More Eggs

 

The word on eggs around here is plenty. Laysan albatross lay one egg, and it takes the work of two parents to raise a single chick to fledging, so when I say we have plenty of eggs on the ground, that translates to more albatross of reproductive age doing their thing. In short, this is good news in the world of Laysan albatross conservation.

The new nesters are typically younger birds, often returning to their place of hatch to breed. It a bit like Christmas morning when I go out to survey early in the season, recording the band numbers of returning birds. “Oh, it’s you!” I’ll say. Or, “You came back!” But it’s a special thrill to come upon a nest and note that the incubating parent’s band number is none other than a chick you saw hatch, watched grow, and, perhaps, banded some six or eight years ago. I always wonder where they’ve been and what great oceanic events they’ve witnessed.

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This species of albatross—Laysan—gets its name from an island hundreds of miles northwest of Kauai where a collector sponsored by British banker and heir Lionel Walter Rothschild collected a specimen in 1893. There was no known Hawaiian name for this island; however, it was recently bestowed one—Kauō. The name hints at both the island's egg-like shape and for how much life springs from this island. Appropriate.

The word “albatross” is an amalgamation of languages, which also feels appropriate because these birds fly from country to country across the Pacific. In the word “albatross,” there are shades of Latin, Arabic, Greek, and Portuguese. The Hawaiian word for this species is mōlī, the same name given to a tattoo needle that was made from the bones of the bird. 

Back to the eggs.

Typically, once a committed pair participate in the magical dance that will result in a fluffy little chick some 60+ days later, the two head to sea for some nourishment. A week or two later, the female returns and lays her egg. The male will be a few days behind her and will relieve her on the nest. This is the first long shift that can last up to three weeks, as the female heads to the cold waters of the North Pacific buffet where the food is plentiful. All the while, development continues inside the egg. It’s quite the miracle as the seemingly gooey mess inside transforms into bill and bones and feathers. Biologists can determine whether an egg is fertile by holding a light up to the fat end. If it is fertile, blood vessels will be visible. After a few weeks, too, the shadowy movement of an embryo is viewable. 

Last week, on Kauai, we had an egg swap. Infertile eggs in nests were replaced with fertile eggs removed from a nearby airport runway. I wrote about this for Audubon last year, if you’re interested in reading more. That’s when I learned about air sacs in eggs. Because the growing chick isn’t attached to its mother by way of an umbilicus—like us—it needs oxygen to survive. As the chick grows and demands more oxygen, the air sac grows. Meanwhile, the baby bird develops inside the yolk, feeding off the protein-rich albumen. 

Earlier this week, I witnessed the return of a mate to its nest. It was positively jubilant. I had just checked on what was presumably a male in a nest when I saw a flash of white out of the corner of my eye. The incoming bird landed within 10 feet of her mate. Before her webbed feet touched land, he was standing, talking, and looking at the egg between his feet. “Eeh. Eeh. Eeh.” Hungry as he may have been, he was in no hurry to vacate the nest. The two shared some preening and conversation while other non-nesters witnessed the whole event along with me. I took a few seconds of video, then left to give them their privacy. Fifteen minutes later, I noticed the male had finally allowed the female back on the nest, but he was still hanging around. I have to wonder what’s being communicated during these shift exchanges. What secrets are they sharing? Where the good squid can be found? How long they’ll be gone?

 
 

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