What Happened to the Birds?
The disappearance of an entire colony of albatrosses leads to a high-level investigation.
Laysan albatross colony.
White body, black wings, grey around the eyes. Adults weigh about 8 pounds and have a wingspan of 6.5 feet; at the time of disappearance, chicks would have weighed 3 to 5 pounds and measured a foot in height.
Kuaokala is situated at the top of the Waianae Mountains. The colony was located at about 1,700 feet elevation. The area is remote, although it is within a public hunting and hiking area.
Every month, husband and wife wildlife biologists Lindsay Young and Eric VanderWerf travel to Kuaokala to monitor a colony of up to 50 Laysan albatrosses. On the morning of March 23, after visiting three nests, each of which were empty, it became clear to them that something was wrong. The entire colony of birds was missing. During the biologists’ visit in mid-February, 15 chicks, 20 adults and six nests—with eggs—had been recorded.
A four-foot-tall perimeter fence roughly 1,750-feet in circumference protects the colony; it covers about 5.5 acres of habitat. After the birds were noticed missing, Young and VanderWerf searched the entire area for any clues as to what might have happened. The fence was intact, and no bird carcasses, feathers or other remains were found. (If a predator, such as a dog or pig, had killed the birds, there would likely be remains.) In fact, no tracks of any mammal or person were found.
The Laysan albatross is a native seabird, and 99 percent of the population returns from sea to nest in Hawaii. There are more than 600,000 breeding pairs in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, but less than 300 in the main Hawaiian Islands. The birds lay eggs in late November and early December, and chicks hatch in late January and early February. Chicks stay within several feet of their nest, as they are unable to fly until late June or early July. Adults do not start to breed until they reach age 8. Biologists estimate that it has taken the Kuaokala colony nearly two decades to reach the size of 50 birds.
Biologists have twice returned to the area with a search-and-rescue dog. Because the investigation is ongoing, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) is not able to comment on any details. They have, however, stated that human involvement has not been ruled out. Young says that “Albatross, like other Hawaiian birds, evolved without mammalian predators. When approached, they do not fly or even walk away, which is why they are so vulnerable to predators.”
“Biologists don’t normally talk about emotions, as part of our job is to remain objective, but I was completely devastated,” says Young. “I had followed these birds for five years and knew more about them as individuals than many people I know. I just sat in the middle of the empty colony and cried.”
Laysan albatrosses are protected by the state and are also federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Violators could face imprisonment and criminal and administrative fines.
Private citizens are offering a cash reward to any person that can provide information leading to a conviction. If you have any information on this case, please contact the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement at 643-3567 or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement division at 861-8525.