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On rescues, miracles and just showing up

By Hob Osterlund, Safina Center Fellow

Young mōlī on a Kauai bluff. Photo: Hob Osterlund

Let’s say you’re an albatross chick, not quite six months old, recently adorned with the stunning plumage of an adult. It’s July, and you’re ready to fly for the first time. Your parents have been skillful at finding enough food for you. Let’s say you’ve been hopping a lot lately, bouncing around your colony like a feathered pogo stick, your eighty-inch wingspan spread wide. When the wind is right, you’ve been getting a little air. Your longest flight so far?  Fifteen or twenty feet. You’ve been building your stamina and your courage. Then one day you do the thing you’re destined to do—you jump off the cliff. You are airborne!  You can fly!

But something goes wrong.

Let’s say you’re a couple hundred feet from the bluff when a strong and sudden squall picks you up and blows you inland, past your nest and toward the mountains. You flap your wings, sensing the wrong direction, but you lose altitude. You manage to steer yourself between two rows of trees, all at least thirty feet tall. You touch down—your landing neither a crash nor graceful —on the far side of a dark wide swath, just beyond a sign that reads “SPEED LIMIT 50.”

It’s a highway. 

Let’s say you’re dazed, and try to cross the road. You don’t know anything about highways, much less speeding trucks. Vehicles whiz past. One car pulls over, but no one gets out. Then another car pulls over, headed the opposite direction, and a woman—a part-time resident of Kaua’i— jumps out. Her name is Tara. She scoops you into her arms. In your alarm, you scratch and bite. Tara maneuvers your bill, feet and wings so expertly you can’t hurt yourself or her. Like an infant, you are swaddled.

Tara, who has obviously handled wild birds before, decides to drive you to the only place she can think of, a forest-bird protection office. It’s at least ninety minutes away and it’s likely no one would be there at this hour. Just then another woman drives by, a woman who happens to work at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and who has extensive albatross knowledge. She immediately pulls over.

Why wouldn’t she? After all, it’s rare to see a person carrying an albatross down a highway.  Rare, as in never happens.

The second woman’s name is Kathleen. She notices you do not have a numbered band around your leg, which means she cannot determine exactly where your colony was. She and Tara drive you a few short miles to a colony at Kilauea Point, where they release you.

Tara and Kathleen release rescued mōlī fledgling. Photo: Nick Running

By the next day you are gone. You have fledged; this time there is no squall.

Albatross flies below Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Hob Osterlund

The women in this story are real, and so are you, the rescued mōlī.  We can only guess what happened before you got picked up, how in the world you ended up on a highway, and how you didnʻt get killed there. And how two women showed up at exactly the right moment.

Around albatross, there are countless stories like yours. Like this year we saw the return of both Kaloakulua and Mango, the breakout stars of the 2014 Cornell live-streaming “TrossCam.” Not only did we see them both, but we saw them the moment they reunited, and watched them dance like there was no tomorrow. What are the odds? Then there was the night we had near-hurricane force winds and a tree fell, missing an incubating mama by a literal inch. And there’s the chick who was among the first to fledge, raised by a mom we call “Longline” because she had a near-deadly interaction with a longline fishing vessel and yet she lived to keep raising babies.

Cornell “TrossCam” stars Kaloakulua and Mango reunite after five years at sea. Photo: Hob Osterlund

There are so many amazing stories, some of which you can read in my book Holy Mōlī.

Now, given the mounting challenges at sea, we need more of them. Lots more.  

Itʻs getting tougher out there for seabirds. This year one hundred and forty chicks fledged from Kauaʻi—representing a miniscule percentage of the species population—but each one counts. Several of them were later and downier than usual. There was more plastic in their boluses. More of their parents failed to return. Why? Are they finding too few squid in the warming depleted acidifying Pacific? Consuming too much plastic? Dying on fish hooks? Failing to find their way home because the ocean smells different than it used to? Being forced by climate change farther away from their babes in their search for food?

Bolus regurgitated by Laysan albatross chick, Kauai. (Pen is not for perspective: it was part of the bolus.) Photo: Hob Osterlund

There are problems on the ground too. In January, 2019, during the long and pointless government shutdown, at least fifteen chicks were ripped apart by feral cats. These deaths could have been prevented, but federal refuge personnel were prohibited from doing their jobs. Volunteers were not allowed to help either. On private lands, a good number of nests were also lost to feral pig predation.

The good news: this year at Midway Atoll, the mother ship of Laysan albatrosses, there was a robust nest count of nearly six hundred thousand, a count exceeded only once (2015) in the fifteen years since the counts began. The bad news: reproductive success was only 26%, down dramatically from the 56.5% average. (Black-footed albatrosses fared better, at 63%.)

Nesting albatross at Midway Atoll. On the beach behind them are resting green sea turtles. Photo: Hob Osterlund

So what can we do? We fight for better governance and better laws. We gather data and we educate. We seek solutions for a seemingly impossible tangle of problems.

What else? The great American author Willa Cather said, “Where there is great love, there are always miracles.” 

So we do what we can do to inspire great love. And mostly, not unlike Tara and Kathleen, we show up.

One Comment on “On rescues, miracles and just showing up

  1. I’m so grateful and in awe of all your loving hands In Kauai for our beloved molí 💕

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