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A Bumper Crop o’Tross

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

There’s some good news from the Hawaiian Islands. Laysan albatross—also known as mōlī in Hawaiian—are nesting in record numbers this year.

Albatross nester with courting “walkers.” Photo: Hob Osterlund

Due to the presence of mongoose on most landscapes of the inhabited islands of the chain, albatross can successfully nest only on Kaua’i and on two protected refuges of O’ahu. On Kaua’i, more than 230 nests have been reported on private lands so far this year. There are another 162 nests at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (KPNWR.) The latter represents a 20% increase over the five-year average of 134 nests. At Ka’ena Point on O’ahu, the count has hit three digits for the first time in recorded history. As many as 105 nests have been tallied. At that location, a costly but effective predator-proof fence prevents access to even the smallest rodent.

Several factors influence the population surge. Pelagic food supplies, of course, are vital. In addition, there were large cohorts of chicks in 2009 and 2010. Chicks banded then are returning and breeding for the first time. Safely fenced properties—both public and private— mean greater numbers of chicks fledge at the end of each season. After first flight, those chicks spend three to five years at sea, then are hardwired to return to the very place they hatched.

Although mōlī are solitary at sea, on land they are tremendously social. The more birds on the ground, the more “prospecting” birds are likely to stop by for a visit.

Egg adoptions are also having an impact on the current population. In the last dozen years, hundreds of fertile eggs from the Pacific Missile Rim Facility (PMRF) have been translocated to approved private properties and to KPNWR. In addition to the U.S. Navy at PMRF, partners include the State of Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Pacific Rim Conservation and the Kaua’i Albatross Network (KAN.) The project continues to be approved by all participating federal, state and private entities, and is a model of cooperation in service to the birds.

Moli parents check their egg. Photo: Hob Osterlund

 

Nesting has also returned in abundance to Lehua Islet— a small uninhabited refuge not far from the west shore of Kaua’i—as a result of a series of rodenticide (diphacinone) drops in the summer of 2017. Last May, when Lehua was still crowded with invasive rats, biologists counted a total of only three albatross chicks. This year, in the total absence of rodents, there are 145 nests.

When compared to a count of upwards of 800,000 nests on Midway Atoll—more than a thousand miles northwest of Kauaʻi—the mōlī numbers on Kauai’i and O’ahu represents a miniscule percentage of the entire population. But climate change is gradually submerging Midway and other Kupuna northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Moli in flight. Photo: Hob Osterlund

With elevated bluffs and an absence of mongoose, northeast Kauaʻi and two refuges on O’ahu have all the makings of becoming an Albatross Ark.

Protection of safe habitat is KAN’s key mission. For several years we have worked with private coastal landowners to maximize nesting success. We consider every single chick to be important, as any one of them could be among those who lead the mōlī of Midway Atoll to a higher and safer alternative nesting ground.

Albatross dance while Hob Osterlund takes photos. Photo: Jeanine Meyers

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