On the morning of Dec. 14, 2015, an unlikely visitor appeared in Edmonds offshore waters — a Laysan Albatross. This albatross, a West Coast species, is rare but regular within sight of land. It is even rarer on inland marine waters such as Puget Sound. A number of birders got to see this albatross in the distance as it swam into Kitsap County waters and then probably returned to sea via Admiralty Inlet. It is the only known record of this species in Edmonds.
Worldwide there are 14 species of albatrosses, most of which are found in the southern oceans. There are none in the North Atlantic. The Laysan Albatross is one of three species found in the North Pacific. The other two are the Black-footed Albatross and the Short-tailed Albatross. All albatrosses are pelagic birds, meaning that they live their lives well offshore, out on the ocean.
The flight style of albatrosses is called dynamic soaring. It is marked by very infrequent wingbeats and what is called “masterful soaring.” They take advantage of wind speed and direction at different heights to fly long distances with only slight alterations of their wing position. On the ground they walk ponderously. To take flight, they usually have to run along the ground and into the wind.
The Laysan Albatross ranges across the North Pacific from about the latitude of Costa Rica to the Aleutian Islands and southern Bering Sea. It forages in colder, food-rich waters, but has been found in waters ranging in temperature from 35 to 79 degrees F. It mainly eats squid but also forages on fish eggs, crustaceans, floating carrion, and some discards from fishing vessels. It feeds by sitting on the water and plunging its bill to seize prey near the surface.
About 94% of the Laysan Albatross population breed on Midway Atoll and Laysan Island. The remainder breed on other small Hawaiian Islands, the larger islands of Kauai and Oahu, and at a few sites off Mexico and Japan.
The Laysan Albatross breeds in colonies, often with the Black-footed Albatross. Pairs tend to remain together for many years, if not for life. They return to their nesting colonies in November. Only those birds forming new pairs engage in courtship displays. These displays can be elaborate and include coordinated movements in which they touch each others bills, bob their heads, spread one or both wings, place their bills under one wing, and pause with their bills pointed upwards. A short video of the courtship display is here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1pJwOnYrs0. They leave the island colony after mating. The female then returns first to lay one egg.
The nest has a diameter of about 3 feet and is a couple of inches deep. On sandy islands, the female lies in the sand and scrapes out a hollow with her feet. She then rotates around to form a circular depression. She creates a low rim to the nest by arranging twigs, leaves, and sand from the area adjacent to the nest. On larger islands such as Kauai, she places her nest on grass or under trees. There she builds the nest rim out of leaf litter, ironwood needles, and twigs.
The single egg is incubated for about two months. At the time of hatch, the chick’s eyes are open, it is covered in a gray-white down, and weighs about seven ounces. In order to feed the chick, the adults take foraging trips up to 17 days in length and travel as far as 1,600 miles away from the nest.
The life span of the Laysan Albatross ranges from 12 to 40 years. It can take up to 10 years before a young albatross successfully reproduces. The oldest of record was a breeding male found to have been banded 53 years earlier. Any group of albatrosses is known as a flight, a rookery, or a weight.
In “Eye of the Albatross,” Carl Safina, a renowned natural history author, follows one Laysan in her journeys around the Pacific Ocean. Throughout the story of this bird’s life, Safina weaves in recollections of whalers and famous explorers as well as examines the health of the oceans. It is available in the Sno-Isle Libraries collection as a book and as an ebook.
The Laysan Albatross is a watch list bird for North America. That means it is a species most at risk for extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. In 2009 there were an estimated 1.2 million breeding adults. The population has increased from a low of 18,000 pairs when feather hunting ended in the early 1920s. Nonetheless, the species breeds on low-lying tropical islands that will likely be submerged by rising sea levels sometime during this century. Immediate threats are introduced predators including dogs, cats, rats, and mongoose. The largest single colony is on Midway where it has experienced lead poisoning from paint chips. Losses also occur as bycatch in fisheries and from ingestion of ocean plastics debris.
You can listen to the calls, bill clappering, and songs of both adults at Midway Atoll at this link: www.xeno-canto.org/164431. The recording is more than an hour long but listening to just a short portion will allow you to appreciate the vocalizations of the Laysan Albatross.
— By Carol Riddell
Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.