Article by Elena Fischer, External Affairs Kupu AmeriCorps Intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Laysan albatross (left), black-footed albatross (center) and short-tailed albatross (right), face into the wind on Midway Atoll NWR. Photo by Dan Clark / USFWS
Short-tailed albatross are one of the rarest and most endangered seabirds in the Pacific – and they call Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial home.
This year something special happened – a short-tailed albatross chick has hatched at the Refuge and Memorial!
Read the short-tailed albatross timeline below to learn more about this endangered species and its newest chick:
In the 1800s, they were one of the most numerous, great soaring seabirds of the North Pacific. Nesting in Japan’s and Taiwan’s southern islands, Short-tailed albatross foraged across the ocean, and rested in surrounding lands of North America and Asia. Their status of being the largest seabird and most abundant albatross species in the North Pacific reigned supreme.
Early 1900s – 1940s
A new era arrives with the late 1800s and early 1900s. Their plumage becomes a disadvantage to their survival as feather hunters club around 5 million of these albatross for a great harvest. Once five million strong, they are now near extinction. In the 1930s, one nesting island in Japan remains: the volcanic island of Torishima. Those individuals still explore the great Pacific, as biologists first document a single Short-tailed albatross at Midway Atoll in 1938. But at Torishima entire generations of birds are destroyed by human exploitation.
Fewer than 50 Short-tailed albatross remain by the 1940s. They are presumed extinct thereafter.
After WWII in the 1950s, weather scientists return to Torishima and find a handful of nesting Short-tailed albatross. Survivors and the ancestors of future generations. Hope remains for the Pacific world to see these graceful soarers once again.
One breeding island becomes two: Torishima and Minami-kojima. 50 individuals become hundreds. Research and conservation efforts grow.
In 1973, Short-tailed albatross are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
In 1988 Midway Atoll becomes Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and staff begin habitat restoration projects and document Short-tailed albatross visiting the islands. Due to increased protections in Japan, Short-tailed albatross population numbers increase across the Pacific to 1,200 by 2001.
A male Short-tailed albatross incubates an egg in between two short-tailed albatross decoys on Midway Atoll NWR. Photo by J. Klavitter / USFWS
A social attraction project is implemented with the support from Japanese researchers involving placement of decoys and installation of a solar-powered calling system.
During this time, George and Geraldine’s (the pair currently nesting on Midway Atoll) ancestors are multiplying more rapidly. George is born and banded as a chick on the island of Torishima, Japan in 2005. He first arrives to Midway in November 2006. Through the efforts of Japanese researchers and international treaties, the Short-tailed albatross population begins to recover.
By 2007, the world population is estimated at 2,350 birds. The Midway population consists of one or two Short-tailed albatrosses each year since 1938, but none are nesting. However, four birds are observed in 2008: the year that scientists suspect Geraldine is banded at Torishima.
Two years later, a female arrives and mates with a male who patiently returned once a year for four consecutive years. Their chick hatches on East Island at Midway Atoll on January 14, 2011 and on June 7, 2011 the chick takes flight, marking the first time a Short-tailed albatross chick fledged outside of the islands near Japan! The pair skips the 2012 hatch year but returns and rears a chick in 2013 and 2014. This pair was the only successful breeding pair documented in the world outside islands near Japan for the past quarter century – until recently.
Endangered Short-tailed Albatross practicing their courtship dance on Midway Atoll. Photo by John Klavitter / USFWS
All this time, George was without a mate. He earned his nickname “Lonesome George” from staff and volunteers until 2016. Geraldine starts appearing in George’s area on Sand Island at Midway Atoll and soon, they are seen courting: practicing their dance moves. In 2017, George prepares for Geraldine’s return by clearing a nesting area of about 10 feet. Albatross nests are usually close together and can be as close as two feet away from each other.
According to Kelly Goodale, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist on Midway, “It was entertaining to see George clear an entire area for a nest. However, one morning we noticed they were not in their original area and were sitting on a nest 30 feet away.” This sudden change revealed that George and Geraldine were practicing their parenting skills by successfully incubating and raising a black-footed albatross chick.
This hatch year, the albatross pair arrived in late October 2018, within one day of each other.
This history now brings us to this year–2019–when their very first chick, and the first Short-tailed albatross chick since 2014, hatched on January 3.
“Other albatross are currently in the process of their chick hatching and the Short-tailed chick is massive in comparison,” said Goodale. Short-tailed albatross’ rarity and size make them “stick out in the colony, making it easier to follow them and their interactions with each other.”
George sitting with his chick. Photo by Bob Peyton / USFWS
This makes them the only Short-tailed albatross pair nesting and breeding not just within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, but outside of the southern islands of Japan as well. It is exciting to see the estimated
Short-tailed albatross population of 4,300 increasing, and Midway Atoll a part of that story.
Geraldine sitting with her chick. Photo by Zeke Smith / USFWS Volunteer
Biologists with the USFWS are working to restore the habitat seabirds need at Midway Atoll and remove threats like invasive predators – because protecting the future for seabirds mean protecting the places they call home.
“Albatross and other seabirds depend on the habitat protected by Midway Atoll and other Pacific remote wildlife refuges to raise their young,” said Bob Peyton, USFWS Project Leader for Midway Atoll Refuge and Memorial. “Thanks to the hard work of our partners and volunteers, we have been able restore the native habitat that the birds need for nesting sites, ensuring a future for these seabirds.”
Article by Elena Fischer, External Affairs Kupu AmeriCorps Intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
“It’s a unipillar! Look, look, look!” A girl bounds up next to her mother, her unruly curls flying in the wind, coming out of the ponytail. Her mother continues untangling the pāʻū o hiʻiaka vines, separating those that have established shallow roots in multiple pots so that they may be transplanted. She looks up amused, as her daughter dives into all her observations about this newfound species of caterpillar.
“There’s its head and there’s its end. It has horns on its butt.”
Telltale signs of a unipillar. (Blogger’s Note: A “unipillar” is more commonly known as a caterpillar.)
A young girl smiles up at the camera as she holds an empty plant pot containing the caterpillar. Photo by Elena Fischer / USFWS Kupu AmeriCorps Intern
Those of us who are around chuckle as the girl scampers up and down the dunes of James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge to showcase this green and yellow caterpillar to anyone and everyone who has eyes. Eventually the sounds of her indecisiveness about choosing a name for it gets drowned out by the ocean’s waves and casual conversations happening along the trail.
Families and strangers plant ‘akoko (Chamaesyce celasroides), hinahina (Heliotropium anomalum var. argenteum), pāʻū o hiʻiaka (Jacquemontia ovalifolia), and other plants along 50 meters of dunes, placing them in open sandy areas not covered by the existing naupaka and other native plants. Other individuals collect large pieces of driftwood from the nearby shore to line the unmarked trail. It can seem as if little sandy trails branch off of the main trail in places where the naupaka hasn’t claimed. This poses a danger to newly transplanted native plants as well as sprouts just taking root: accidental trampling from footsteps and bikes is common but avoidable. People begin to line this section of trail with driftwood; but what catches my eye are two large pieces of driftwood propped against each other in an “x”: an explicit signal for passersby. A man drags more driftwood up the dune to complete this formation, blocking what used to look like a traversable trail, but is now filled with baby native plants.
A landscape picture of the dunes and volunteers on the refuge showing the main trail lined by driftwood. Photo by Elena Fischer / USFWS Kupu AmeriCorps Intern
A male volunteer creates a blockade with driftwood over a sandy trail where baby native plants were planted. Photo by Elena Fischer / USFWS Kupu AmeriCorps Intern
This kind of resourcefulness is an extension of the care these people took to not only help preserve these natural dunes on the refuge, but also create more natural habitat for the newly discovered and endangered yellow-faced bee. While this man creates a driftwood blockade, a teenage girl draws hearts in the sand around the ‘akoko, a biologist regales curious volunteers about the bee, locals tell of their experiences on the trail along the refuge, and the unipillar becomes a local celebrity in its bed of naupaka leaves carried by the girl.
Just a stone throw’s away, we have a view of the predator-proof fence decked with its albatross decoys and shade structures. We learn about Pacific Rim Conservation’s work with translocated seabird chicks, and how we are ensuring their survival by protecting these dunes. As the ocean’s waves toss against the sand and sea levels rise, seabird colonies on the low-lying atolls and islands within Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument face habitat loss in the near future. Thus, establishing seabird colonies on the main Hawaiian islands is a feasible solution; and these dunes help protect the wetlands from eroding into the ocean. The roots and leaves of the naupaka and pa’u o hi’iaka hold the sandy dunes in place, the yellow-faced bee ensures these plants’ survival by pollinating their flowers, and the seabird colony can be established on these main Hawaiian islands. And we, the volunteers, are part of that cycle on James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge so more unipillars, and wildlife like it, can thrive.
Top Left Photo: Two girls plant a native plant on the dunes together
Bottom Left Photo: An above shot of a girl planting among naupaka
Right Photo: A biologist talks with three volunteers about the yellow-faced bee All Photos by Elena Fischer / USFWS Kupu AmeriCorps Intern
Visit James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge
James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge is one of the few freshwater wetlands that remain on O‘ahu. The Refuge was established in 1976 for the purpose of providing habitat for endangered Hawaiian waterbirds. In 2005 the Refuge was expanded to provide additional habitat for endangered waterbirds, migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, seabirds, endangered and native plant species, endangered ‘īlioholo-i-ka-uaua (Hawaiian monk seal), and threatened honu (Hawaiian green turtle).
If you would like to visit the Refuge, there are free guided tours at 4 p.m. Thursdays and 9 a.m. Saturdays, from October 11 to February 17. In addition, you can join us on the first Saturday of every month for service projects around the Refuge. Help the wildlife and plants that rely on the Refuge and see rarely visited areas on the North Shore by joining us for weed pulling, planting natives and other projects from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. For questions or additional information about guided tours or Service Saturdays, please contact Refuge staff at (808) 637-6330.