Out here at Midway Atoll, the breeding season for albatross is well underway. Compared to the beginning of the season when the colony was a cacophony of screams, whistles, moo’s, and bill claps (as well as a constant flux between courtship displays and intense kerfuffles), the scene is quite calm now. With nests built and eggs laid, the patient parent albatross sit quietly amongst one another as they incubate, sometimes with eyes half closed, often dozing in the afternoon. For the next two months, the stillness will continue, only interrupted by the far-off squeals of non-breeding albatross as they practice their courtship displays.
When the egg-laying spree had just begun a few weeks ago, it was quite a sight in of itself. Biking along, we would be lucky enough to spot a female albatross standing awkwardly a few meters away from the side of the road, wings hung down limply by her sides. She would be swaying, ever so slightly, and give the occasional, subtle, guttural grunt. To watch a bird lay her egg is a moving experience, especially for these epic ocean wanderers. The eggs that emerge from Laysan Albatross are surprisingly large, on average 284 grams, an amount equal to at least 9.5% of the body mass of adult females (which weigh around 2.4 kilograms). For Black-footed Albatross —the bulkier, more muscular cousin of the Laysan Albatross— eggs are slightly larger and run around 304 grams. In human terms, laying an egg that size would be equal to giving birth to 13-15 pound baby— no easy feat.
While both the Laysan and Black-footed Albatross go through laying seemingly without struggle, you can often see (or at least imagine) the pain; eggs are often spattered with drops of blood from the laying process. Sometimes the eggs come out quite quickly, but egg-laying can be lengthy, taking anywhere from 11-73 minutes. After laying, the female doesn't even seem to take a breath or bat an eye at the spectacle that just unfolded; she may give a quiet, high-pitched series of cries but immediately fluffs up her brood patch and gently envelops the newly-laid egg in a perfect cavity of warmth. Situating her feet under the egg and scooting around in her nest to find a comfortable spot, she settles down. Sometimes, we found males to be present during these precious moments, sitting stoically by their mate’s side and utterly silent. One female, and perhaps I anthropomorphize too much, seemed so exhausted from the egg-laying process that she laid her head on the back of her mate, completely slumped over and drained from one of the most energetically intense activities that these amazing birds go through. However, egg laying is only just the start; and so, incubation begins— for her and thousands of other albatross across Midway Atoll NWR.
As we enter this "quiet" period during the breeding season at Midway Atoll, it brings a time for reflection as well. When I took my first few steps off of the plane almost two months ago, I was completely overwhelmed. What sort of an avian alternate universe had I stepped into? Everyday was a sensory overload; everywhere I looked and everywhere I walked (or rather, stumbled into Bonin Petrel burrows), there were birds. Albatross carpeted the atoll in a black-and-white checker fashion; Bonin Petrels returned from the sea by the thousands at dusk; White Terns curiously followed everyone that biked through town or on their way to work; Great Frigatebirds hovered high above along the beaches, slowly moving up thermals in the afternoons. For some, the amazing array of bird diversity might become commonplace over time; indeed, I will admit, falling into Bonin Petrel and Wedge-tailed Shearwater burrows loses its charm quite quickly. But, there are simple moments that occur each day, all day, that remind me of the incredible ecology concentrated on this tiny atoll. As I sat watching the sun set from the west side of Sand Island this evening, Laysan Albatross would wander up the slender, well-traveled trail to an opening in native Naupaka shrubs to the ocean beyond and then clumsily, albeit somewhat hesitantly at first, sneak past me, just inches away. To be so close to another species and to interact in such a quotidian manner is what makes Midway the place it is.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.