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2006/ Day 12
Legs of Steel…Bird Banding on Green Island
By Dena Deck, NOAA Teacher-at-Sea
The author, Dena Deck, mastering the skill of banding a Laysan Albatross.
Photo: Paulo Maurin
Early the sun arose, with our group preparing to band Laysan Albatross on Green Island in the ring of
Kure Atoll. Cynthia Vanderlip, Dept. of Land and Natural Resources Field Camp Leader along with Jacob
Eijzenga a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, and his wife Heather a volunteer, instructed our group
in the proper protocol for banding fledgling albatross.
The Jerry Lee Lewis “hair-do” on a favorite Laysan Albatross. Photo: Paulo Maurin
The chicks were hatched from mid-April to mid-May. Their parents are diligent caregivers, with both
doting parents providing endless warmth to their single egg. The caregivers balance the egg on the
tops of their feet and tucked in the brood patch to keep it warm.
The chick hatchling arrives, and the parents start the long and tedious job of
feeding their down covered chick. Both parents contribute countless hours
of flight time to collecting meals for their young.
Unwittingly, they will likely return with a gullet full of misplaced plastics
that may cause a slow and painful death, providing little nutrients to the
chick. Albatross mortality is higher when the
chicks are younger. There are various reasons, one being that they may have
lost a parent and aren’t
getting enough nutrition or their nest cup is so deep in a shrub that the parent
has a hard time relocating them to feed. Albatross chicks also succumb to
heat, dehydration or a failure to digest
food due to the ingestion of plastics. Parents looking for their chicks in the
dense, alien verbesina plants may succumb to the heat, leaving the chick
with just one parent to care for it to fledging.
Generally, the parents locate their chick by the high-pitched squawking sounds
and whining whistles. The chicks do some bill clacking and foot stomping
while waiting up to two weeks for food delivery.
As we walked in single file to the banding area, our path was alive with young albatross fledglings
holding wings out that would soon find their way to the sky. The young chicks accepted our group
into their flight training area. They seemed to be interested in objects as we set up to band.
I set my hide brimmed hat on the ground and set to capture a bird for banding. When I went to
recover my hat, one of the inquisitive chicks was playfully pulling at the brightly colored
band around my hat. After he lost interest I donned my gloves and began to team up to accomplish
the morning’s task.
of the many “hair-dos” of the Laysan Albatross chicks.
We call this one the Abe Lincoln. Photo: Paulo Maurin
Each albatross personality is augmented by the down wear off, almost a haircut of sorts. The Abe Lincoln
look or the Mohawk cut is fashionable. We laughed as we walked down the old paved airstrip of the
island. Cameras were clicking continuously for over two hours of our evening stroll.
The bands are now made of stainless steel, identified by number, and logged with a facility in Maryland.
The stainless steel is expected to last at least 40 years, which should provide some good data over a
long period of time. In conversation, Cynthia commented to us that maybe the longline fishermen would
believe that these birds were of a greater value if someone had taken the time to band them.
Laysan Albatross are very tame, seemingly heedless. To band you must quickly take your left hand to
the bird’s head, while your right hand frames the wings. A gentle hold will keep the bird docile for
another team member to band the right leg. The birds need to be held with great care as to not damage
the primary and secondary under wing feathers. In some instances, their feathers get a little ruffled,
but nothing they can’t shake out easily.
On this particular day, we successfully banded 93 Laysan albatross. Each bird
had its own attitude when the banding was complete. Some walked away
unfazed while others lunged aggressively, clapping their
beaks. The Kure Atoll team plans to band nearly 300 Laysan Albatross this season
on this particular area of the island. That way they have a small plot they
can track the return of the albatross over time.
Before our arrival, they had banded over 2,000 Black-footed Albatross before
they fledged. Apparently the Black-footed Albatross are more feisty and
put up a bigger fight when getting banded. We weren’t
nearly as challenged with the somewhat docile Laysan Albatross.
A Laysan Albatross fledgling practices how to take flight. Photo: Claire Johnson/NOAA
The importance of banding birds helps us understand migration patterns and the longevity of the species.
Cynthia believes that the albatross, the largest of the seabirds, live between 40-50 years and possibly
even to 60 years old. From previous banding efforts we also now know that Laysan Albatross are a species
that mate for life.
It is truly an open ocean bird with a mastery of gliding flight. They rarely approach land, only to
breed on isolated, remote islands, such as Green Island in Kure Atoll. The fledglings will return in
4 years to the same location or within meters of their original nest cup, which is where they were
born. At four years of age albatross are able to mate, but have little success. However, by the
age of seven, the success rate increases with viable eggs.
After our banding activity, we pulled out some of the invasive verbesina weeds to clear a “runway” for
the fledglings. The greatest joy of this activity was seeing my banded bird attempt to take flight.
Somehow it seems right to have a full runway left on Green Island by the Coast Guard in 1992.
It serves as “real” flight training site for the albatross.