An Albatross

The morning after Michelson left Oakland, headed for Japan, somebody in the navy mess said "have a look, there's an albatross following the ship!". Well, sure enough, there was this large seabird with a very long wingspan gliding along a short distance aft of the stern. I had never seen one before. Seldom flapping its wings, it just sort of soared up and down and from side to side, cruising along behind us a couple of hundred miles from the nearest land.

Periodically during the day I checked on the bird. Yes, it was still there, following us, presumably awaiting a fresh garbage handout. And my avian friend was there every morning, as Michelson steamed westward across the Pacific.

Then, one day about two thirds of the way to our destination, the albatross was gone! This was disappointing. Where did the wandering bird go?

  • Turned around and caught a vessel steaming in the other direction?
  • Found a ship with better quality garbage?
  • Decided to quit spying on Michelson?
  • Shot by an ancient mariner's crossbow?
  • Returned home as it was nearing mating season?

My next albatross encounter was 38 years later on the north shore of Kauai. Mature Laysan albatrosses spend the winter months in what is sometimes called the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. This 1000 mile long string of  uninhabited islets and atolls, officially the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, extends up to Midway, where albatrosses were once called "gooney birds". For some reason more birds are migrating further south, expanding their territory into golf courses, parks and front yards in very much inhabited Kilauea and Princeville. In 2002 my wife and I moved from Texas into our Princeville house, planning to retire.

The albatross mating ritual begins with wing flapping and a dance (left), then concludes with beak clicking. Young birds don't breed until they at least are five years old, while the supposedly monagonomous adults lead a solitary life at sea until returning home to their birthplace in the autumn. These photos and those below were taken in 2005-07 near our house in Princeville, on the north shore of Kauai. 

Breeding season starts in October or November. The tame and unafraid albatrosses build simple nests wherever they choose, always on the ground, in the open. Homeowners are stuck with their uninvited guests, having to avoid disturbing the nests, mowing the grass around them. The birds are a protected species. A uniformed albatross inspector from some federal agency walked around the neighborhood nesting areas with a clipboard, checking on the birds. 

Both albatross parents take turns incubating a single egg and later both help feed and care for their young chick. The young are vulnerable to attacks by feral cats and domestic dogs. Six months may elapse before young birds can go to sea and feed themselves. 

According to an Associated Press report (11/26/15), the world's oldest known seabird, an albatross first banded in 1956 had recently returned to Midway. That bird, a female, is estimated to be about 64 years old.

I never figured out how the golf course operator kept birds from nesting on the fairways. Perhaps they quietly moved them away into the rough under cover of darkness. While many of our Princeville neighbors found albatross nests on their lawns, we did not, but we took plenty of photos.

Laysan albatross in nest with chick (left) and young bird alone, awaiting feeding by parents.

The gooney bird name may have come from their odd behavior when taking to the air. An albatross, like an airplane, needs a runway to take off. It is amusing to observe the rapid wing flapping along with little web feet hopping along as the creature struggles to get airborne.

Anyhow, perhaps this explains what happened to Michelson's albatross of fall 1964. The feathered creature suddenly remembered that it was time to head for its annual trip home.

Sign found along the main road in Princeville, probably placed there by the federal albatross inspector.