Last month, fifteen young black-footed albatrosses made a long journey across the Pacific on an important mission: to ensure the future survival of their species.
The birds didn't fly on their own wings (they're just chicks); instead, they made the 2,000-kilometre (1,300 mile) trip from Midway Atoll to the Hawaiian island of O'ahu by airplane. The youngsters were selected to be the founders of a brand new breeding colony that's safer from future climatic threats.
Black-footed albatrosses gather to breed on islands all across the Pacific Ocean, but the vast majority congregates within the Northern Hawaiian Islands, particularly at Midway Atoll and Laysan Island. Unfortunately, these popular breeding spots may not be safe spaces for very much longer.
After many years of decline due to human activity, the species is doing pretty well these days, but conservationists don't expect this to last for long. On top of fishing pressures and pollution, another problem looms large over the coming decades: rising sea levels. For birds that lay their eggs on flat, low-lying beaches, this spells bad news.
"We know that sea level rise and increased storm surges are a threat to this species, and many others," says Eric VanderWerf of Pacific Rim Conservation in a US Fish and Wildlife blog post. "We have an opportunity to do something to mitigate that threat now, before it becomes an emergency."
That's why a plan was hatched (pun intended) to get ahead of these rising threats. Fifteen newborn albatrosses, around three weeks old, were moved from the low-elevation beaches of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge to higher-elevation sites at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on O’ahu, far to the southeast.
Normally, baby black-footed albatrosses are cared for by their parents as they grow, with mom and dad taking turns to go out in search of tasty fish and squid to bring back to the nest. For these fifteen little pioneers, the job of feeding will be taken over by dedicated surrogate human parents. Then, after four or five months, they'll be ready to leave the islands and find food for themselves on the open ocean.
The decision to move the chicks at three weeks old is important, since they imprint on their birth colony at the age of around one month. Raising the chicks in O'ahu from such an early stage should ensure the birds will come back to this spot when they're ready to breed. With any luck, these pioneers will return in around five years to perform their extravagant courtship rituals (albatross mating dances are just the weirdest) and lay the white, spotted eggs that will hatch into the first new generation of the O'ahu colony.
"We are thrilled that the [James Campbell] Refuge can provide a safe place and a new home for this species on O'ahu," says Refuge Manager Joseph Schwagerl. "This translocation is the first step toward creating a new colony of black-footed albatross in the main Hawaiian Islands and ensuring the albatross will be protected for future generations."
The birds' former home, Midway Atoll, was once used extensively by the US Navy (it was also the site of the famous Battle of Midway during World War II). In the 1990s, US Fish and Wildlife took over outright, and these coral islands are now a safe haven for assorted species, including the world's largest population of albatrosses. However, the islands are very low to the sea surface, and in ever-increasing danger of flooding from rising waters.
James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on O'ahu was established in the 1970s for endangered waterbirds, and has since been expanded to provide protected habitats for turtles, seals and even more birds. The new arrivals will now be nesting above sea level, and their breeding site is also enclosed to protect them from the island's non-native threats such as mongooses, rats, dogs and cats.
Bob Peyton, Project Leader at Midway Atoll Refuge and Memorial, stresses the importance of conservationists using good science to plan out protective measures. "Refuges like Midway Atoll and James Campbell provide the healthy habitat that black-footed albatross, and other seabirds, needs to thrive."
Top header image: Eric VanderWerf via USFWS/Flickr