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Blue Plate Special: Albatross Pair Gets a Helping Hand

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

Maya Raine, 6, imitates an albatross. Photo: Hob Osterlund

As Hurricane Lane barrels toward Hawai’i, kind words and blessings continually flow this way from well-wishers all over the country. Many folks say they also worry for the birds, especially the mōlī.

Thankfully, all surviving Laysan albatross chicks on Kaua’i have fledged. Squid and strong wings willing, they are now far away in the North Pacific, soaring solo on the forces of wind and gravity, being their own glorious astonishing inimitable selves.

Fledglings who grow up on the inhabited Hawaiian Islands succeed, in part, because of human assistance. Fences keep out pigs and dogs. Traps control cats and rats. Adoptions allow fertile eggs to be placed in nests known to have infertile eggs.

Sometimes chicks don’t survive anyway. Sometimes parents bail, sometimes eggs don’t hatch, even when the parents are one hundred percent dutiful. Sometimes—in special circumstances—there are compelling reasons for additional human interventions, and they can make a life-or-death difference.

This season, one particular family fits that description.

Fergie and Malia, a long-mated pair, have tried and failed at parenthood for several years. As with all female couples, their eggs are infertile unless one of the girls has had an intimate minute—and I do mean one minute—with a boy. But even in previous seasons when they were the recipients of fertile egg translocations, the eggs failed to hatch. Why? Because every year Fergie buries it. She has a stiff leg and a severe limp from an unknown injury, so when she kicks residue from her nest she inadvertently digs a hole.

That, at least, was our working theory about the mystery of her egg burials.

Amos rests after the rigorous job of hatching. Photo: Hob Osterlund

This season, after conversations with seabird biologists, we decided to slide something under Fergie and Malia’s nest to see if we could prevent burial. What could that “something” be? Metal would rust. Wood would rot. Plastic was obviously out Finally we settled on a ceramic plate about the size of a pizza pan, one designed to live beneath a matching planter filled with dirt and a hibiscus.

Since it happened to be blue, someone called the intervention the Blue Plate Special. It stuck.

A week later, Fergie and Malia got an adoptive fertile egg taken from a nest at the Pacific Missile Rim Facility across the island where nests are dangerously close to a Navy runway. The moms accepted their new egg without a moment of hesitation.

Then we waited. The egg stayed in the nest bowl while Malia incubated it. When Fergie relieved her, she did not (or perhaps could not) bury it.

We were encouraged, but still concerned. Would it hatch? Adoptive eggs typically don’t do as well as biologic eggs.

We waited some more. By early February, many eggs in several colonies had already hatched. Since we had no way of knowing what date the adoptive egg had been laid, however, we remained hopeful.

Then, on Feburary 7, a fuzzy chick pipped out of his shell. We were delighted, of course, and wondered whether the moms would know what to do, having had so many seasons of unsuccessful attempts.

We needn’t have worried. Fergie and Malia were doting and devoted.

Amos is left alone while his moms forage at sea. Photo: Hob Osterlund

Here’s how Amos got his name: Andre Raine, PhD, a highly-respected seabird biologist on Kaua’i, brings his mom every year to see the mōlī chicks. She makes an annual visit from her home in Bermuda. This year we invited Jill Raine to name one of the chicks. She chose to honor her brother Anthony F. “Tony” Amos, a dedicated ornithologist and wildlife rehabilitator. “He spent every waking hour saving seabirds, turtles, dolphins—everything that ended up on the Texas shores,” says Andre. He says the special chick being named after his uncle “is a very appropriate tribute to such an amazing man.”

The Raine family visits Amos: Andre, Jill, Maya, Callum. Photo: Hob Osterlund

Amos continued to thrive. As weeks and months went by, he got more curious and exploratory. He moved away from his blue plate, and practiced building new nests. He grew feathers and wings. He hunkered down through the record-breaking April storm that dumped nearly fifty inches of rain on the north shore of Kaua’i over a thunderous twenty-four hours.

The last time we saw Amos, he had returned to his blue plate. A few days later he was gone, off to forage over the vast North Pacific. If all goes well, we will see him again in a few years.

Amos back on his blue plate, shortly before fledge. Photo: Hob Osterlund

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