On a windy June morning in Kahuku, at O‘ahu’s northernmost point, fifteen restless black-footed albatross chicks were preparing to fledge. As dawn hit the grassy, sixteen-acre field at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge, the chicks began to hop, hop, hop.
“It was like a field of brown popcorn—they’re all bouncing up and down, trying to get up in the air,” laughs Pacific Rim Conservation executive director Lindsay Young. Eventually one bird climbed to the highest point on the hill, made a running start and—voilà!—took flight. Within days the others followed, heading out to sea—up to the North Pacific and as far as the Bering Sea—where they will spend the next three to five years foraging for food and learning to soar.
These fifteen chicks were brought to James Campbell from Midway Atoll last February, when they were three weeks old. The hope for the research partners at Pacific Rim Conservation, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is that the fledglings will eventually start a new colony here.
Black-footed albatrosses are smoky black in color with a white ring around the base of their beaks and wisps of white under their eyes. They’re smaller, more aggressive and ten times fewer in number than their cousins, the Laysan albatrosses, which are established on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i. Of the approximately sixty-seven thousand breeding pairs of black-foots remaining in the world, 97 percent are found on low-lying atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where they are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise. Already, storm surges wipe out thousands of nests each year.
“The idea is to create a high island colony before these guys are in danger, so there’s a place for them to go,” says Young, explaining that the chicks imprint on their home at one month old and usually return to within a meter of that site. The plan is to nurture twenty-five black-foots annually at James Campbell for the next two years.
The first of the fledglings could return as early as October 2020. After that it will take them another several years to find mates (“It’s kind of like dating in college—they dance a lot,” Young says) before they settle down to breed.