Laysan albatross eggs from PMRF boost refuge population

Despite a mild hatch rate of Laysan albatross eggs this year at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, 90 percent of all the chicks have fledged, according to wildlife biologist Brenda Zaun.

Efforts to protect the species are improving, Zaun said, thanks in part to a three-year-old program in which Laysan albatross chicks and eggs found at Pacific Missile Range Facility are relocated to Kilauea.

Currently about 75 pair of nesting Laysan albatross call PMRF home, Zaun said. These albatross, with a wingspan of nearly seven feet, constantly raise bird airstrike concerns for the daily aircraft and helicopter flights at the Navy base.

For almost 20 years, PMRF had conducted a Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard program that would transfer adult albatross to other locations around Kaua‘i to limit the airstrike risk at the base.

“In prior years, the practice was to break the eggs and to try to harass the birds away,” John Burger, PMRF’s environmental coordinator, said. “They were trying to reprogram the birds.”

But because of albatross nest fidelity, they kept returning to the base; new birds would also show up looking for a mate.

In 2004 funding became limited to carry on the relocation and removal program. By that time, albatross mating season had already started and the chance to relocate the adult albatross before they laid eggs had passed.

To boost the nesting albatross colony at Kilauea Point, Zaun offered to find surrogate parents for eggs laid at PMRF.

Funding finally came through and U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, Navy personnel and U.S. Fish and Wildlife worked fast to move the eggs to nests at Kilauea Point.

“They worked their tail feathers off,” Burger said. “They had to get the eggs out and to Brenda (Zaun) as soon as possible. Some eggs were hatching in the vans on the way up there.”

Once the eggs were in new nests, albatross parents immediately began caring for the eggs and/or chicks as if their own, Burger said. The albatross return to their same nesting sites year after year, but nesting parents don’t care what egg or chick they are tending to so long as it is in a nest they know.

After two weeks of intense work, 26 eggs and chicks were successfully placed with foster parents at Kilauea Point; none of the albatross parents rejected the new eggs or chicks.

Over the last two years, in an effort to discourage nesting albatross at the base, Burger has been keeping eggs in an incubator before transplanting them in Kilauea.

“We haven’t been as successful with incubating,” Burger said. “We’re trying to work out the timing better, but there are a lot of unknown variables in this albatross incubator program.”

With a hatch rate of 51 percent from PMRF eggs this year, Burger said the main point of the program is the enhancement of the albatross population at Kilauea Point.

“To maximize preservation is what I want to do,” Burger said.

Though albatross breeding doesn’t begin until November, Burger is already in planning mode.

“I have to get together with Brenda for a meeting to discuss this next season,” Burger said. “November is right around the corner.”

• Rachel Gehrlein, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or rgehrlein@kauaipubco.com

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