A visit to the Laysan Albatrosses

Yesterday’s Big Expedition was a hike to Kaena Point, the westernmost spot on the island of Oahu, which you can see below:

Our goal: to see the nesting colony of Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis). While it ranges widely through the Pacific, it breeds largely on Hawaii: as Wikipedia notes, “The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands [including Midway] are home to 99.7% of the population.” There are 16 nesting sites, and Kaena Point is one of them. It harbors about 150 of the birds.

The Laysan has a wingspan of about 200 cm (80 inches or 6.5 feet), mates for life, has biparental care, and females produce about one chick every two years. It’s remarkable for its lifespan in the wild: it is, in fact, the longest-lived bird known to exist in the wild, with a longevity approaching 70 years (see below).

Here’s one of these magnificent animals in flight. The picture is from Wikipedia:

You have to hike in and out: a hot trail of about six miles. But the trail is fairly level, and the goal well worth it. The albatross sanctuary is surrounded by a fence to keep out predators like rats and feral cats:

This is the western tip of Hawaii:

Albatross nests are marked with pink flags, and the nesting area is roped off to keep people out. In a famous case, one student from Hawaii was jailed in 2017 for killing more than 15 albatrosses in a purely malicious act.  He got only 45 days in jail; I think a year would have been a better deterrent. People can’t go around illegally killing wildlife and getting just a slap on the wrist.

The first sight of an albatross. They are dead obvious in the low vegetation, where they nest, and I was unable to take a “spot the albatross” picture because their white color sticks out even when I try to hide the bird.

A closer view.

A sleeping albatross by the path. They had extended the rope around it to keep people from disturbing the bird, and we tiptoed by.

A pair. Reader Marlene Zuk told me that many of the pairs are female-female pairs, and a 2008 paper in Biology Letters shows that 31% of the pairs on Oahu are “lesbian” pairs (see below for a song). They do rear chicks; presumably one was inseminated and either abandoned its mate or its mate died. Successful rearing is less than that of male-female pairs, but better than that of solitary females (see graph below). I’m not sure if this pair is male-female or female-female. (Ornithological readers may know.)

Here are the data from that paper: open bars are female-female pairs, and dark ones are male-female pairs.

40% of the time two eggs are laid in female-female nests, but only one of these is incubated. I don’t know a lot about this, but the phenomenon of course raises questions. Why do females help other (presumably unrelated) females rear their young, given the time and expense of rearing a chick. Or are they related? One can think of answers, of course (practice in breeding for young females and so on), but I’ll let readers fill me in if there’s more recent research.

Another nesting female (I think; I can’t tell the sexes apart).

A video by Bruce Carlson of what the albatrosses look like at Kaena Point, with some bonding behavior:

Finally, below is the oldest known wild breeding bird known to exist in Nature. It’s WISDOM, a Laysan albatross confirmed to be at least 68 years old when she returned to Midway Atoll last November 29 to lay an egg. She was first banded in 1956, and has gone through four bands since then! She’s also outlived the guy who banded her.

Wisdom has her own Wikipedia page (this photo, showing one of her chicks, is from that site). Unlike most female Laysans, which lay an egg every other year (it’s seven months from laying to fledging!), Wisdom has laid an egg each year for the past dozen years or so. She’s successfully raised about three dozen chicks. And she’s flown between 2 and 3 million miles during her lifetime. What a bird—may she live much longer!


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 7, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Interesting story, beautiful animal!

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 7, 2019 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Very good that you were able to see this. Lots of people who come to Hawaii ask, why can’t you drive all the way round on the coast. Now you know. This small bit was saved for the birds.

  3. Posted January 7, 2019 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I love albatrosses. When I was at sea in 100-foot waves, I saw them fly down the troughs just inches above the water. Amazing gliders.

    • mikeyc
      Posted January 7, 2019 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      Wait. You were at sea in 100 ft waves? Holy cow! Would have scared the peacoat right off me. Must have been a big ship. Navy?

  4. Posted January 7, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating. The female-female coparenting but hatching only one of the eggs is curious. (If I understand that correctly.) I’ll be interested in hearing some theories.

    • mikeyc
      Posted January 7, 2019 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Well, this is what the authors say;

      In most female–female pairs that raised a chick in more than 1 year, at least one offspring was genetically related to each female, indicating that both females had opportunities to reproduce. These results demonstrate how changes in the sex ratio of a population can shift the social structure and cause cooperative behaviour to arise in a monogamous species, and they also underscore the importance of genetically sexing monomorphic species.

      So it appears that when sex ratios are badly skewed, in this case, for some reason, females prefer to nest at the site more frequently than males – a question in itself, though it may well just be noise- not all females can pair with males. It seems selection favors those willing to pair with another female because it ensures at least a chance to reproduce. Further, if the pair stays together on average each female will reproduce, meaning this sub-optimal breeding strategy can work and one doesn’t have to invoke altruism or kin selection to do it. Because Albatrosses have relatively stable pairing, female/female pairs can persist over multiple breeding seasons.

      They note, but don’t discuss, that female/female pairs are less successful than male/females pairs. I wonder why. These birds are monomorphic, so it’s unlikely that males provide better defense (say). I dunno. Maybe it’s because same sex pairings only occur when the sex ratios are skewed and to the extent that there are normally sex differences, these are less efficient brooding strategies.

      • Posted January 7, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        I wonder, does the current non-mother from the “lesbian” pair somehow “know” that the chick is not hers, and invest less care than a father would?
        Very interesting, anyway!

        • mikeyc
          Posted January 7, 2019 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

          It appears, at least at this site, that difference in reproductive success between male/female and female/female pairs has to do with brooding as the authors attribute the entire difference to hatching. Once hatched, female/female parents are as capable of raising fledglings as male/female pairs. For some reason more than half of all eggs laid to female/females pairs fail to hatch as compared to about 20% of male/female pairs.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted January 7, 2019 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

            As a non birdologist here are my theories:

            [1] In the paper do Young, Zaun & VanderWerf count BOTH eggs laid in female/female pairs on those occasions where both lay? Since only one egg is ever incubated that would explain some of the difference in hatching success

            [2] From the Wiki on this albatross:

            Both birds incubate the egg; the male does so first. Incubation takes about 65 days, and is followed by several weeks of brooding, after which both parents are out at sea to provide for the growing chick.

            Males are 25% larger by weight than females which may give them an advantage in…
            [a] Incubation – especially when the weather turns fowl foul
            [b] deterring predators

            • mikeyc
              Posted January 7, 2019 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

              [1] Good question! According to the paper, they sampled two egg nests to determine parentage;

              “At Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, feather samples were collected from a portion of breeding pairs that had a history of two-egg clutches to confirm whether they were female–female pairs.”


              The presence of two eggs in 44% of female–female nests indicated that in some instances both pair members laid an egg, but only one egg was incubated in each case. Eggs that were not incubated either became buried within the nest cup or accidentally rolled out of the nest when the pairs switched incubation duties.

              But the criteria to be counted in the %hatch requires that they be incubated, so the eggs that rolled out (or got buried) were never considered.

              Note that the breeding colony mentioned above is NOT the one Dr PCC(e) visited, but birds from both sites were included in the study, which ran from 2004 – 2007.

            • Posted January 7, 2019 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

              Might it be possible that a mother albatross can detect her own egg and rolls out or buries the egg of the other? Once that egg is gone, there is no gain to the other mother albatross to do the same. So it depends which mother is quickest on the draw.

              • Posted January 8, 2019 at 6:28 am | Permalink

                I suspect that they cannot recognise their own egg. It seems probable though that the brood patch (the bare patch of highly vascularised skin that is in contact with the eggs during incubation) is too small to easily accommodate incubating two eggs at once (I am not sure about Laysan albatross specifically, but most albatross species lay big eggs that are over 4″ long and 2″ wide).

            • rickflick
              Posted January 7, 2019 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

              While reading your suggestion, two things occurred to me.
              1. Since, as you note, the male is larger, it could also increase breeding success by bringing back more food for the chicks. The female/female nests would lack that advantage.

              2. The male’s presence at the nest might be needed to as a subtle trigger for the performance of the critical parenting duties. For example, if the male’s unique behavior serves as a signal to the female’s behavior, say in incubating, or foraging. Females as substitute males may not perform rituals quite the same as males and thus reduce ideal sharing of duties. I’m not sure what specifically this could entail. Close observation would be necessary.

              • mikeyc
                Posted January 7, 2019 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

                Again, the authors reported the only difference to reproductive success between female/female and male/female pairs was percentage of eggs incubated which hatched. Female/female pairs were just as effective in raising hatched eggs to fledglings as male/female pairs, so the difference in reproductive success is not due to feeding and defense of the chicks.

                Something in the brooding period -prior to hatching- is what differs. Your point 2 seems good one.

                At that, I feel I’m in danger of violating da roolz about to much commenting on a thread.

              • rickflick
                Posted January 7, 2019 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

                “I feel I’m in danger…”

                No, I think your safe.

              • Posted January 8, 2019 at 6:21 am | Permalink

                It would be interesting to know more about the causes of hatching failure. If failure is due to the incubating bird abandoning the egg then it is possible that this may be part of the reason. The larger male can tolerate a longer period of waiting for his mate to return from sea when feeding conditions are poor and so might be marginally less likely to abandon before the mate’s return than a female. This could potentially account for a difference in hatching success.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 7, 2019 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      @Rick & mikey & darwin [I’m starting a wide column]

      re my bolded bit within this comment thread about males being the sex that first sits on an egg…

      As you say rick: We can, for example, imagine the two females in a female/female pair each impatiently tapping a webbed foot wondering when the other one [the male who isn’t a male] was going to park ‘his’ fat breast down on the egg!

      I was also wondering if albatrosses are like other nesting birds ~ do they get a bald patch in the region where they contact the incubating egg? I assume the bald patch is there to allow the bird’s blood vessels to get closer to the egg. A male might be able to generate more heat than a female when needed cos bigger body & bigger ‘furnace’.

      @mikey re Da Roolz

      “9. Try not to dominate threads, particularly in a one-on-one argument. I’ve found that those are rarely informative, and the participants never reach agreement. A good guideline is that if your comments constitute over 10% of the comments on a thread, you’re posting too much”

      I think that since we are in a multi-way positive discussion trying to turn up a reason for why eggs from broken homes are less successful – it’s legit to expand the waistline a bit. Just my thought.

      • Marlene Zuk
        Posted January 9, 2019 at 12:15 am | Permalink

        So glad people are interested in the albatross! I (along with Lindsay Young, the main person studying them) tried to get funding to look at the function of the female pairs but failed with NSF several times, alas. Our idea was that when the sex ratio is skewed, females pair with other females as kind of an alternative reproductive strategy, the way that in other species, smaller males adopt a different behavior than larger, more aggressive or territorial ones.

        As for which sex incubates first, remember that the female has just exhausted herself marshaling all the resources for the large egg; if the male then incubates, she can fly off (and they fly enormous distances, all the way to Alaska in some cases) and feed herself and replenish her stores as well as get food for the chick when it hatches.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted January 9, 2019 at 5:33 am | Permalink

          Thank you for the extra info Marlene

        • Diane G
          Posted January 12, 2019 at 2:00 am | Permalink

          Yes, most interesting Marlene. Thank you!

  5. Joe Bussen
    Posted January 7, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Our hiking gang, the Solemates (aren’t we clever?), will be doing this Wednesday.

    Often see two or three monk seals hauled out on the sand.

    There was a railroad around Kaena Pt. a hundred years ago; when it was removed, the rail bed was drivable for a time. Now the task is to keep the mud boggers out of the route Jerry took.

    The albatross killers were not local high-schoolers, but from posh Punahou, Obama’s alma mater, $25,000 a year.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted January 7, 2019 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      So, being from Punahou, maybe why the easier jail time?

      • Posted January 8, 2019 at 6:35 am | Permalink

        “…maybe why the easier jail time?”

        Did he get less than the standard tarrif? PCC offered the opinion that 45 days was not enough and I’d be inclined to agree but is there any evidence that he was treated more leniently than anyone else committing such a crime?

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 7, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    In a famous case, one student from Hawaii was jailed in 2017 for killing more than 15 albatrosses in a purely malicious act.

    Blame it on the local schools’ failure to teach Coleridge’s poetry.

    • mikeyc
      Posted January 7, 2019 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Ha! I see what you did there.

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted January 7, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Given Wisdoms’ successs, it is possible that many of the birds are related thru her, and so cooperative lesbian couples would have some kin selection skin in the game.

    • Josh Lincoln
      Posted January 7, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      That was my thinking as well. They would propagate some genetic material which is better than none.

  8. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 7, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Point’s mythology, geology, plants, animals, the fence & other measures to protect the biosphere [not just the birds].

    And here’s a picture of the fence sally port inc. dual sliding doors & brush device on the ground to remove seeds [I assume] from footwear before entry:

    • rickflick
      Posted January 7, 2019 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      When you enter the Waipoua Kauri forest in New Zealand, there are brushes and even a spray bottle of disinfectant to remove anything unwanted from your shoes. The main fear there is fungus which can kill the ancient trees. As time goes on more places needing this kind of protection will appear. Humans are pests that overpopulate and degrade the environment.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 7, 2019 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        I’ve just found THIS Grauniad article on the subject. Not looking good! I’m amazed people are still allowed to take stupid ‘selfies’ next to Tāne Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) – that threatened ancient tree.

        Human pestilence: We could start by cutting back the tribe of world travel, product pushing, selfie Instagrammers – they really get on my tits. What you say?

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 8, 2019 at 6:33 am | Permalink

          It’s not quite as simple as the Grauniad makes it out to be.

          First, this fungus is presumably a new mutation (if it was old, presumably all the kauris would either be dead or resistant by now). I don’t know if anyone knows how it arose, or whether human activity had anything to do with it.


          It is spread by spores which can move through moist soil towards kauri roots. Obviously people’s muddy boots can help spread it, but so can any animal life. (The Grauniad article mentions wild pigs). So if people were completely eliminated from the equation, it would still spread. Any efforts to keep people away can only slow down the disease, not stop it.

          To quote the Grauniad further, “Auckland council added its support and surveillance to the ban [of access] this June, but biosecurity experts say locals feel “entitled” to enter the bush, and are largely to blame for ignoring warnings and bans.” That is, btw, debatable, but it also ignores the fact that the Waitakeres are riddled with pockets of houses in ‘the bush’ – that is, their private gardens are full of kauri trees. What are they going to do about those? There are numerous kauris alongside public roads – again, not affected by banning access. The disease isn’t going to take any notice of fencelines.

          There are longstanding programs of pest control, trapping stoats and ferrets and so on. I’ve seen their traplines, they run right through the bush. I haven’t seen it stated anywhere what’s happened with those programs.

          The other thing – probably a side issue – is that these really big old kauri (those that are left from logging a century ago) are probably irrelevant as far as survival of the species goes.

          So if all it came down to was chasing away a tourist with a selfie stick it would be so simple.


          • rickflick
            Posted January 8, 2019 at 10:26 am | Permalink

            All that being said, it would sadden me greatly if all the old trees died. The one we saw was something like 2000 years old. It was a breathtaking moment I will never forget.
            My hope is there may be some biological or chemical method of treating the trees to protect them. It would be a significant advantage to take measures to reduce the chance of losing the old ones until some such treatment can be found.


            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted January 8, 2019 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

              I like trees and I like kauri.

              But as you can probably guess, it’s become political, and there’s a lot of overblown rhetoric.

              I’d guess Tane Mahuta is a goner. But (from the Guardian article Michael quoted) some people don’t want soil tests done to confirm or disprove that. Why wouldn’t they? (Because if it’s got the disease then there’s no point in keeping selfie-takers away?) My suggestion to protect it would be to inject the same disinfect chemical as they use on hikers’ shoes, into the soil all around its roots. I don’t know if this would kill the tree, though. The oldest kauri, some distance away, might be easier to protect.

              In the Waitakere Ranges close to Auckland, the Council closed almost all the tracks last June, including many sections that didn’t go near kauri. The Waitakeres were extensively logged for kauri a century ago, much of the ranges’ ‘native bush’ is regrowth. A few big old trees survived. One of the biggest is within 50 yards of the Scenic Drive, the track to that is still open, either because the track meets ‘standards’ or because, sadly but visibly, it’s got the disease already.

              I like kauri but I like walking, and in my cynical view, the injection of a Maori pressure group into this issue is about as useful as PETA in an animal-rights debate.


  9. Mark R.
    Posted January 7, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    What a great adventure. Thanks for the virtual tour of these beautiful birds. It’s also heartening to see the successful efforts of humans protecting this species.

    • mikeyc
      Posted January 7, 2019 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      I lived for a time in Hawaii (mid 1980s) and back then they were trying save the Nene – a rare native goose. They were very serious about it and sent a tourist to jail for killing and eating one. I think there were under 50 at one time in the 1960s but through intensive conservation efforts the bird has made a small comeback.

      • Mark R.
        Posted January 7, 2019 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for some more good news on the conservation front. I know a lot of indigenous bird species of Hawaii are now extinct because of poor foresight and ignorance. It took humans far too long to realize the ecological destruction that introduced species inevitably cause to an otherwise harmonious ecosystem. Especially the fragile ecosystems on islands.

  10. Posted January 7, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I am very impressed by Wisdom. She is just a few years younger than I am, but I only raised two chicks children!

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 7, 2019 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      You went for quality over quantity of course! 🙂

  11. Robert Seidel
    Posted January 7, 2019 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    This reminded me of a beautiful 90s documentary on the Midway albatrosses:


    It’s in German without subtitles I’m afraid, but you don’t really need the commentary.

  12. Diane G
    Posted January 8, 2019 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    Lovely pictures, lovely birds, and great info! Love the vid with it’s snippet of their bouncy clicky mating dance. Another look:

  13. Posted January 8, 2019 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    The killing of the albatrosses by the hooligan was shocking and deserved punishment but sadly albatrosses also face more insidious problems that are affecting populations of various species. These include albatrosses being taken as by-catch by long-line fishing boats and birds mistaking floating plastic for food. There is a very poignant series of photos by Chris Jordan from Midway here http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/midway/#CF000313%2018×24 which show chicks that have died after being fed plastic garbage.

    With respect to the long-line fishing there is a technical solution that prevents the birds taking the baits as the line is cast so in principle it is simply (!) a matter of persuading the world’s fishing fleet to adopt this technology. The plastic is a tougher problem to solve.

  14. Mike
    Posted January 8, 2019 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Beautiful Birds. if I could come back and choose my Species, I would be very tempted to pick Albatross.

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