This is a powerful place.
On Thursday morning we watched a documentary describing the native Hawaiian meaning of Papahānaumokuākea as integrally connected to the creation of new life. This relates to flora and fauna, but also to land as volcanic activity creates new islands in the archipelago. After hearing powerful messages about these cultural connections and the historical power of this place, Clare and I had the unexpected pleasure of watching a Laysan Albatross chick hatch.
We were surveying the island for the first time on our exploration vehicles – our bicycles – when we spotted a Laysan Albatross chick hatching (one of the first to hatch this season!). Every few minutes, the parent (who we called “mom”) would stand and worriedly adjust, exposing a damp, matted chick struggling to emerge from the egg. We “awwwww”ed in unison and watched for the next hour.
Even though chicks hatch from an egg instead of giving live birth, the parent Albatross sitting on the nest at the time of hatching is undoubtedly going through the emotional experience of bringing new life into the world. While the chick worked its way out of the egg beneath the protection of the 3.3 kg bird sheltering it above, ‘mom’ was restless and visibly anxious. She was shaking, and her eyes were beaty and oscillating. All around her eye her feathers were damp.
During this stressful period, she was silent. We watched in awe and admiration while snapping pictures and recording video clips. A second Laysan Albatross came over to the nest and started pacing.
All of a sudden, mom’s mood changed and she started making a distinct, softer call, which imprints the chick with her voice and establishes a paternal connection. We knew this change in behavior meant the chick had successfully hatched. The pacing Albatross quickly came to the side of the nest and was nuzzling and supporting the mom. And then for the first time, both birds checked on the chick together, both making the paternal imprint calls and cleaning egg bits off the hatchling. They sat side-by-side together for a few minutes and the neighbor preened the mom and they both seemed peaceful and affectionate with each other and the chick.
We were amazed. This is what this special place is all about.
Then something interesting happened. The second Albatross got up and returned to a nest two over from this one and sat on an unattended egg. The bird could have originally come from this nest, but we were too enthralled with the hatching that we hadn’t noticed. The Albatross seemed unhappy with the state of the nest, which was far less tidy and manicured as the one we were fixated on. The bird began hurriedly tending to the nest, trying to build it up and make it neat. It began checking on the egg far more frequently than the other nesters seemed to. We were stumped, and we still aren’t sure what role this second bird plays with the mom and new chick we’d been observing. Hopefully Dr. Lindsay Young is following along and might have some insight for us!
Back at the nest of focus, mom was happily sitting on the chick just as she had done when it was still in the egg, blocking it from the steady rain and gusts of cool wind. It looked as if the chick would be crushed under the weight of mom, however this is how the chick stays safe from predators, warm, and protected from the elements. Now that the struggle was over and the chick was seemingly doing well, the mom was at ease. It was incredible how her disposition shifted. She was alert, her shaking had diminished and her eyes were steady. She now seemed blissful and focused on the next tasks at hand: protecting the chick and tending to the nest.
In addition to the interesting behavior of the supportive neighbor, the entire hatching experience was captivating. From start to finish, it takes years to find a mate, cooperatively build a nest, produce a fertilized egg, cooperatively incubate an egg and forage for food for 65 days, and care for the new chick until it flees the nest. Therefore, it seems only natural that after devoting so much time, energy and sacrifice to the egg that the hatching event would be so powerful and moving.
The theme of learning today was ‘power of place,’ and this experience helped us to better understand how important the generation of new life is to Papahānaumokuākea.