Albatross weather the tsunami on Midway Atoll

16 03 2011

Midway atoll located at the far northwestern reaches of the Hawaiian archipelago.

Though clearly outside the usual purview of decidedly Atlantic-looking SEANET, the story of the Laysan and black-footed albatross nesting on the small sand islands of Midway atoll merits the attention of seabird enthusiasts everywhere. Midway is about one third of the distance between Honolulu and Tokyo and is the breeding grounds for millions of seabirds, including 71% of all breeding Laysan albatross in the world. It is also the second largest breeding colony of Black-footed albatross. Following the earthquake off Japan, observers on Midway braced for a tsunami, and reported watching a five foot wave wash over the low-lying islands, submerging 20% of some of the larger islets and completely swamping at least one smaller one.

A series of the waves swept over the terrain, tumbling albatross chicks and their attentive parents among sand, rocks, and uprooted vegetation. When the waves receded, fish and wildlife workers headed out to dig the survivors out of the sand and gravel. Pete Leary, who works on Midway, provided an incredible account on his blog of the scene out there.

We’ve had a few readers of the SEANET blog asking if we’ve heard anything about the fate of Wisdom, a 60-something Laysan albatross who had been nesting on Midway. The BBC reported today that Wisdom was known to be among the tsunami’s survivors but gave no further details on her condition or the fate of her chicks. Current estimates are that 10s of thousands of albatross chicks were killed, and some thousands of adults, though firm numbers are hard to come by. The birds are at a point in their breeding cycle where the adults spend a great deal of time away from the nest foraging for food to bring back. Unfortunately though, the waves hit in the middle of the night, when the birds were less likely to be foraging and more likely to be attending the nest. Biologists say the birds would have stayed on the nest even in the face of the waves, unwilling to abandon their young.

Albatross chicks half-buried by sand deposited by the tsunami. Photo: P. Leary.

Facing a fate even more grim than the albatross, thousands of Bonin petrels which nest in subterranean burrows, were buried alive by the sand and debris.

Biologists studying the birds report that while these losses are severe, the relative impact of the deaths of so many chicks is far less than it would be for a comparable number of adults. Albatross are exceedingly long-lived (exhibit A: Wisdom), and the loss of one year’s chicks makes little difference in their lifetime productivity. Wildlife officials are optimistic that the population will bounce back from this event.




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