The Largest Albatross Colony On Earth

Laysan albatross in flight (photo by Bettina Arrigoni on Flickr)

If you want to see a Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) Hawaii is the place to be. 99.7% of the species nests on the Hawaiian island chain. Midway Atoll holds the largest albatross colony on earth.

Most of the world’s 22 albatross species live on the southern oceans but the Laysan albatross is one of three that occurs exclusively in the northern hemisphere. Compared to most, the Laysan is relatively small. The wandering albatross has a wingspan of nearly 10 feet. The Laysan’s wingspan is 6.4 to 6.6 feet, about the size of a bald eagle.

Albatrosses spend their lives roaming the open ocean feeding on squid and fish near the surface of the waves. They are built to soar, but they don’t fly high. Their long wingspan allows them to soar dynamically near the ocean surface with a minimum of effort. In this way they fly 10,000 miles a year.

Albatrosses only visit land to nest. When not nesting, the Laysan albatross covers the range shown below, leaving Hawaii for Mexico, California, Alaska, Kamchatka, Japan, and the Phillipines.

Range of Laysan albatross (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Named in 1893 for Laysan Island, where the species was first collected, their favorite nesting site is at Midway Atoll, a group of three islands near the northwestern edge of the island chain.

Map of Midway Atoll from 2012 USGS report on sea level rise

Midway is home to nearly a million Laysan albatrosses including the oldest wild bird on earth, a female named Wisdom.

Wisdom was banded as an adult at Midway in 1956. Since her species cannot breed until it’s five years old and usually delays breeding until age seven or eight, Wisdom is at least 68 years old now, possibly older than 70. Though not on a webcam this year, her fame spread in the past when her nest was visible online.

Most Laysan albatrosses breed every other year but Wisdom returns to Midway annually to court with her mate Akeakamai, lay her single egg, and take turns incubating the egg and raising their chick. This season she laid her egg around 29 November 2018.

Wisdom with her egg, 4 Dec 2018 (photo by Madalyn Riley / USFWS Pacific on Flickr)

Akeakamai was on duty when the chick hatched on 3 Feb 2019.

Wisdom’s mate Akeakamai with their newly hatched chick, 3 Feb 2019 (photo by Bob Peyton / USFWS Pacific on Flickr)

It takes two adults eight months to raise a Laysan albatross chick. They mate for life but when there’s a shortage of males two females will team up to raise one chick per year. Read about this unusual solution at: Ladies Make Do in a Pinch.

Laysan albatrosses typically live 40 years but their delayed breeding age and single chick in 1-2 years means it takes at least 10 years for a Laysan albatross pair to replace themselves.

This slow reproduction rate makes them vulnerable to catastrophe. Not only are the birds threatened by longline fishing hooks and floating plastic on the ocean, but with 99.7% of the world’s population nesting on the Hawaiian islands they’re vulnerable if a disaster befalls their homeland. Tsunamis can devastate a single year’s colony, as one did in March 2011, but climate change will be the worst. Climate-induced sea level rise will submerge much of the largest albatross colony on earth.

Our tour won’t be visiting Midway but we’ll see Laysan albatrosses today at Kileauea Point on the island of Kauai.

(photo credits: Albatross in flight by Bettina Arrigoni on Flickr with Creative Commons license. Range map from Wikimedia Commons. Midway Atoll map from USGS. Wisdom and Akeakamai photos from USFWS Pacific on Flickr. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Tour Day 3: Travel from Oahu to Kauai and its north shore refuges, Kileauea Point

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