Category Archives: Travel

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

Today I See Fairies

White terns at Midway Atoll Hawaii (photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons)

Completely white with large black eyes, white terns have fascinated me since I first learned of their existence in 2010. At the time I never thought I’d see one but today I’m in Hawaii where they’re the official bird of Honolulu. They nest in Kapiolani Park near our hotel.

White terns (Gygis alba) are immaculate white seabirds with long blue-black beaks and a buoyant erratic flight. They live in the tropical Pacific, Indian and south Atlantic Oceans where their wide range and physical characteristics give them many names including common fairy terns, angel terns and manu-o-Ku in Hawaii. Surprisingly, Gygis alba are more closely related to noddies than to terns so they’re technically white noddies.

White tern in flight, Midway Atoll Hawaii (photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons)

White terns first caught my attention when I learned about their nesting strategy. They’re at the extreme end of Birds That Don’t Build Nests. The female lays her single egg on a thin bare tree branch without any nesting material.

White tern nest on a branch (photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons)

She tries to place it in a fork or natural depression but the egg is always in danger of blowing away. If it does, she quickly cycles and lays another one.

White tern incubating egg on a branch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If it hatches, the chick is equipped with long claws and strong webbed feet to hang on in the wind. In this way white terns can raise up to three chicks per year.

White tern chick on a branch (photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons)

Today our tour will spend time in Kapiolani Park so I’m sure to see white terns. For the first time in my life I’ll see fairies.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Tour Day 2: Kapiolani Park and Oahu island


Red-crested Cardinal at Koke’e State Park, Hawaii (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As I mentioned yesterday, our Hawaiian tour checklist has 108 birds on it of which 46 are introduced. Yes, 42% of the birds we expect to see would not be in Hawaii if people hadn’t brought them there.

The red-crested cardinal (Paroaria coronata), above, is one of them. A member of the tanager family native to northern Argentina, Bolivia, southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay in South America, he was introduced to Hawaii in 1928. Being a land-based bird, he was stuck on the islands as soon as he got off the boat but he’s made himself at home in disturbed habitats and urban parks. Fortunately he’s not considered invasive so I’ll be happy to see him in Hawaii.

On the other hand, two bulbul species introduced to Hawaii in the 1960’s are not a happy sighting. Both have become invasive.

The red-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer) is a prolific resident breeder of the Indian subcontinent who’s been introduced in tropical areas around the world. On the Pacific islands he’s become invasive and is now one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species — a dubious distinction.

Red-vented bulbul (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Red-vented bulbuls are easily found in urban Honolulu.

Red-vented bulbuls in Honolulu (photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons)

The red-whiskered bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) is a fruit-eating bird of tropical Asia who’s not in the top 100 pests worldwide, but he’s invasive in Hawaii.

Red-whiskered bulbul (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The two bulbul species made a difference in a very short time. According to Wikipedia, they changed the color of monarch butterflies in Hawaii over a period of just 20 years. The bulbuls prefer to eat orange-colored monarchs so orange ones are scarce now and white morphs are common.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Tour Day 1: Honolulu

Gone Birding in Hawaii

Nene or Hawaiian goose (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today three friends and I are flying to Hawaii for a 10-day birding trip with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. I’m sure to see many Life Birds including the State Bird of Hawaii, the nene or Hawaiian goose (Branta sandvicensis) pictured above.

Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959 but it’s very different from the rest of the United States. Located in the north Pacific Ocean more than 2,400 miles from the nearest continent, it’s the most isolated place in the world.

U.S. map highlighting Hawaii (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Hawaii’s land mass (10.9K sq mi) is slightly larger than Massachusetts but Hawaii is still growing. The island chain exists because of a volcanic hotspot under the Pacific plate. As the plate moves northwestward, the hotspot keeps bubbling up into new volcanoes. The older islands have extinct volcanoes. The newest island, the Big Island of Hawai’i, is where all the action is. It grows when lava flows to the sea.

In May 2018 Kilauea erupted explosively and increased Hawai’i’s size, causing evacuations and flight cancellations. (Airborne ash can choke airplane engines.) Fortunately Kilauea is quieter right now.

Kilauea eruption and lava flow, 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Because its elevation reaches nearly 14,000 feet, Hawaii’s climate is site-specific, from the tropics at sea level to winter snow on Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The windward side of the islands is wet (northeast), the wind shadow side is dry (southwest).

Hawaii has endemic species found nowhere else on earth but most of them are endangered or vulnerable to extinction. Of the 60 endemic birds on our checklist 40% are already extinct and one of them, the Hawaiian crow (Corvus hawaiiensis), is extinct in the wild. I feel an urgency to see Hawaiian birds sooner rather than later.

The nene is one of them. Listed as Vulnerable it looks like a fancy brant because it is descended from ancestors of Canada geese that arrived on the islands about 500,000 years ago. In isolation this goose became a new species.

Pair of nene at Maui (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Our checklist has 108 birds found on the three islands we’re going to visit: Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawai’i. (VENT tour map below)

Victor Emanuel Nature Tours route for Hawaii Spring 2019

With a 5-hour time zone difference and a dawn to dusk birding schedule, I know that my Internet access will be unpredictable so I’ve written all 10 days of blog posts in advance. My husband Rick (who’s too near-sighted to go birding) is holding down the fort at home and posting my blogs to Facebook and Twitter. I’ll moderate your comments daily when I get access to WiFi.

For now, I’m mostly off the grid. I’ll “see” you when I return to my computer on Monday morning, March 10.

(photos and U.S. map from Wikimedia Commons. Tour map from Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Click on the captions to see the originals)

The trip begins: Fly to Honolulu, Hawaii

Named For His Crest

Brahminy starling in India (photo by Allan Hopkins on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The brahminy starling (Sturnia pagodarum) from the Indian subcontinent was named for his black crest because it resembles the sikha hairstyle worn by Brahmins. He looks like a Brahmin when his feathers are at rest (above).

However, he raises his head feathers frequently.

Brahminy starling at Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan (photo by Imran Shah on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Watch his crest as he sings in this video.

He’s a pushy bird whose shape, behavior and song remind me of our European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). He’s not in the same genus … but close.

(photo by Allan Hopkins on Flickr, video by Jerubal on YouTube)

Can You Guess Where?

(photo by Kenneth Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo NASA/JPL/MSSS)

Here are two scenic photos that will surprise you. Where were they taken?

The photo above is obviously in a desert. Click here to see where it is.

Below, Thomas Bresson used a special technique to achieve this view. Click here to see his photo at Wikimedia Commons plus its description.

(photo by Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons)

A note about this photo’s description: “Bois” means wood in French.

Cranes: The Great Migration

Sandhill cranes at the Platte River, Nebraska (photo by USFWS via Wikimedia Commons)

When I saw forty sandhill cranes near Volant, Pennsylvania on Monday, I thought of the time I saw 500,000 in Nebraska in March 2004. Half a million sandhill cranes are a breathtaking, exhilarating, stupendous experience! It has to be seen in person. Here’s what it’s like.

Every spring the cranes leave their wintering grounds in Mexico and Texas to converge on an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska. Their numbers peak in March when 80% of all the sandhill cranes on Earth are there.

Map of sandhill crane spring migration in the central flyway (linked from Visit Grand Island website)

Cranes are drawn to this location because the Platte is still “a mile wide and an inch deep” between Lexington and Grand Island. The water is shallow enough to roost in overnight and there’s abundant plant food in local wetlands and waste corn in the cattle fields(*). The cranes spend three to four weeks fattening up for their 3,000 mile journey to their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

At dusk and dawn they move to and from the Platte River in spectacular numbers. Their sight and sound is amazing, especially when you’re in a bird blind near the action. They dance with their mates and jump for joy.

I saw their great migration in late March 2004. Before my trip I booked dusk and dawn visits to the bird blinds at the Platte, then I flew to Omaha and drove west to Grand Island and Kearny (pronounced Karney). I didn’t mind the 2.5 hour drive because I wanted to see a piece of the Great Plains and experience this: For over 100 miles there are no cranes at all then suddenly, just as I-80 approaches the Platte River, the sky is filled with them. I’d arrived!

I saw hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes at dusk and dawn and spent my days at local birding hotspots where my highlights were white pelicans, burrowing owls, lapland longspurs, and a Harris’ sparrow. I had hoped to see a whooping crane but I was too early that year. (Whoopers leave Texas later than the sandhills.)

This 8-minute video from The Crane Trust gives you another view of the spectacle.

Nothing can beat the sandhill cranes’ migration in Nebraska in March! Don’t miss it!

For information on seeing the cranes’ migration visit Nebraska Flyway‘s website with links to Sandhill Viewing, lodging and food, brochures and maps.

(photo credits: cranes at the Platte from Wikimedia Commons, map of crane migration linked from Visit Grand Island, click on the captions to see the originals. YouTube video by The Chicago Tribune)

(*) There’s a connection between beef and cranes: Half a million sandhill cranes get enough to eat in Nebraska because there’s leftover corn in the cattle fields. There are more cattle than humans in Nebraska.

A Sound That Reminds Me of Home

Last March while birding along Panama’s Pipeline Road we heard a sound that reminded me of home. 

The bird was loud and its sound was tropical — not a Pennsylvania bird — but something about it seemed familiar.

Here’s what we heard:

Rufous piha (audio from Xeno Canto XC107022)

Our guide identified it as the rufous piha (Lipaugus unirufus) a member of the Cotinga family.

So why was his song familiar?  

I used to hear a similar sound in the Wetlands Room at the National Aviary. The sound is gone now — the bird passed away — but for many years his voice defined that room.

Screaming piha (audio from Xeno Canto, XC444908)

The screaming piha (Lipaugus vociferans) is a member of the Cotinga family native to the Amazon. The bird looks boring but his voice is not.

Screaming piha (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s too bad he’s no longer with us at the National Aviary.  His voice from the Amazon reminds me of Pittsburgh.

(photo of rufous piha by Amy E. McAndrews on Flickr, Creative Commons license; photo of screaming piha from Wikimedia Commons; audio from Xeno Canto. Click on the captions to see the originals.)

Scenes from Acadia, September 2018

  • The view from Seawall picnic shore, 23 Sept 2018

29 September 2018:

For more than 30 years my husband and I have traveled to Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island, Maine in early September.  This year we went later in the month to enjoy cooler weather and colorful leaves. The slideshow above includes scenes from our trip, September 18-26.

As you can see, fall color hasn’t peaked yet in Acadia. The best leaf-color will occur in early October.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Rescuing Baby Puffins

Earlier this month we learned that mayflies have a fatal attraction to outdoor lights.  So do fledgling puffins!

In August and September young puffins, called pufflings, make their first flight from their nesting islands in Newfoundland.  Guided by the light of the moon they head for the open ocean.  Unfortunately, when it’s foggy or moonless they’re confused by outdoor lights and head inland where they become stranded and die.

Years ago Juergen and Elfie Schau of Germany noticed stranded pufflings near their summer home at Witless Bay, Newfoundland so they rescued them and returned them to the sea.  Soon their neighbors joined them and in 2011 the project grew into the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s (CPAWS) annual Puffin and Petrel Patrol.

Travelers from around the world come to Witless Bay in late summer to help rescue baby puffins. The stranded birds are captured in small nets, placed in carriers, and released in the morning when the birds can see where they need to go — out to sea.

The video above shows a typical puffling rescue day at Witless Bay, NL. Look closely and you’ll see that this is the same beach where I saw the capelin rolling in July!  Newfoundland is awesome!!

Read more about the Puffin and Petrel Patrol in this article from Mother Nature Network. Thanks to John English for sharing it.

(video by CBC News: The National on YouTube)