First Short-tailed Albatross Chick Born Outside Japan Survives Tsunami and Fledges

The adult female short-tailed albatross cares for her chick on Midway Atoll. Photo: Pete Leary/USFWS
A short-tailed albatross chick survived being washed out of its nest on Hawaii’s Midway Atoll by the devastating tsunami that followed the Japanese earthquake in March, and fledged on June 13. That alone makes for an incredible survival story, but there’s more: This marks the first time the globally vulnerable species has bred outside of Japan.
“Although fledging is never a guarantee, this chick is a survivor,” said Deputy Refuge Manager John Klavitter. “Hatched in the middle of a raging storm in January, it was swept 30 meters from its nest during a second storm in February, then survived the March tsunami that caused tens of millions of dollars in damage and the loss of some 100,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks.”

Days before it fledged, wildlife biologists banded the chick with a metal tag coded "AA00". Photo: John Klavitter/USFWS
The chick’s parents were banded as fledglings on Japan’s Torishima Island, the species’ main breeding grounds. The pair nested in the middle of a Midway Atoll decoy plot that biologists created in 2000 in an effort to lure the birds to breed there. Biologists placed dozens of decoys in the area, including models of adults and immature shorties, and played recorded birdcalls. Audubon’s director of seabird restoration Steve Kress, whose pioneering techniques include the use of decoys, fake eggs, and birdcalls, wasn’t surprised that it took more than a decade for the new site to take.

Decoys are thought to have helped attract albatrosses to nest. The National Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program donated some of the decoys to the project. Photo: John Klavitter/USFWS
“Social attraction for long-lived, highly philopatric species such as albatross needs to run for many years until birds are induced to pioneer new sites,” Kress told BirdLife International. “Of course the role of the decoys is difficult to assess, but these and the sound recordings likely played a key role in this first nesting. I followed this project closely and I am thrilled at the outcome.”
The bird will spend the next two to seven years at sea before returning to land to find a mate. Most return to the place they hatched.
“The first nesting of a Short-tailed Albatross at Midway Island provides a new outpost for this much beleaguered seabird- demonstrating that the species is adaptable to this new part of its world range,” said Kress. “It also demonstrates how people can effectively encourage new colonies that reduce risk to the species by creating multiple nesting sites.”
Greg Balogh, an endangered-species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, wrote a fascinating first-hand account of restoring the short-tailed albatross population on Japan’s Torishima island for Audubon.

From the story “Raising Shorties”:

Far removed from Tokyo’s hustle and bustle, I find myself in the sort of situation one rarely associates with Japan: dangling by a rope with my face pressed against cool granite, my nose filled with hot sulfur fumes from an active volcano looming above. The second-to-last thing I expect in this vegetation-free moonscape is to hear a cow. The very last thing I expect is to hear an entire herd of them.
Below me white beasts lumber about a steep hillside, mooing, delivering food to their young, and then flying out to sea for more. It’s decidedly un-cowlike behavior but typical for the largest and most endangered seabird in the Northern Hemisphere, the short-tailed albatross, or what we scientists call shorties. Birds that, as you have probably guessed, sometimes sound like a bunch of cows. Loose volcanic ash fills my shoes as we skate down a scree field and through a notch in the 300-foot-high walls that stand between the steaming volcano’s vent and the world’s largest colony of short-tailed albatross.
Torishima (tori means "bird," shima means "island"), a dark, jagged hulk of volcanic rock belonging to Japan, is a product of Mount Iwoyama's outpouring. The island rises from the Pacific Ocean, 360 miles southeast of Tokyo. About 160 years ago its upper slopes were frosted white with breeding short-tailed albatross. Some say a million; others, five million. Either way there were enough to make this subtropical volcanic peak look like it was dusted with snow. But while shorties may look like snowflakes from a distance, up close what you notice first is two handfuls of bubblegum-pink bird beak. The adults’ heads are awash with gold. Their white wings with bold black epaulettes suggest a display of military rank when they take wing.

Click here to continue reading “Raising Shorties.”

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