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Climbing the Learning Curve of Short-tailed Albatross Recovery
Photo Credit: Judy Jacobs/FWS
by Judy Jacobs
How do you establish a new seabird colony? That was the question facing the Short-Tailed Albatross Recovery Team when it convened in 2005. Although the short-tailed albatross (Phoebastria albatrus), or STAL, was listed in 1970 as endangered, it was initially considered a foreign species. It was not officially protected in the United States until 2000, when the listing was corrected to protect the bird’s habitat in this country. So, despite the species’ long tenure as a listed species, recovery planning never really got underway until the new millennium. The fact that the STAL is international in range – nesting in Japan and foraging extensively in the waters off Alaska – presents interesting challenges in recovery planning.
The short-tailed albatross is the largest, and was once the most numerous, of the three albatross species inhabiting the North Pacific Ocean. This species is further distinguished from the other two species, the Laysan (Phoebastria immutabilis) and black-footed (Phoebastria nigripes) albatrosses, by its disproportionately large, blue-tipped, "bubblegumpink" bill and the golden neck mantle of adults.
Photo Credit: Yamashina Institute for Ornithology photo
Once nesting extensively on islands throughout the western North Pacific, the short-tailed albatross neared extinction around the turn of the 20th century, a victim of the feather trade. Like the dodo in the Indian Ocean, the short-tailed albatross was unaccustomed to land predators and had no protective behaviors that worked against human hunters. (The Japanese name for the species, aho-dori, literally means "stupid bird."). Between 1885 and 1903, an estimated five million short-tailed albatrosses were taken from Torishima, a major breeding colony.
An interesting feature of the species’ life history may have saved it from extinction. Young albatrosses remain at sea for 5 to 7 years before returning to nest and raise young. When a few surviving birds appeared at Torishima in the 1940s, they received vigorous protection. Today, the island’s breeding colony has grown to more than 2,000 birds, and both the albatross and Torishima are designated as national monuments in Japan.
But the colony at Torishima is not without problems. The island is an active volcano that last erupted in 2002. Fortunately, that event occurred in August, when all the albatrosses had left for the year. Japanese scientists predict that the volcano is due for a major eruption, and next time the albatross might not be so lucky. To make matters worse, the birds nest on a steeply sloped and eroding alluvial outwash, where eggs and nests can be easily washed or blown away during monsoons and winter storms.
The only other place where shorttailed albatrosses are known to nest is an island in the Senkaku/Dioatsu group southwest of Torishima. Because Japan, China, and Taiwan dispute the ownership of these islands, they are very difficult to access. This colony was last visited by Dr. Hiroshi Hasegawa in 2001. Dr. Hasegawa, the species’ patron and benefactor, has visited the Torishima colony almost every year since 1981 and written a great deal about these birds.
So, how could we set recovery goals for a species that nests on only two islands, one that is an active volcano and one that cannot be monitored? The team concluded that recovery would require establishing one or more additional shorttailed albatross breeding colonies.
Photo Credit: Brenda Zaun/FWS
Starting a new STAL colony is not unprecedented. Our colleagues at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology in Tokyo have, over the past 10 years, successfully attracted breeding STAL to a more stable spot on the northwest side of Torishima using life-like decoys and recorded sounds from the main colony. Although safer from erosion, this second colony is still on an active volcanic island. The recovery criteria set by the team required colony establishment on a safe, protected island.
But how could this be done? Moving adults wouldn’t work. These birds, which can easily negotiate trans-Pacific flights, would certainly return to their original breeding island. Moving eggs presents many other problems, such as the potential for breakage, incubation difficulties, concerns about chicks imprinting on humans, and providing proper nutrition for very young chicks. (Albatross parents feed them regurgitated stomach oil, which may contain enzymes, antibodies, or trace amounts of other ingredients essential for proper chick development.) Translocating older chicks seemed like the most feasible option.
All we know about the post-fledging behavior of translocated albatross chicks comes from a single source: the innovative experiments of Harvey Fisher, who worked with Laysan albatrosses on Midway Atoll during the 1960s. Fisher found that nearly-fledged (about 4-month-old) Laysan chicks that were moved from their hatch site on Midway to Kure Atoll or Lisianski Island returned to Midway to breed five to six years later. However, when he reciprocally exchanged much younger (4- to 6- week-old) chicks between parent birds on Eastern and Sand Islands within Midway Atoll, most returned as breeders to the island that they had fledged from, rather than where they hatched. Thus, our working hypothesis is that albatross chicks geographically imprint on their future breeding location some time between one month of age and fledging (at about 4 months of age).
Photo Credit: Brenda Zaun/FWS
Armed with that slim knowledge, we embarked on a practice round of albatross chick translocation in early March of 2006, using the Laysan albatross as a research surrogate. We moved 10 chicks from Midway NWR (where there is a thriving colony of over half a million) to a spot on Kilauea Point NWR on the island of Kaua‘i. The chicks were fed and cared for primarily by Tomohiro Deguchi, a researcher at the Yamashina Institute, and Tomoko Harada, an associate at Yamashina.
Unfortunately, March of 2006 was one of the rainiest and coldest months on record for Kaua‘i. Two of the chicks died, most likely from exposure, before we could move them into shelter. Another chick died shortly after the chicks were put back out on their rearing site when the weather cleared.
The remaining seven chicks thrived. One female chick suffered an injury that made flight impossible, but Brenda Zaun, the refuge biologist at Kilauea Point, was able to find a home for this bird at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Named Makana, the albatross now educates aquarium visitors about seabirds and the problems they face from plastic ingestion and other threats.
We were hopeful that the six remaining chicks would fledge from the refuge. However, quite close to fledging time, two more chicks suddenly died from bacterial infections. The remaining four chicks stayed healthy, growing almost too heavy to fly, but after we decreased their food, they managed to get airborne off the ground by mid-July.
In the fall of 2006, a location was chosen for the new colony site – Mukojima, an island in the Bonin chain where STAL nested historically. As with the colony started on northwestern Torishima, STAL decoys and a solar-powered sound system were set up on the chosen site.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Japan Coast Guard
The lessons we learned from our experiences with Laysan albatrosses in 2006 prepared us well for the following year’s work. In March of 2007, we moved 10 black-footed albatrosses to Mukojima from a nearby island. We greatly improved sterile procedures and handling methods. All but one of these chicks fledged at about the same time as their wild counterparts on Mukojima.
After achieving a nine out of 10 fledging rate, we gained permission to proceed with a translocation of STAL chicks in 2008. On February 19, 10 STAL chicks about six weeks old were captured on Torishima, placed in custom-designed transport boxes, carried up a very steep hill, and flown to Mukojima by helicopter. This project was well-publicized in Japan, and the Japanese Ministry of the Environment, Asahi Shimbun (Tokyo’s major newspaper), and the Suntory Fund contributed to the effort.
We took extreme care in the feeding and handling of the endangered chicks. Each had its own feeding equipment, rubber gloves were used and disinfected between feeding each chick, and all feeding equipment was sterilized daily. At first, the chicks were fed a slurry of pureed squid and fish through a stomach tube. As they grew older, they were given chopped, then whole, food. Weighing and measuring was limited to once every several days. This time, our hard work paid off. All 10 STAL chicks fledged by May 25, just a bit ahead of their Torishima counterparts.
To track their movements, five of the Mukojima chicks and five of the chicks from Torishima were equipped with satellite transmitters. After spending variable amounts of time around Japan and the western Pacific, all of these birds crossed the ocean, to forage in the productive waters around the Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
We have come a long way from our initial efforts, but we’re not done yet. Our plan is to continue the STAL translocations on Mukojima for four more years, in hopes that, by the fifth year, some of our 2008 fledglings will return to Mukojima as breeding birds. We also speculate that the decoys and sound system may attract other adult STAL to nest on Mukojima. Establishing a new colony is a lot of work, but it’s very satisfying to play a part in the restoration of this magnificent seabird.
Judy Jacobs, an endangered species biologist in the Service’s Anchorage, Alaska, office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-786-3472.
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