LIHUE — Dozens of Laysan albatross eggs will be relocated to Oahu from Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility today in a first-of-its-kind attempt to establish a new colony of the nesting seabirds on Hawaii’s most populated island.
“It’s been done with albatross chicks before, but it’s never been done with eggs,” Eric VanderWerf, a wildlife biologist and co-owner of Pacific Rim Conservation, said of the relocation effort.
This morning, the U.S. Navy, in partnership with PRC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is scheduled to transport approximately 50 Laysan eggs to Oahu’s James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge.
“We have 55 viable eggs from PMRF, and we are going to place as many of those with foster nests (on Kauai) as we can,” VanderWerf said.
VanderWerf spent Tuesday “candling” eggs — a procedure that illuminates the shell to confirm viability — and searching for foster nests on Kauai’s North Shore. He said five or six of the PMRF eggs would end up with foster albatross parents on Kauai whose natural eggs are infertile and will not hatch. The rest will be flown to Oahu.
“The fertility rate was a little bit higher this year than it was in previous years, which is good,” he said. “And we’re going to find a home for all of those eggs, all 55 of them.”
The albatrosses at PMRF nest near an active runway, where they pose a collision hazard that puts aircraft and crews at risk, due to the birds’ large 6- to 7-foot wingspan and their habit of circling over the nesting area, the Navy said in a release Tuesday. Each year, the Navy relocates all albatross eggs and adults from the base’s air safety zone to prevent collisions with aircraft.
As in previous years, the adults will be transported to protected nesting colonies on the northern coast of Kauai and released.
PMRF spokesman Stefan Alford said PMRF’s albatross egg relocation program has been a success since it began in 2004.
“However, with Kauai’s limited space for secure albatross sanctuaries, we’ve had to look at off-island options this year,” he said.
USFWS recently acquired a parcel of land on the northern coast of Oahu that it says provides excellent habitat for seabirds, including albatrosses. The simultaneous availability of Laysan albatross eggs from PMRF and suitable, but unoccupied, albatross nesting habitat at a protected wildlife refuge provides an “opportunity to accomplish an important conservation action for the species and also help solve a human-wildlife conflict,” the release stated.
Alford said the “egg lift” begins at 8 a.m. on one of PMRF’s regularly scheduled weekly log flights to Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Base.
VanderWerf said the relocation presents two major challenges. First, the eggs must be placed in incubators at Pacific Rim Conservation in Honolulu for approximately two months until they hatch. Once they do, the chicks — now separated from their parents — must be fed a diet of squid, fish and vitamins every day — by human hand — until they fledge five months later.
“Albatrosses return to the same location where they were raised as chicks,” VanderWerf said. “By moving the eggs prior to hatching, the chicks will imprint on the James Campbell Refuge and return there to breed, becoming the seeds of a new colony that they will establish in the future, away from aircraft and people.”