Friday, March 18, 2011

Midway’s albatrosses survive the tsunami

National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting documents young Laysan
and Black-Footed Albatrosses on Hawaii's Midway Atoll as they learn to fly

From Wired

The famed albatrosses of
Midway Atoll took a beating from the tsunami, but their population will survive, say biologists on the islands.

There are, of course, more pressing concerns in the tsunami’s aftermath than wildlife, and some might balk at paying attention to birds right now.
But compassion isn’t a zero-sum game, and Midway Atoll is one of Earth’s natural treasures: 2.4 square miles of coral ringing a deep-sea mountaintop halfway between Honolulu and Tokyo, a flyspeck of dry land that’s home to several million seabirds.
(localization in the Marine GeoGarage)

Roughly two-thirds of all
Laysan albatrosses live on Midway’s two islands, as do one-third of all black-footed albatrosses, and about 60 people.
Many of them work at the
Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
They had time to prepare for the tsunami, which struck late on the night of March 10.
Nobody was hurt; after the waves receded, they checked on the wildlife.

An estimated 1,000 Laysan adults were killed, and tens of thousands of chicks, said Refuge official Barry Stieglitz.
Those figures represent just the first wave of mortality, as adults who were at sea when the tsunami hit may be unable to find their young on returning.
Chicks now wandering on shore may be doomed — but in the long run, the population as a whole will recover.

“The loss of all these chicks is horrible. It’s going to represent a significant portion of this year’s Laysan albatross hatch. But in terms of overall population health, the most important animals are the proven, breeding adults,” said Stieglitz.
“In the long term, the greatest impact would be if we lost more adults. The population should come through this just fine.”

On a sadder note, however, one of the wandering chicks is the
first short-tailed albatross to hatch on Midway in decades.
The species was hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century, its feathers so fashionable that a population of millions was reduced to a handful of juveniles who stayed at sea during the carnage. (Young short-tailed albatrosses live in the open ocean for several years before mating.)
About 3,000 of the species now survive, and a few have recently made a home on Midway.

“If the chick lost one parent, it could be in danger. If it lost both, it’s definitely out of luck,” Stieglitz said.

Wisdom was a lucky survivor

Another well-known avian denizen of Midway is Wisdom, a 60-year-old female Laysan albatross.
Banded for identification in 1956, Wisdom is the oldest known wild bird.
In February, she was spotted rearing a new chick.

“When I gaze at Wisdom, I feel as though I’ve entered a time machine,” wrote U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Klavitter in an email.
“My mind races to the past and all the history she has observed through time.”

Midway’s Laysan albatrosses feed in waters off Alaska, flying about 50,000 miles each year as adults.
Wisdom has flown between 2 and 3 million miles in her lifetime, compensating for age with smarts and efficiency.
She hasn’t been spotted since the tsunami, but Stieglitz said the biologists haven’t looked for her yet.
Wisdom’s nest is on high ground. They’re not too worried about her.

Links :
  • BBCNews : Japan tsunami, thousands of seabirds killed near Hawaii
  • WHOI : WHOI oceanographer explores the mysteries of albatross flight

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