistent breezes to buoy them. That is why they need to fledge over the ocean. They evolved on islands and spend most of their lives at sea, so they are not equipped for long flights over land. It would be almost impossible for a chick to fledge from a nest far removed from the ocean. Even if the wind blew in the right direction, there may be obstacles to crash into and predators along the way. On Kaua’i, even though there is a county-wide leash law, there are many people who do not obey it. An albatross chick coming in for a landing would trigger aggression in many dogs. Princeville is unique in that respect, residents agree to rules that include the leash law.
Glitter saw the attempts Moses made, and decided to try some as well.
I was on the golf course for about three hours. Moses spent most of that time asleep, resting up after his exertions. I returned the next morning at 7:30 A.M., but he was still sound asleep.
He fledged about two hours later. I heard that he stumbled a bit at the ledge, but regained his footing and stepped off into his new life as an adult albatross.
Here is a photo of him that I took several days before he fledged. He lost almost all of the baby down before he left. That does not always happen, some chicks fledge with lots of baby feathers left.
I will not be seeing him for at least 3 years, probably more. I may see him interacting with some of the other albatrosses. Or I may get a call from someone who is concerned about an albatross that seems to be having a problem walking. Maybe his leg is injured. I will see if either leg is discolored, or swollen, or at an odd angle. If not, I will check my list of every chick who ever fledged from Princeville.
And then I see the band number, H227. Moses! Fairway 6, Makai course. I will remember his father, KP304, who was a chick in a nest within sight of where Moses was raised. His mother, K674, was unbanded when she first arrived in Princeville. I will find my storage box labeled “2015-2016” containing 12 field notebooks, and find the one describing the last days Moses spent in Princeville. I can check this blog to see the film showing his first steps to adulthood. My Moses memories will return, and I will be happy to record that he returned to his home.
Sometimes when a chick returns for the first time since fledging he comes back just once or twice during that initial season. Even observing every day I miss many of these special days. I think they may sometimes come back the first time somewhere else, perhaps an ocean bluff on another part of the north shore. I hate missing that piece of data, that is a part of the reason why I have to observe them every day. It drives me crazy to miss so many first returns, but if I checked them less often I would probably never see any of them.
There are plenty of times when I really do not feel like driving around to check on all of the albatrosses in Princeville. I give up travel from mid-November to early August, even missing the annual Pacific Seabirds Group Conference, which I will probably never get to attend. Then I remember when I saw an albatross on fairway 14 who was stumbling around, talking to himself, periodically sitting down when walking seemed to be too difficult. It was Tater, a chick who had been raised outside my mother’s window, and he was trying to get his land legs after 6 years at sea. He fell down when he tried to groom himself while standing. He had no idea how to interact with other adults, but he was willing to try. When he fell against another albatross while attempting a clumsy display, he was displaying his eagerness to get into the game, to learn the albatross Code of Conduct, no matter how inept his initial efforts were.
That is when I realized that I will be doing this until they cart me away, there is just too much to learn about these individuals. I will not get rich doing this, every year I spend a small fortune on recording behavior, making signs, and maintaining my blog, not to mention many long hours, and being on call for albatross emergencies in Princeville. But the whole point of what I do is not to make money, it is the pure pleasure of finding things out. I get to observe these long-lived, interesting birds that do not live on a deserted island, but in the middle of “civilization,” which they tolerate with aplomb.
It has been a monumental pain in the tuchus. And it has been a singular privilege.