|One very old albatross|
|Wednesday, 05 October 2011 21:02|
by Neil A. Case
She was captured at her nest on Midway Island, banded and released in February 1956. Her band, like all bands issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was aluminum. Aluminum deteriorates when exposed to salt water and since she is a bird of the oceans her band was continuously exposed to salt water. She has been recaptured at or near the site where she was first captured, her old deteriorating band removed and replaced with a new one five times.
She is a Laysan albatross, an old Laysan albatross and a very old bird. Albatrosses do not breed until they are at least five years old according to one text I consulted, seven or eight years old according to another. This bird, then, was at least five years old when she was first banded in 1956 and she was 60 years old or older when she was seen at a nest nurturing a chick last spring. That makes her, according to a report of the Fish and Wildlife Service, “the oldest wild bird documented in the 90-year history of our USGS-FWS and Canadian bird-banding program.”
Albatrosses live over the oceans, primarily the southern oceans though Laysan, black-footed and short-tailed travel over the waves of the North Pacific. They use long pointed wings, those of Laysan albatrosses nearly seven feet long, to glide, riding the updrafts from the ocean waves. They spend most of their lives at sea, traveling hundreds, thousands of miles in a year. They get their food from the surface of the water. It is said they can sleep on the wing, while flying, though they can also land on water.
Albatrosses do go to land to nest and their nesting period is a long one, approximately two months for incubation, then three months before the young leave the nest. But they nest every other year and a pair of adults take turns incubating. While one is on the egg the other is at sea. When the egg hatches both adults shuttle back and forth to sea, getting food and returning to their nest to feed their nestling.
That albatross of the remarkable longevity has nested on Midway Island. Because she returned, with a mate, to approximately the same site every other year, because she was banded and could be identified and because she was recaptured and her band replaced five times, this bird has come to be recognized by observers. They have even named her. They call her Wisdom.
Midway is now one of the islands of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge which was established in 1988. Before that, Midway was a Navy Base with an airfield and a ship refueling station.
I may have seen Wisdom. I was on Midway in 1956, the year she was banded. I wasn’t there long, just long enough for the Navy ship I was serving aboard to go in, tie up to a pier and take on fuel. But I got ashore. I walked through the housing area for Navy personnel stationed there. I walked out to the edge of the airfield and I walked along the beach for a ways. I saw many albatrosses, Laysan and black-footed.
My shipmates and I didn’t call them albatrosses nor did other Navy personnel. We called them gooney birds. Laysan albatrosses were white gooneys, black-footed albatrosses were black gooneys.
It doesn’t seem very likely that I saw Wisdom but it’s possible. “My ship” not only put into Midway in 1956, it put in twice that year and twice in 1955. I took many pictures of the albatrosses. Perhaps I not only saw Wisdom, I may have taken a picture of this remarkable bird. But there is no band visible on the leg of any albatross I photographed and if there was I wouldn’t be able to read the number.