Our albatross girls: the vigil continues

In my previous post, I introduced the pair of albatrosses nesting on our front yard, KP338 and KP643, and their infertile egg.

Last Tuesday, 338 returned to take over nesting duties from 643.

338 had departed on February 6, so she was gone for 13 days. That’s the shortest swap for our pair. The whole nesting process must be very tiring for both birds, and their stamina level must drop as the incubation period continues. The first nesting period is usually the longest (for 338 and 643, that was 26 days this season from December 4 to 30).

I was in the ‘office’ (at the front of the house) at 4:15pm when I heard them chatting together. The sound of a returning mate is very different from the interactions that a nesting bird might have with passing ‘acquaintances’.

IMG_7912I watched as 338 settled down beside 643 (still on the nest) and as they preened and chatted; then 338 stood up and wandered around, picking at grass or leaves, and dropping them nearer the nest.

Finally, 643 lets 338 take over the nest

Finally, 643 lets 338 take over the nest

I’m not sure whether 643 was reluctant to leave the nest (I’m told that pairs swap quite quickly on an egg, but are more resistant to their mate once the chick is hatched), but it took some 15 minutes before 643 relinquished her warm spot to 338.

Roles were then reversed,  with 338 plucking grass and debris for the nest, occasionally stopping to chat and preen her mate, while 643 adjusted herself on the egg.

I didn’t see 643 leave, but I know it was some time between 5:00 and 5:25pm, while I was walking Freya and watching whales at the bluff. Such is the unfortunate conflict of activities that nature provides at this time of year! 😉

I wish I knew if our pair had ‘discussed’ their egg, and reached a decision as to whether to give up on their hope of an offspring this year. Still, for the moment, it seems as if 338 is content to take another turn.

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Our albatross girls

I must have compiled half a dozen or more posts since my last of December 28. Unfortunately, they were all composed in my head, either while driving around the island (plenty of time for contemplation at a maximum of 50mph), or during one of my frequent bouts of insomnia (which I attribute to age, not location!) So, apologies for the extended absence and, obscenely belatedly, Happy New Year…or, rather less belatedly, Gung Hay Fat Choy!

One of the most frequent topics for my mental musings is our local population of laysan albatross. I briefly mentioned some weeks ago that they were/are back on Kauai.

Nov 2012: returning albatrosses find their mates

Nov 2012: returning albatrosses find their mates

They started returning mid- November. Once one appears, it seems they all stream in. After courting and mating, all the nesting pairs concentrate on incubating their (single) egg and raising their chick.

Each parent takes it in turn to fly all the way back to Alaska to feed (yes, seriously, a round-trip of roughly 6,000 miles), while the other is dedicated to sitting full-time on the egg. They swap every two or three weeks until the egg is hatched, then more frequently as the chick grows, often covering the round-trip in only four or five days. Not surprisingly, the nesting bird is too hungry to hang about for long once its mate returns to relieve it.

So, during this incubation stage, the neighborhood goes a little quiet for a while.

IMG_5386However, the activity level picks up considerably early in the new year, when the non-nesters start appearing.

"If I stand really still, perhaps they won't notice me."

“If I stand really still, perhaps they won’t notice me.”

Non-nesters include those adults who for one reason or another do not have a partner this year, as well as the three to seven year old juveniles who are not yet old enough to mate, some of whom have returned to the island for the first time since they fledged (they usually spend the first three years at sea).

Each chick is banded before it leaves the nest; Kīlauea Point and Princeville chicks are given a ‘KP’ prefix. Last year, KP338 and KP643 nested on the border between our home and our neighbor. I learned a little about this pair at that time, but, since we only visited our new ‘vacation’ home for a week or two in February 2012 and again that April, we didn’t see the whole process through all the stages. However, we did find out that they are both females.

We were surprised to discover that female pairs are quite common. It’s not known why this happens, but they are definitely as dedicated as their male/female counterparts in incubating the egg. When both females lay an egg, one of the eggs has to be removed, as they only have the resources to incubate and raise one chick. Of course, the chances of them having a fertilized egg are somewhat limited…but not impossible, since there’s sometimes a randy male hanging around the neighborhood ready to jump their bones when they first return to the area!

Sadly, last year’s egg was not fertile. In some cases, an adoptive egg can be given to an all-female pairing. A program was instigated some years ago to replace infertile eggs with proven fertile eggs from pairs nesting on PMRF (Pacific Missile Range Facility) land. The idea was to reduce the PMRF colony of laysan albatross to avoid collisions with aircraft by relocating the eggs prior to hatching, since an albatross will typically return to the area where it hatched.

Initially, adoptive eggs were relocated to the KPNWR (Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge) only, but it was later extended to those birds nesting on private lands (such as Princeville).

This wasn’t an option for our pair last year as, for some reason known only to herself, 643 decided to move two doors down to lay and incubate her own egg, while 338 was left alone at the original nest site. Without two adults to incubate an egg, there’s no hope of success, since, as I already mentioned, they must take it in turns to leave the nest to feed.

KP338 and KP643 (with 643's egg)

KP338 and KP643 (with 643’s egg) at the top of the slope

This season, the same pair returned, and this time ended up with their nest just a few feet from our garage, on the edge of the driveway. Not that that was their original intention! They started off tucked behind a sago palm and a bird of paradise plant, at the top of a small slope.

643 laid her egg first, on December 4, and left 338 to incubate it.

KP338 followed her egg after it rolled down the slope

KP338 followed her egg after it rolled down the slope

338 laid her own egg the following day, slightly to one side … unfortunately, it was closer to the slope and at some point during the day, presumably while 338 was shuffling around and beginning to pull some grass around her to form a nest, the egg rolled down the slope.

KP338 on the eventual nest site, admiring her reflection in the car!

KP338 on the eventual nest site, admiring her reflection in the car!

At least, 338 had the sense to follow her egg and sit on it! (An albatross will often ignore an egg that has accidentally rolled out of the nest, and will stubbornly remain on the nest while the egg goes cold – not the sharpest tool in the box!)

On the positive side, since 338 was by now nesting some distance from the sago palm, it was easy to remove 643’s egg without causing 338 any grief.

To avoid disturbance, the ideal is to keep at least 15 feet away from nesting birds but, given their location, that’s simply not feasible for us, or at least for the car, this year. Thankfully, neither 338 nor 643 seem too bothered by our comings and goings (though, of course, we don’t open the passenger door right next to them). At the risk of imposing human characteristics on these beautiful creatures, our pair do now seem to recognize our voices and appear quite comfortable on their accidental nesting site.

We had hoped that their infertile egg would be replaced with a PMRF egg, but sadly this year the State has decided not to extend the adoption permit to private lands. 😦 So, for now, our pair continue to incubate their egg, with no hope of hatching a chick. At some stage either the egg will break or the pair will simply give up hope and abandon the nest. They have been particularly faithful to each other and to their nest this time, despite the egg relocating itself, so we’re hoping they will have another go next year.

This chick (less than a week old) was hatched on a neighbor's front yard

This chick (less than a week old in the photo) was hatched on a neighbor’s front yard

Meanwhile, the happier news is that we now have 18 chicks in Princeville.

We’re enjoying watching the little balls of gray fluff grow, day by day, in our neighborhood.

Once again, I highly recommend Cathy’s blog, My Albatross Diary, as an excellent and entertaining source for more detailed updates on our Princeville chicks, an insight into albatross parenting, and many more great photos and videos.