Short history of albatrosses on Kaua’i

Laysan albatrosses were present on Kauai thousands of years before the arrival of the first humans, and disappeared shortly after their arrival.  By the mid-20th century they were only occasionally seen in Kauai and there were no nesting colonies.  In the mid 1970s albatrosses were seen at the U.S. Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on the west side of Kauai, but no nests were reported.  There is a theory that the birds that came to Kauai were young birds who could not find suitable nest sites in the area that they fledged from.  In 1977 a nest with an albatross chick in it was found near Crater Hill, east of Kilauea Point.  One of the parents was found near the nest, dead.  The chick suffered an injury and was sent to Sea Life Park on Oahu where it died.

In 1985, Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge was established and the U.S. Coast Guard transferred the lighthouse and adjacent facilities to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  In 1988, land which included Crater Hill and Mokolea Point was donated and purchased, and other land was added in 1993 and 1994.

Albatrosses were already nesting at the refuge when in 1983 scientists attempted to encourage more to come to Kilauea Point.  Albatross decoys were set up and recordings of albatross displays were played.   First-time nesters usually return to the area that they fledged from, but some may be attracted to areas where they see and hear other albatrosses.  It was hoped that the artificial stimuli would encourage them to come and possibly nest there.

It is difficult to say for certain that the decoys and recordings encouraged more birds to land at Albatross Hill at the KPNWR or whether it was the presence of other albatrosses; it may have been a combination.  At any rate, the presence of the artificial birds and vocalizations probably didn’t hurt.

It should be pointed out that it is a big responsibility to attract albatrosses to areas for nesting.   The models and recordings were placed at Kilauea Point, which was and is federally owned and protected as a National Wildlife Refuge: a place where wildlife and their habitat is conserved in perpetuity. It is a large area that is surrounded by a fence that keeps predators away from the birds.  The albatrosses will return to nest here in the future and they will always be welcome.  It is short sighted to try to attract birds to areas that a future owner of that property may want to use for other purposes some day.  Albatrosses are long-lived birds, nesting at least into their 60s.  They will usually return to the area they fledged from to find a mate and nest. Who can guarantee that private property will be available to the albatrosses that have fledged from there when they return to find a mate and nest there? What if a future owner of the property lets the protective fences deteriorate?  What if the birds build nests outside of the fences?  How will the safety of those nests be guaranteed?  If landowners truly want to ensure the future safety of these birds, they should contact the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust to learn about ways to protect the land for future generations of albatrosses.

Before anyone tries to attract albatrosses to their property they should also know that these birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  An albatross may choose a nesting spot that is inconvenient for the homeowner, say, in the spot where their children play basketball.  The property owner cannot, under any circumstances, move or harm a bird, nest, egg or chick.  That nest will be there for 7 months and the homeowner cannot disturb the nest until the chick fledges in July or August.  Then when the nesters return in November, the same rules will apply. The penalty for noncompliance with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is up to $5,000 and 6 months in jail.

As my friend Bob Waid says, “Albatrosses are not lawn ornaments.”

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