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Back From The Brink?

Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)

Palos Park, United States

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Is the short tailed albatross back from the brink of extinction? Read on for a story of hope and survival…

In this photo a lonesome male short tailed albatross (STAL) rests amidst invasive verbesina encelioides and sweet alyssum plants on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, USA (Link to an excellent US Fish & Wildlife photo essay on eradication of verbesina and habitat restoration on Midway Atoll). During a period of time in mid-March 2011 this magnificent albatross spent time near Midway Atoll’s airport runway.

Hopefully this magnificent bird will find a mate. In the past, immense golden-headed short tailed albatrosses nested on Midway. Prior to the 2010/2011 breeding season (see below for the latest and greatest good news on the short tailed albatross at Midway) the last successful short tailed albatross nesting was in 1960 on Midway Atoll’s Sand Island. A short tailed pair appeared in 1999 but no successful nesting occurred…until 2010.

Today most of the remaining members of the endangered short tailed albatross population breed on Japan’s volcanic Toroshima Island. During the last years of the 19th Century, Japanese poachers collected albatross eggs by the millions on various island breeding grounds—-the eggs were collected for albumin, a crucial element in the development of film—-plus killed the birds for their exquisite plumage to be used on lady’s hats or as stuffing for pillows. North Pacific albatrosses were nearly exterminated, the short tailed albatross being particularly devastated.

Estimates range that between only 10 to 40 short tailed albatrosses were left alive after the poachers were done with them. Driven to the very brink of extinction from an estimated population of 5-7 million birds there is hope that today’s fragile population of fabulous short tailed albatrosses (STAL) or “golden goonies” is on the way to a slow recovery with a current worldwide population estimated at 2500-3000 birds. Short tailed decoys along with broadcast recorded mating calls have been successful in attracting “golden goonies” to certain nesting sites on Torshima. This has also been done on Midway’s Eastern Island with 16 short tailed albatross decoys donated by Dr. Hiroshi Hasegawa, the prime champion of Japan’s golden goonies. Another 25 or so Laysan decoys were repainted in the spectacular colors of short tailed albatrosses in an effort to lure golden goonies to mate and raise chicks at Midway Atoll.

Another look at the magnificent male short tailed albatross

In 2011 a pair of short tailed albatross parents successfully raised a miracle chick, the first time since the 1960s! STAL decoys and mating calls worked to attract a mating pair of adults, an eight-year-old female and a twenty-four-year-old male both of whom were hatched on Japan’s Toroshima Island. The only short tailed albatross pair to be found at Midway Atoll, they laid their egg in November 2010. Their young chick hatched in January, 2011 on Midway Atoll’s Eastern Island.

The short tailed albatross chick can be seen in the photo below. Only one week prior to this photo being taken tsunami waves generated by the Japan earthquake washed this albatross chick well off its nest during the long night of March 10-11, 2011. Every other albatross chick in the vicinity of the STAL chick was also swept off its nest, sadly permanently displacing or outright killing the tender young chicks. Fortunately the STAL chick was well monitored. Much larger than other displaced chicks it was easier to be located by the atoll’s US Fish & Wildlife employees. Placing the chick onto some plastic sheeting in order to handle the chick as little as possible they gave the baby STAL a 40 yard ride back to its nest cup where for its parents to find when they returned from foraging for food at sea.

This was not the only time waves nearly took the life of this little bird; during February 2011 a violent storm lashed the atoll washing away tens of thousands of albatross eggs along with the very young short tailed albatross chick. The STAL was swept 30 meters from its nest by storm waves. Happily, Midway employees also found the STAL chick that time, averting further disaster by returning the youngster to its nest cup.

This short tailed albatross is indeed a miracle chick, a hardy survivor.

When viewing the STAL chick I had to remain very far away so as not to disturb the bird. The big brown chick is seen center left in the photo just to the upper left of the green speaker box. The speaker broadcasts courting short tailed albatross calls to hopefully entice the very rare, critically endangered birds to nest on Midway’s Eastern Island. Dancing STAL decoys were strewn about by the tsunami’s waves; some were recovered and will be replaced to hopefully attract more short tailed albatrosses during coming breeding seasons. With luck and perseverance in future years more STALs will return to Midway to raise their young as they did in droves in the past. Adult Laysan albatrosses plus one lone black footed albatross surround the STAL chick amidst coral and other plastic trash tossed onto ground by the tsunami.

Great news! The short tailed albatross chick hatched on Midway Atoll’s Eastern Island in November 2010 fledged in mid-June 2011. Here’s a short video by US FIsh & Wildlife’s John Klavitter of the miracle chick making its way toward the ocean to spread its wings and take to the air.

For more fascinating information on the banding and fledging of the short tailed albatross chick, please access the following US Fish and Wildlife link The Flight of the Albatross.

An excellent blog Pete At Midway is available on the web regarding the goings on at Midway Atoll. Very well written by US Fish & Wildlife employee Pete Leary, the blog offers both photos and writings about Midway Atoll, including excellent accounts of the tsunami’s effects on Midway’s wildlife.

The short tailed albatross is listed as Vulnerable according the IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). In addition to low populations numbers, short tailed albatross are also threatened by entanglement in fishing nets and the ingestion of plastic marine debris that is accumulating in the North Pacific Ocean.

March 16, 2011

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Territory of the United States of America

Canon 7D, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS lens, shutter 1/500, f/6.3, exposure bias 1.33, shutter priority, focal length 350mm, ISO 400.

Artwork Comments

  • Ron Hannah
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
  • Krys Bailey
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
  • Ray Clarke
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
  • Olivia Moore
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
  • AuntDot
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
  • Magriet Meintjes
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
  • Magriet Meintjes
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
  • Betty Mackey
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
  • Bunny Clarke
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
  • Krys Bailey
  • Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)
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