Albatrosses are BACK

Though they return every year like clockwork (the first adult black-footed and Laysan albatross sightings of the year tend to occur within a day of the previous year) it’s still a very exciting time to be on Tern Island. In a matter of weeks, Tern Island transforms from a sleepy little place with only a handful of stragglers left over from the 2012 reproductive year to an island teeming with thousands of dancing, calling, and mating black-footed and Laysan albatrosses.

Okay, technically this on East Island, French Frigate Shoals, but it's not that different over on Tern! (Photo by Meg DS)

Okay, technically this on East Island, French Frigate Shoals, but it’s not that different over on Tern! (Photo by Meg DS)

We recently received word from Chad Bell and the winter crew that some of our black-footed albatrosses have already laid eggs. If the albatrosses stick to their “schedule” we should be seeing our first Laysan albatross eggs in a few short weeks, too. So in honor of the start of the 2013 albatross season, we wanted to share some of our favorite albatross videos that were shot at this time last year.

The first shows a pair of black-footed albatrosses performing their elaborate mating dance. As you view these incredible birds consider a few aspects of their life history. Albatrosses are not like the little songbirds or doves you may see in your backyard laying nests with multiple eggs, several times a year. A female albatross lays a single egg once per year at the very most. It is not uncommon for these birds to skip a year between breeding.

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If you follow this link you’ll see that albatross eggs are really, really big. And it takes a massive amount of energy and nutrient reserves for a female albatross to produce an egg. But that’s not the only reason why albatrosses can only handle one at a time. Rearing a chick also takes a tremendous amount of effort. Both parents are required to share incubation duties over a 60+ day period (and if you know birds at all, you know that this is reeeeeally long compared to most bird species). And once the chick hatches out, it requires shelter from the elements and protection from mean neighbors–this is a full time job that the two parents share for at least the first month until the chick can be left on its own. The parents must also provide their new chick with the nutrients needed to grow and develop into a fully feathered chick, a process that takes between five and six months. This is a huge task because food resources (squid, floating carcasses and offal, fish eggs, and other things delicious to albatrosses) are very patchy across the vast marine “landscape” of the North Pacific. Even in the best of times, albatross chick food is few and far between. And in this day and age, after industrial fishing has pushed all but a few of the world’s fisheries to the brink of collapse and humans have long treated the oceans as one huge dump site, albatrosses have to fly farther and work harder to raise their chicks. Some of the satellite tracking data from Tern albatrosses has shown that these birds travel up to 3000 miles on a single foraging trip!

Now, let’s get back to the dance. So, we understand how much work it takes both parents to successfully raise a chick. Given this high level of investment in a single offspring (compared to say, a honu which lays a few hundred eggs and then takes off long before they hatch out) do you think that an albatross would find a new mate every season?

Heck no! There’s way too much on the line to risk shacking up with a bad bird.  Albatrosses are monogamous and have long term pair bonds–once they find a strong and dependable match, they stay together! Individuals are mostly solitary out at sea during the “off-season,” but when they return to the island independently, they must somehow locate their mate and reestablish the partnership. This is where the mating dance comes in. Individual albatrosses are not really distinguishable from each other, so they depend on this elaborate courtship ritual to both recognize and confirm their mate’s identity among thousands of other albatrosses and strengthen their pair bond. It also helps that albatrosses have high site fidelity (a strong tendency to return the same site to nest each year). For Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses, they don’t just return to the same island year after year to nest, they often nest within meters of their previous nesting sites.

The videos that follow were shot last year on Tern Island at the start of the season. The first one captured part of a courtship dance and the actual mating that follows. So, fair warning: if you don’t want to see seabird sex, you’ll want to stop the clip at about 1 minute, 50 seconds. And definitely make sure you’ve got the volume on! The sounds are a huge part of this phenomenal display. The third albatross you see in the early part of the video is probably a pre-breeding, “teenage” albatross. They’ll come back to the island after their first few years out at sea but before they are ready to breed. Research has suggested that dancing ability serves as indicator of quality (kind of like the big red sacs that male frigate birds inflate to attract the lady frigates), so it’s important that the immature albatrosses observe and practice their dance moves!

Once they mate, it’s cuddle time! Strengthening the pair bond is an important part of the pre-laying activity.

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Two black-foots get close. (Photo by Meg DS)

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Awwwwww…. (Photo by FWS volunteer Mike Johns)

Now it’s time for nest building. Most likely this is the male who has stayed behind to construct the nest. The female is probably off at sea right now seeking food to get her through egg production and the first incubation shift.

And now we see a female black foot actively laying an egg. Make sure you’ve still got your sound turned on, the little grunts and gasps she makes really help you appreciate the effort it takes to push out an egg this size. We decided to give this gal a little privacy before the egg actually came out, but on the following day, we returned to this spot and saw that she had an egg. Success!

That’s all for now! Stay posted on the Tern Island albatrosses as the season progresses. Hopefully we’ll be able to show you some videos of Laysan albatrosses dancing, too.

2 responses to “Albatrosses are BACK

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