Why We Do What We Do: The Sweet Success Story of Stormy and Radar

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

Laysan albatross nesting season begins in November each year. Although it’s autumn, it feels like spring to those of us who monitor the mōlī. Mates reunite, rushing and gushing after months of separation. Nest sites get chosen, eggs get laid. It feels like a resurrection, a promise kept, an improbable dream come true.

Two-week-old Laysan albatross chick under mombrella. ©Hob Osterlund

Seldom was this truer than seeing the arrival of a bird called Stormy a few months ago. We had known her since she hatched in 2012, but will always remember her best because of a tragedy.

That year, just as the nesting season was coming to a close, the mōlī chicks were near the end of their transformation from fuzzy footballs to peerless pilots. Some jumped into the sky, trusting something good would come of it. Some waited for brisk trades and were lifted like prophecies. Each traveled as both noun and verb. “Fly” on the wind was not just what they would “do” the rest of their long lives; it would also be their address, their ancestor, their altar. They were destined to stay aloft, more than ninety percent of their lives, on the two universal wings of life: self-effort and grace.

Sadly, several chicks did not survive. One Friday in late June, two unleashed dogs burst into a colony, barking and breaking necks. Eight babes died on the scene. Five more were injured, and in a sense they became orphans. Not because their parents were dead, but because they were dead to their parents. They would be gone, taken for care, and their parents would be unable to find them.

It was a horrific scene. Because we got there shortly after the dogs, and because the rehab team at Save Our Shearwaters was willing to accept the birds, a few of the injured chicks were still alive a week later. Despite their wounds, despite their reputation for poor survival in captivity, despite physical and psychic shock, despite traumatic separation from everything they knew, despite the fact that they would not likely see their parents again for many years, four of the chicks lived. Only one of the five died, his brain damaged from a head bite. The others gained weight. Several weeks later they were released onto a federal refuge. All four fledged. Stormy was among them.

Fledging is a key measure of success; nothing, however, matters more than returning—which typically takes three to five years Were the birds strong enough to survive at sea? Smart enough to forage for food? Able to find their way home again?

Stormy was spotted on Kauai for the first time in January, 2016. She was robust and gregarious, a “walker” who initiated lively courtship dances and intimate preening sessions. We were thrilled to see her again in the winter of 2017 and later that fall, when the current nesting season was opening.

One day in December Stormy was spotted sitting quietly on the ground, eyes closed, as if in a trance. Turned out she was incubating an egg. Since most mōlī begin nesting between eight and nine years of age, it was surprising to see such a young bird—not yet six years old—already pursuing parenthood.

Six-year-old Stormy lays her first egg. ©Hob Osterlund

But would she get relieved of her duties? Young parents notoriously fail at their first nesting attempts because it takes time to learn the patterns and intricacies of chick-rearing. The answer is yes, she did indeed. Her mate showed up right on time. He too was a first-timer, an eight-year-old bird well known to us. Because of his friendly inquisitive nature, he had been named Radar (as in M*A*S*H.) Both birds had chosen mates wisely.

Stormy and Radar courting, spring, 2017. ©Hob Osterlund

In early February Stormy and Radar became first-time parents. They are dutiful, precocious and doting. Their chick will soon be named by an Hawaiian Kumu. We could not be prouder of the family. If we ever find ourselves wondering why we work so hard doing what we do, or whether what we do makes a difference, we will not need to look further than Stormy and Radar.

Radar, first-time parent. ©Hob Osterlund

One week-old moli chick. ©Hob Osterlund

Dedicated to Kim Steutermann Rogers, Jeanine Meyers and Tracy Anderson.

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