National Wildlife Refuge System

The Flight of the Albatross

Credit: USFWS

The first short-tailed albatross check hatched outside Japan has now fledged from the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge within the Papahânaumokuâkea Marine National Monument.

When the chick first hatched, some experts wondered whether its parents could find enough food in the warmer and less productive waters of the Central Pacific to sustain and raise a healthy chick to fledging. That question has now been answered. This stout and amazingly tough chick is the first of its kind to hatch and now take to the seas from any location other than Japan.

Parenting an Albatross
After a successful courtship over the past four years on Midway, the chick's parents, an eight year-old female and 24-year-old male, hatched a whitish egg resembling a miniature football in January.  The parents spent the next five months bringing food to their chick every one to three days, logging tens of thousands of miles in the air between Midway and the nutrient-rich feeding grounds some 1,000 miles to the northwest. They foraged, mainly from the surface, on squid and flying fish eggs that days later they regurgitated to the chick back at the Refuge.

By May, the chick was losing most of its downy look and began exercising its wings. The health and strength of the chick is a testament to the care and skill of its parents.

Albatross chick with bands on right and left legs
Albatross chick with bands on right and left legs
Credit: USFWS

Anticipating its fledging, the chick was banded on June 8.  The bands will help biologists track this extremely rare and endangered seabird to learn where it will one day go to nest. Most albatross return to the island where they were hatched. On June 11, the bird was seen wandering from its nest area to the shoreline as the instinct to fly and paddle out to sea became stronger. It continued to walk and flap near the shoreline, as well as paddle in the near-shore waters to strengthen its wings and legs.

First Swim

The chick's first swim in the ocean lasted 15 minutes. It walked into the lapping waters, paddled out 50 meters, submerged its head for a quick look, sipped some sea water, and then practiced flapping before paddling back to the shore. The chick was last seen the evening of June 15. By June 17 it was gone, most likely headed in a northwesterly direction to the rich and productive waters near Hokkaido, Japan, perhaps to join others of its kind.

"Once one of the world's rarest birds, the endangered short-tailed albatross continues to recover," said refuge manager Sue Schulmeister. "Sightings of the species have been relatively rare over the years, event on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. In the years to come, following this event, perhaps that will start to change."

Short-tailed albatrosses depend on the marine resources and habitats of the Monument and the North Pacific to survive. They spend seven to nine months on the islands to court, reproduce, and nest, and the rest of the year at sea, resting and spending countless days soaring in search of food.

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Last updated: June 21, 2011