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What is it like counting 528,000 albatross nests on Midway islands?

Erika I. Ritchie, The Orange County Register on

Published in Science & Technology News

Nancy Caruso sat on an island in the North Pacific Ocean just inches from an albatross and watched as the large black-and-white sea bird with a 12-foot wingspan added grass to its nest to cover up a precious 4-inch white egg.

Each year, albatross pairs – mated for life unless a partner dies – typically have just one egg. The eggs incubate for 60 days and crack open in the fourth week of January. From then, the chicks spend six months on the islands of the Midway Atoll, growing and learning to fly.

The massive seabirds spend their lives on their wings, soaring up to 500 miles a day and cruising at 80 mph with barely a flap, so developing flight skills are critical to survival. They are known to travel incredible distances without rest and are rarely spotted.

So seeing the birds close up and “being part of their tribe” was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the Orange County marine biologist who usually spends her time researching marine life closer to home off the Southern California coast and educating local students. Caruso, of Cypress, was part of a team of 12 citizen scientists who recently spent six days a week for three weeks counting albatross nests on the Midway Atoll.

Just back from the monthlong trip, Caruso has been sharing what she learned with students at local middle schools. The lesson includes fascinating tidbits about the albatross, but also how plastic pollution and entanglements from fishing lines, hooks, and nets are a real threat to the birds. She also tries to inspire students to think about volunteering as citizen scientists – much of her research is done with the help of hundreds of volunteers.

“I was handing them pieces of grass,” Caruso said of her recent experience as one of a dozen volunteers helping United States Fish and Wildlife officials with their annual albatross nest count on the U.S. territory island. The atoll is home to at least 70% of the albatross population and is known for its use during World War II and the battle that secured it for the U.S.

 

“They’d go about their business preening and they’d talk to their egg,” Caruso said. “I’d sit and watch them do their dances. There aren’t many places in the world where you can be among them.”

Counting albatross annually

The wildlife department – along with the Friends of Midway Atoll – have kept track of the elusive seabirds since 1991 after the U.S. Department of the Interior took over monitoring the atoll’s islands from the Department of Defense when a Navy base was shuttered and the islands became a marine sanctuary and national historical monument.

The count starts in December and must be completed in 21 days by the Nesting Albatross Census Team, which tracks two species of seabirds on the island: the black-footed albatross and the Laysan albatross.

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