Forget those zany animal clips on YouTube. Once you've laid eyes on this baby albatross, you'll never want to watch another LOLcat again.
On January 28, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology launched a live-streaming Bird Cam from the Hawaiian island of Kauai. To kick things off, viewers saw a newly hatched Laysan albatross, still slick and dewy, feasting on its mother's regurgitated stomach oil.
Though the actual hatching wasn't caught on camera, it was a key moment for the conservation community. The chick and its parents are part of a declining population of Laysans. Human activities on the water, such as long-line fishing, oil spills, and pollution, have been the driving force behind declining numbers, while loss of breeding habitat and predation have added additional perils on land. Meanwhile, Laysan couples lay only one egg a year, making the species even more vulnerable.
That brings us back to the star of the Kauai Bird Cam: Kaloakulua. The chick was named after a phase of the moon by a local teacher. Biologists aren't sure if it's male or female, but its resilience is undeniable. Even a lone night—its first ever—in a massive downpour couldn't drown out its spunk. The chick survived to see the next day, with only a few wet feathers out of place.
For now Kaloakulua is confined to the area around its nest, which is located on an ocean bluff, six feet away from a private residence. Parents Kaluakane and Kaluahine are very protective of their baby--so far the only creature that's gotten close was a rogue rooster, which strutted away without raising a hackle. The adults take turns flying out to sea in search of food. Each trip can take multiple days, and ends with a bout of intimacy between the mates—preening, grazing beaks, squeaking. Their palpable affection and beautiful greetings are one of the many highlights of the Bird Cam, said Charles Eldermire, leader of the Bird Cams project.
Eldermire and the Cornell crew chose to document the Laysan albatross because it's not a well-known species in Hawaii or the rest of the world. Albatrosses are wanderers that spend their lives traversing the seas; they come to land only to mate, nest, and raise their chicks. And though they don't have a major role in the island's ecosystem, the community is very interested in them.
"They have a bit of mystery and a strong cultural significance since they're birds of the open ocean," said Eldermire. "People like birds, even if they don't know it. The point of the Bird Cam is to increase that awareness through a realistic, natural experience."
By drawing locals' attention to Laysans through the bird cam, scientists are hoping to get broader participation in an ongoing conservation project, led by the Kauai Albatross Network. The goal is to conceptualize predator control and have homeowners monitor Laysan albatross nests so that scientists can understand how the birds use the island. Furthermore, Pacific Rim Conservation and the U.S. Geological Survey have been tracking birds' foraging patterns. "What will it take to keep this species in a good place? That's what we're trying to find out," said Eldermire.
For those of us who don't live on the island, we can still keep virtual tabs on the birds, any time of day. To see high-definition footage of Kaloakulua, Kaluakane, and Kaluahine, go to allaboutbirds.org/albatross. Updates are also available through @AlbatrossCam.
*The names of the parent albatrosses have been corrected in this article. It has also been corrected to reflect that the Kauai Albatross Network is responsible for the landowner conservation movement on Kauai.“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”