Kaua’i gets some chicks

Scientists are keeping keen eyes on some of the island’s most-recent visitors, as how they grow here may hold the key to the continued existence of some of their cousins nearly 4,000 miles away.

Yesterday, 10 Laysan albatross chicks arrived here on a private plane from Midway Atoll.

How they grow in Kilauea will be studied to see if some of the knowledge can be imported to Japan to be used in attempts to set up new nesting colonies for the nearly-extinct short-tailed albatross, also known as golden gooneys and known to breed only in Japan.

The 10 Laysan albatrosses, around one month old, arrived at Lihu’e Airport yesterday morning, and were transported by federal ground vehicles to their new homes in Kilauea after making the 1,000-mile flight from Midway Atoll and gaining medical clearances.

The new arrivals are part of a pilot study to gain more experience in the human handling and rearing of albatross chicks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said in a press release.

These down-covered chicks bring hope to the survival of another albatross species only known to breed in Japan.

The short-tailed albatross, also known as the golden gooney because of the golden-yellow mane and nape the mature adult birds develop, is on the brink of extinction.

Knowledge gained from this pilot project will help researchers in Japan relocate birds to establish new breeding colonies, which will help in the recovery of the species.

By translocating chicks to a new, safer colony site in Japan, researchers hope to “jump start” the process of new-colony formation, thus speeding up the recovery process.

The preliminary step of trans-locating Laysan albatross chicks (a relatively abundant species) will provide the knowledge needed in the handling and rearing of the albatross chicks, in order to minimize risks to the endangered short-tailed albatross during future translocations.

“This unique pilot project allows us to share our previous knowledge and experience with our Japanese counterparts across the Pacific while also expanding that knowledge and experience through cooperative efforts to recover this endangered seabird,” said Barry Stieglitz, project leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The chicks were gently captured by hand by refuge staff members on Sand Island, one of three islands that make up the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The young seabirds, placed in individual shipping containers, were subjects of tests for avian influenza, external and internal parasites, and overall health, by U.S. Geological Survey veterinarian Dr. Thierry Work, upon their arrival at Lihu’e Airport yesterday.

“The rearing site is within a portion of the refuge previously closed to public entry to protect and minimize disturbance to wildlife,” said Brenda Zaun, biologist at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.

“It is a beautiful area for albatross, on a protected ridge overlooking the ocean with tradewinds needed for their first flight in a few months,” said Zaun.

“Chicks will be fed an appropriate diet, and their weights regularly monitored until they fledge sometime in July.”

Zaun will work closely with Dr. Tomohiro Deguchi, an expert in avian husbandry, and graduate research assistant Tomoko Harada of the Yamashina Institute of Ornithology, who will be responsible for the daily feeding, rearing activities, and data collection during the pilot study.

Other non-federal partners involved in the study include experts from Toho University, Japan, and Linda Elliot of the Hawaii Wildlife Center.

The short-tailed albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) at one time was possibly the most abundant of the three North Pacific albatross species.

Millions of these birds were harvested by feather-hunters prior to and following the turn of the 20th century, resulting in the drastic decline of the species by the mid-20th century.

Fewer than 2,000 birds are known to exist today.

The species is known to breed on only two remote sites (Torishima and Senkaku) in the western Pacific. Torishima Island, where 80 percent to 85 percent of the species breed, is home also to an active volcano, and the natural colony site on the island is susceptible to mud-slides and erosion.

An artificial colony site has been established in a less-erosive area on the island. The other breeding site in the Senkaku Islands, located to the southwest of Torishima, is subject to political uncertainty, jurisdiction disputes, and oil exploration.

The short-tailed albatross is a large pelagic bird with long, narrow wings adapted for soaring just above the ocean surface.

The bill is large, bright pink and hooked, with a bluish tip, has external tubular nostrils, and has a thin-but-conspicuous black line extending around the base.

Adult short-tailed albatrosses are the only northern Pacific albatross with an entirely white back. The white head develops a yellow-gold crown and nape in mature adult birds.

The Laysan albatross, which has been known to establish nests on the Princeville golf courses, in yards of Princeville private homes, as well as at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and other areas on the North Shore and elsewhere on Kaua’i, has a white head, neck and underbody, with a dark eye patch.

The top of the wings are black, and the bill varies from gray to yellow with a darker tip. Legs and feet are pink.

Midway Atoll National Wild-life Refuge hosts the world’s largest populations of Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses. In 2005, 487,527 Laysan albatross nests were counted at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

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