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“Kalama’s Journey” Soars to the Shores of Lake Erie

by Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

Albatross are seldom seen in northwest Ohio. This May, however, mōlī will appear along the shores of Lake Erie—at least on the big screen— when my new film Kalama’s Journey travels to a popular event known as the “Biggest Week in American Birding” (BWAB.)

This year I’ve been invited to give a keynote at BWAB, alongside two rock stars of the birding world, Kenn Kaufmann and David Sibley.

No matter how far Ohio might be from the sea, Kalama’s early months on Kaua’i make a compelling story. As fate would have it, her biological parents choose to nest too close to a Navy runway on the west side of Kaua’i. Due to concerns about the potential for bird-aircraft collisions, all albatross eggs laid at the Pacific Missile Range Facility are gathered and stored in an incubator. Before being placed in an adoptive nest, the eggs are “candled” for fertility. Fertile eggs are swaddled in bubble wrap and carefully cushioned in layers of foam inside a cooler, then driven to the north shore.

Kalama’s adoptive parents are a pair of females, an occurrence not uncommon on Kaua’i. Such couples can represent as many as twenty-five to thirty percent of the nests in various colonies here.

When her moms Pilialoha and Mahealani receive their adoptive egg, they accept it without a moment’s hesitation. This is not surprising, given how devoted they have previously been to each other and their unhatched eggs.

Not only are they ready to be parents, they are about to be stars of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology “TrossCam,” which is installed to livestream the new family to the world. A few days before Kalama hatches, the camera goes live. Once she breaks through her shell, her moms dote on her. For more than five months they prove to be excellent providers. Kalama is well-fed, energetic and inquisitive. Like many Laysan albatross chicks, she explores her little neighborhood. She builds new nests. She hangs out with wild chickens. She tugs on branches like a puppy would tug on slippers. She grows feathers and sprouts a six-and-a-half-foot wingspan.

Three-week-old albatross chick. Photo: Hob Osterlund

When she’s nearly six months old, Kalama passes the key test of a young bird’s life: she jumps off a bluff and flies for the first time. Fledging is no small task.

So why does one albatross chick matter so much? It’s because Midway Atoll—the mother ship of Laysan albatross and home to about three million individuals—is gradually going underwater. Even before it’s submerged by sea level rise due to climate change, it’s increasingly susceptible to storm severity and other major events. When a 9.1 magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 11, 2011, it generated a tsunami that drowned more than a quarter million albatross chicks on Midway despite a distance of twenty-five hundred miles from the epicenter.

The island of Kaua’i, both an ancient and recently resurrected nesting ground for Laysan albatross, provides safety for Kalama’s species for three reasons: it has elevated bluffs along an eleven-mile stretch of coastline, it has an absence of the mongoose that plague the rest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands, and it has people who care. Put them all together? We just might have a Noah’s Ark.

Flight. Photo: Hob Osterlund

Statistically, Kalama has about a fifty percent chance of surviving at sea long enough to return to Kaua’i, which will likely be three to five years. She has a twenty-five percent chance of becoming a nesting adult here. Who knows? Maybe it will happen. Maybe she will choose a mate, raise countless chicks, and bring a pile of friends home with her.

In addition to BWAB, I will introduce Kalama’s Journey at several venues this year: the Pacific Seabird Group meeting on Kaua’i in February, the National Tropical Botanical Garden “Earth Matters” public lecture series in March, the Hawai’i State Environmental Council in April, Portland, Oregon Audubon Center in May, the Volcano Arts Center and Hawai’i Wildlife Center in July, and the Greenwich, Connecticut Audubon Society in November. Several other venues are being discussed.

Albatross love. Photo: Hob Osterlund

As for Kalama in Ohio? May her story fly far, and may she inspire our own species to fledge to a new level of flight.

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