We finally devote an entire day to looking at the life and death of our hosts on Midway, the Albatross.
After a night out on the town, singing and dancing with Midway’s own Chugach Band, we all had a much appreciated late start to our day amongst the albatross.
Dancing with the Albatross
This morning we braved the wind and the cold, riding our bikes down to the south end of the island where the black-footed albatross are as numerous as the more common Laysan, to watch and compare the dances of the albatrosses. We took our seats amidst a sea of nesting and sub-adult albatross to talk about their mating behavior and the obstacles to their survival. Albatross pair for life as male-female or female-female couples, using an intricate series of “dance” moves to find their mate. There are many postures that the albatross use to attract a mate, our favorites include the Bob-Strut, the Bow-Clapper, the Bill Under Wing, the Eh-Eh Bow, and, best of all, the Sky-Moo.
The site that we chose to watch the albatrosses perform their dances is a place where the US Fish and Wildlife Service is tracking the survivorship of nesting individuals over time. Once a Laysan albatross reaches adulthood, they have a 94% rate of survival, which is very high. The Laysan albatross is an amazing example of perseverance in the face of extensive human disturbance and attempted extermination. The number of black-footed albatross, on the other hand, are suffering from interaction with human activities, especially long-line fishing vessels. Although we have seen a few ways vessels can mitigate these interactions, the precautions are only mandatory for the United States fleet, which makes up only 2% of fishing effort in the Pacific.
One source of early mortality for these albatrosses is ingestion of plastic that is floating in the North Pacific Gyre. Hatchling parents forage in the Pacific for food items that float on the surface and then feed them to their offspring. Albatross have evolved thinking that everything on the surface is potential food, but today many of the items that are floating on the surface are pieces of discarded plastic. Tens of thousands of young birds die in the first year of their life, most of which have high levels of plastic ingestion.
The carcasses of last years hatchlings litter the less traveled paths of Midway, revealing the plastics carried from Pacific waters to the island chicks. The amount of plastic and the size of some of the pieces found inside the small birds, was shocking. We took the stomach contents of 12 birds back with us to try to categorize the common types of plastic the adult birds were consuming and to determine where the plastic pieces were coming from. Bottle caps, lighters, fishing gear, pieces of tooth brushes, and toys were found side by side with squid beaks, the preferred albatross food. A handful of items still had identifying marks on them, leading us to wonder if we could target the sources and push them to make biodegradable or compostable products instead.
Looking at the collection of plastics made me consider my personal consumption. I take plastic for granted; it is used to make everything from my shampoo bottle to pieces of the bike I ride around Midway. I try to reduce the amount of plastic that I use (an easy example is reusable cloth bags instead of plastic bags at the grocery store), or to recycle or reuse the plastic that I do consume. I hope that the images from today, of young birds choked with plastics, will make all of us more aware of what we are buying and where it might end up. If you are feeling inspired, you can join people trying to live out one day without plastic or send us some of your own ideas about how to reduce the amount of plastic in the oceans.