09 December 2010

New Nesting Site for Rare Albatross

A nest with a single egg is the cause of great excitement for conservation of a distinctive bird of the northern Pacific Ocean.

A nest on Midway Atoll currently being incubated by a female Short-tailed Albatross is significant as it is the first nesting for the species "outside of Japan in modern history," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which manages the site, which is part of the Midway Atoll NWR.

"This is an amazing event," said John Klavitter, acting Refuge Manager of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, about 1200 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Refuge staff have been closely watching the occurrence of this rare species, which had previously been known to breed only on a couple of islands near Japan during the past few decades.

A male of this species has been observed on the island since 1999, Klavitter said. In 2000, 42 male decoys were spread in suitable places on the island, and bird calls were played to attract this particular species. The male was male bird was attracted to the decoys, preening and trying to illicit a suitable breeding response, Klavitter said.

In 2007-2008, a female albatross joined a male bird. In 2009, the pair had a closer bond, and spent more time together, according to the notes conveyed by an online posting.

Breeding has occurred in 2010, when a pair had a nest with a single egg, which is typical for this long-lived species. The male incubated a freshly laid egg on November 16, and incubation has continued, Klavitter said. The female is now atop the active nest.

Short-tailed Albatross incubating egg, Midway Atoll NWR.
Photo courtesy of U.S. F.W.S. Click on image to view other photos.

The current nest is only a short distance from two of the artificial birds, as shown by photographs of the nesting site.

"It is so exciting to have these birds nest," said Klavitter, who has personally painted albatross decoys and monitored the sound system. "This is a once-in-a-career occurrence, and so incredible to have a 'dream' realized."

News of the occurrence was first posted on a popular online venue, and was one of the first stories issued by the refuge on an online venue, with the story on one popular online site, and pictures on another.

The information was presented to "build conservation awareness of seabirds in the Pacific," Klavitter said.

The Short-tailed Albatross was formerly a common species in the northern Pacific Ocean basin, based upon historic accounts including records from coastal Alaska, its numbers have dramatically dwindled to where there is just a small, remnant population, known to nest on two islands near Japan.

An increase in its distribution is significant, as it indicates a potential for a greater range of breeding success.

On Midway Island, refuge staff closely monitor the occurrence of this species locally as well as elsewhere with the middle Pacific region

Colleagues have noted two Short-tailed Albatrosses on Kure Atoll, approximately 60 miles northwest of Midway, Klavitter said. To the south, a short-tailed albatross has been visiting Laysan Island.

Kure and Midway atolls are part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

With an apparent increase in the numbers of the Short-tailed Albatross, they now occur more often at places within their historic range of distribution.

These birds are "beautiful and magnificent with a wonderful plumage," Klavitter said.

The nesting of a pair on Midway Island is a "symbol of hope for conservation of seabirds," Klavitter said.