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Thinking outside the egg

Mahealani gets a new egg from Eric VanderWerf, Pacific Rim Conservation

Mahealani gets a new egg from Eric VanderWerf, Pacific Rim Conservation

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

It was early November. From all over the vast North Pacific, Laysan albatross were feeling the urge to fly south, to follow their mysterious and magnificent internal navigation to their nesting grounds in the Hawaiian Islands.

Pilialoha (pee-lee-ah-LO-hah) was one of the first birds to return to her colony on the north shore of Kauaʻi. She squatted in a pile of mulch in the shade of an ironwood tree, only a few feet from her previous nest site. She preened, napped, and waited for the return of her mate.

The two had not likely seen each other in about eight months. They had left the colony for open seas after their egg failed to hatch last winter. Their egg two seasons ago had also failed to produce a chick. So what was going on?

It turned out Pilialohaʻs mate Mahealani (mah-HEY-ah-lawn-ee) was also female. Without sperm in the picture, their eggs would inevitably be destined for infertility.

But this season should have a very different ending. On December 13, Eric VanderWerf, a biologist from Pacific Rim Conservation (PRC), carefully slid his hand into Mahealani’s nest and removed her lifeless egg. He immediately replaced it with an egg with a healthy embryo, then stepped back.

The mama looked at her adoptive baby. She spoke sweetly to it, shuffled it onto her feet, and accepted it without the slightest hesitation. Easy breezy, right?

The moment, as uncomplicated as it appeared, was preceded by years of collaborative effort among PRC, the U.S. Navy, Hawai’i Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW,) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS,) the Kaua’i Albatross Network (KAN,) private landowners/property managers, and dedicated volunteers. As it happened, the grounds of Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on the west side of Kaua’i had been attracting Laysan albatross every year since the late 1970’s and gradually building in numbers since the 1980’s.

This was not good news to the Navy. The reason? A runway, and the concomitant risk of bird-aircraft collisions—or, in military language, Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH.) Since thousands of potentially tragic strikes had happened all over the country with other species of birds, something had to shift at PMRF.

Various interventions were attempted, but ultimately egg translocations turned out to be the most successful. The process including collecting eggs, placing them in incubators and ultimately “candling” them to check fertility.

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Incubated albatross eggs are checked for fertility

Incubated albatross eggs are checked for fertility screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-10-13-44-am

Birds who had infertile eggs at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (KPNWR)— as well as several private properties— were given adopted eggs, often with positive results. Most parents turned out to be very accepting of a new egg, and dozens of chicks have fledged since the inception of the program. This season a total of fourteen eggs were translocated to the same number of nests on private properties.

Enter the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Cam—affectionately called the “TrossCam.” For three seasons, Cornell has been working with KAN to livestream footage from a Kaua’i albatross colony. Viewers from all over the world have tuned in to watch the chicks for five to six months, up close and personal, from hatch to fledge.

The 2016-2017 season will mark the first time the world can watch a female-female pair of any species raise an adoptive chick via livestream. This season Mahealani, Pilialoha and their as-yet unnamed chick will be among the stars, not only of the TrossCam, but also of a short documentary. In cooperation with the Safina Center and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I will be filming segments the entire season, from the day Pilialohaʻs webs touched down to the moment the pair’s chick fledges. Stay tuned: the TrossCam will begin streaming sometime in mid-late January. The documentary will follow later in 2017.

Mahealani nesting

Mahealani nesting

Hob Osterlund is also the author of the recently published book, Holy Moli: Albatross and Other Ancestors, published by Oregon State University Press in May 2016.

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