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Home at Last: Albatross Star Returns After Five Years at Sea

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

One day in late March I got a message from a colleague­—a seabird biologist in Honolulu—asking about current incidence of avian pox on Laysan albatross chicks on Kaua’i. Such pox is delivered via mosquitoes, and is fairly common. On my surveys I hadn’t seen any gross lesions, but I offered to check more closely. Due to the proximity of a stream, one specific mōlī colony was particularly susceptible.

I invited a friend to join me. Jeanine’s a fellow volunteer with the Kaua’i Albatross Network, and she’s got extra sharp eyes. We’d be looking for small subtle pink spots on the eyelids, bills and feet of the chicks.

Off we went in the late afternoon of Saturday, March 30. After a few minutes on the road I had an idea, and asked Jeanine if she had enough time to include an additional colony in our outing. That colony was in a dry area where pox was uncommon, but we both knew it wasn’t pox we’d be looking for.

We were looking for Kaloakulua. Kaloakulua, or “KK” as she was often called, was the starring chick from the first year of live streaming via a Cornell Lab of Ornithology “TrossCam.” 

Finding KK felt like a very long shot. We’d been looking for her all year. And the year before, and the year before that.

When mōlī chicks fledge, they typically remain at sea for four or five years. Their feet don’t touch ground during that time. Of course they land on the ocean to feed, but they have no reason to seek terra firma until their hormones and instincts urge them to start looking for a mate. Sometimes they do come back at three years old, earlier than the norm.  We’d been looking for KK since 2017, just on the off chance.

The Cornell camera went live in late January 2014, a date that turned out to be the very night KK started to hatch. She was an instant hit with viewers from all over the world. Not only was she utterly adorable, but her mom and dad, both first-time parents, turned out to be fabulous at chick rearing.  Plus they were good at finding food and bringing it home to their fuzzy babe.  

Kaloakulua, one week old. Photo: Hob Osterlund

Kaloakulua was gregarious and brimming with personality.  Since albatross chicks are left alone when they’re only two or three weeks old, they have to entertain themselves for days—and often weeks—between parental visits, until they’re more than five months old. KK climbed over rocks, built new nests, and hung out with a young rooster. She survived a raucous wedding and a visit from a hungry homeless dog. Her adventures are described in chapters of my book Holy Mōlī and inspired a childrenʻs book Albatross of Kauaʻi: The Story of Kaloakulua.

Thankfully, KK fledged successfully in late June, 2014. The moment was caught on a mobile phone video by the property owners where the TrossCam was located. Most viewers who saw the clip described the bittersweet feeling of Kaloakulua’s fledge: it was everything we wanted; still, it felt like such a final farewell. We became virtual empty nesters. We consoled ourselves with the hope we would see her again someday.

Someday arrived nearly five years later. Jeanine and I pulled through the gate of the property we had last seen KK in 2014, and there was a mōlī standing right there, adjacent to the driveway. When you search for something in the same place a hundred times and fail to find it, it’s surreal when you’re successful.

Jeanine Meyers, Kaua’i Albatross Network, gets shots of KK. Photo: Hob Osterlund

It feels like an apparition, a friendly ghost who has compassionately appeared after having been so passionately and frequently summoned.

Kaloakulua, five years old. Photo: Hob Osterlund

We weren’t immediately convinced we were seeing what we hoped we were seeing, but Jeanine’s sharp eyes confirmed it. How? Because of a piece of unusual bling. A couple of weeks before our star fledged, Lindsay Young, PhD, a biologist from Pacific Rim Conservation on O’ahu, had glued a geolocator to KK’s leg band. The geolocator gave the band an unusual bulge, like a pebble the size of your baby fingernail was stuck to it.  Before we could read the number of her band, it was the bulge that gave her away.

Lindsay Young, Pacific Rim Conversation, with geolocator. Photo: Hob Osterlund
Geolocator. Photo: Hob Osterlund

It was indeed Kaloakulua, at long last.  She’d made it. She’d taught herself how to fly and how to forage for food. Then, after traveling who knows how many tens of thousands of miles, she’d found her way home to a tiny little island in the vast North Pacific.

She found the place she hatched, a tiny pinpoint in an ocean more than three times the size of the entire United States. It’s unimaginable, really, and feels like a miracle.

Jeanine and I stayed until twilight. During that time, three other birds arrived, including KK’s father. If he and KK knew each other, their recognition was invisible to us. He was focused on feeding his current chick, and Kaloakulua was focused on having a little dance with her peers.

KK (center) shows interest in other young birds. Photo: Hob Osterlund
Kaloakulua, five years old. Photo: Hob Osterlund

Now, a month later, her return still feels like we all slipped through the Narnia wardrobe into an alternate universe.

But here’s the thing: we have tangible proof. We have the geolocator. When it’s analyzed, we will learn where she’s been over the last five years.  If nothing else, we will learn something about the measurements of her alternate universe.  Stand by.

7 Comments on “Home at Last: Albatross Star Returns After Five Years at Sea

  1. Lovely story, Hob! I found myself smiling all the way through

  2. Beloved KK is home! I am filled with joy at this news. I can only imagine the excitement you must have felt when you spotted her. Thank you for sharing this lovely moment with me and her multitude of fans around the world.

  3. I know I can’t be as blown away as you are, but … everything in me is thrilled to the bone!

  4. Nice work Hob and Jeanine!! Wish I could’ve been there with you!! Kalama will be back soon 🙂

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