KILAUEA —Laysan albatross chicks will start breaking free from their shells within the next week or two, according to experts.
Until they do, all eyes are on the parents who are working together to manage nests and individuals who are incubating adopted eggs.
At Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, the nest count is up to 127.
“That’s not including the unmated walkers that are here, but don’t have a mate or a nest,” said Jennifer Waipa, supervisory park ranger at KPNWR.
On the other side of the island, the colony has returned to Pacific Missile Range Facility and the ongoing Pacific Rim Conservation project to relocate it is heavily underway.
The runway at PMRF is a great place for Laysan albatross in theory, with fast wind conditions and an open landscape perfect for that first fledgling flight.
But the combination of aircraft and albatross poses too great a collision hazard to allow the colony to stay, so Pacific Rim Conservation is helping to slowly move the colony from the runway.
“PMRF is not a safe place to nest,” said Eric VanderWerf, with Pacific Rim Conservation. “And we want more albatross. We’re trying to create a new colony.”
The strategy is in the long game, since albatross are known to live 60 years or more. The project relies on the fact that chicks imprint on their birth location and return to that place to have their own young.
“The albatross that nest there aren’t allowed to reproduce and as the adults there get older, they’ll stop reproducing or die off,” VanderWerf said. “It’s a way to slowly reduce the size of the colony without having to kill birds or eggs.”
Moving eggs from the runway to safer nesting areas will gradually move the colony away completely.
This year, in its third annual relocation from the runway, PRC moved 33 eggs from PMRF nests to new homes on Oahu and the first six of those eggs are expected to start hatching in about a week.
Most of them are in foster care at Oahu’s Ka’ena Point Natural Area Reserve and the few stragglers are in incubators until foster nests are found.
That’s less than the 45 eggs that were relocated in each of the last two years of the program.
Partly because there’s fewer breeding pairs at PMRF.
“That’s one of the goals and it’s something we hoped for,” VanderWerf said.
The other reason PRC brought fewer Laysan albatross eggs to Oahu this year is they’ve brought the Black-footed albatross on board with the program.
“That’s a species that’s even more threatened by sea level rise than Laysan albatross because the vast majority of them are on the low lying atolls that are already washed over,” VanderWerf said.
Black-footed albatross also tend to nest on the edges and sandy beaches of the atolls, Vanderwerf said, which makes them more vulnerable to high wave events.
“Instead of taking the eggs, we’re taking chicks,” VanderWerf said.
Staff members from PRC will be going to Midway to get 15 Black-footed albatross chicks on Feb. 15.
The chicks from both the albatross will be transferred to James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on Oahu.
“Then the real work begins,” VanderWerf said. “We feed them by hand for five months.”
Daily, albatross chicks eat 15 percent of their body weight and they’re fed a puree of fish, squid, Pedialyte and vitamins.
“It’s kind of a fish and squid smoothie,” VanderWerf said.
The first year, the project fledged 10 out of 10 of the chicks and last year 19 of the 20 chicks in the program fledged. The hope is the success will continue.
It could take some time to see the results, though.
Albatross fledglings don’t start returning to their birthplace for a year or two and when they do return, they don’t start nesting until they are between five and eight years old.
“Thus far, it’s gone really well but we don’t know if it really works until they come back,” VanderWerf said.