LAYSAN ALBATROSS (Phoebastria immutabilis) – Moli – Indigenous
DESCRIPTION: The Laysan Albatross is white with black wings, has a yellowish bill with a dark tip, and a black smudge around the eye that looks like mascara makeup. The bill tip is curved downward. The bird measures about 31 inches (80 cm) long. The tail is short, and the legs and feet are washed out pink. Sexes are similar. This bird is a ‘tubenose’ species, i.e. with bony tubes attached to their bill, which are part of a system to extract salt from ocean water, and also for olfaction.
NAME: The Laysan albatross owes its English name to the fact that an important breeding colony is located on Laysan Island, which is part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, home to most of the population. The name ‘Albatross’ appears to originate from Spanish ‘Alcatrass’ and refers to a diving seabird.
The Latin name ‘Phoebastria’ is from ancient Greek and might refer to a bright star, and ‘Immutabilis’ means ‘unchangeable’.
HABITAT: The Laysan albatross is a ‘pelagic’ bird, i.e. its habitat outside nesting season is the open ocean away from the continental shelf. It can fly and soar for very large distances without too much effort.
DIET: Its favorite food is squid, followed by fish and crustaceans. Unfortunately it also eats a lot of garbage, to the detriment of its chicks.
NESTING/REPRODUCTION: Laysan albatrosses nest in colonies. Nests are built usually on low and flat islands. They are a shallow depression on the ground near taller vegetation. Only one egg is laid. Both sexes participate in nesting following an elaborate courtship ritual. This species mates for life. There are instances of two-female pairs as well.
DISTRIBUTION: This albatross can be found over the north half of the Pacific Ocean. However, the vast majority of them live on Laysan and Midway islands. There is also a small colony at Kaena Point on Oahu and the birds there are relatively approachable, although visitors are restricted to specific paths.
CONSERVATION: The Laysan albatross is considered as near threatened by the IUCN, due to longline fishing, plastic pollution in the ocean, and also lead poisoning at Midway Atoll. (More information can be found here.) The Laysan albatross used to be hunted in the hundreds of thousands for its feathers.
Since it nests on the ground, the eggs and chicks are very vulnerable wherever there are mammals such as cats, dogs, rats, and mongoose. Conservation efforts have been made to protect them from those predators.
One successful example is the expensive – and extensive – fence built at Kaena Point on Oahu, surrounding the Kaena Point Coastal Reserve. The fence prevents those predators from accessing the site. Visitors have to go through two gates separated by a cage, at the two entrances, one from the North Shore and the other from the West Side.
NOTES: The Laysan albatross can live several decades in the wild in spite of all the threats it has to deal with. The oldest known one is Wisdom, who at age 66 was still able to lay a chick! But this was back in 2016. At age 68 in December 2018, Wisdom laid another egg! Not only that, but it is likely at at Midway Atoll, her home, she is surrounded now by countless children and grand-children and great-grand-children, etc.
The albatross is part of an order of birds that includes seabirds with a ‘tubenose’ bill. This highly specialized bill is made of plates and the nostrils are inside one of them in the shape of a ‘tube’. These birds drink seawater, and they have glands in their bill to extract the salt from the water. Their nostrils also have a self-defensive feature – when threatened they can spit out a foul-smelling oil from that organ.
Fact sheet from Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources: Laysan Albatross – Hawaii DLNR – Oct. 2005
http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/41/Laysan_Albatross/ (webcam on a nest on Kauai)
Panting in birds: birds will pant (just like dogs) to regulate their body temperature (see video below):
Laysan albatrosses communicate with lots of head/neck nodding while walking around each other:
As with many other seabirds, the Laysan albatross is not the best walker on the ground:
The repeated head noddings while walking around each other looks like a slow dance: