The Baby Birds of Midway

There were lots of baby birds on Midway when we were there.  We arrived at the tail end of the albatross fledging season but there were other baby birds scattered around the island. Red tailed tropic birds were still rearing fluffy chicks in ground nests.

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White tern chicks are somehow hatched and raised on bare tree limbs with no nests.

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They only survive by hanging on to a perch from the minute they hatch until they can fly.

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These mid-ocean islands are like maternity wards revolving with the seasons through the birthing or hatching of multiple birds species, Hawaiian monk seals, and turtles. Thanks to Pete, the chief biologist at the refuge, we gained a huge appreciation for the challenges life presents to these young creatures, particularly the albatrosses.

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Midway Island is the largest rookery for Laysan albatrosses in the world.  Blackfooted albatrosses also rear their chicks on the island, but in fewer numbers.  By the time we got there most of this year’s crop of albatross chicks had already fledged and flown off to sea, but to our eyes the place was still covered with birds in various styles of plumage.

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Albatrosses spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land to meet other eligible albatrosses (courtship can take years), breed with their special someone (they meet up year after year), and raise their young.  They lay only one egg per year that they breed, and the egg cannot be left unattended for more than 18 minutes or the chick inside will die, so the parents take turns – one incubating the egg while the other goes off to sea to feed.  After it hatches, the parents take turns heading out to forage for food for their chick.  When one parent returns, the other is quick to take off for another foraging run.  These runs can be thousands of miles and as the chick ages the parents are gone for longer periods, leaving the chick alone.  The chick must wait in the same spot for its next meal delivery, which may take weeks at a time.  If they wander off the parent may not be able to find them, with dire consequences for the youngster.

While they wait with nothing to eat and only occasional rain to drink, the chicks sit, conserving their energy.  A lucky few have shady nest spots, but most have to sit for days in the hot tropical sun.  They ease back on their haunches with their backs to the sun and lift their feet up to try to keep them cool.

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If they survive their time at sea, the parents return and are surrounded by bleating, pleading, famished youngsters.

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But they know which chick is theirs.

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Crouching low before its mom or dad, the youngster begs with shrill whistles and bats its bill at its parent’s mouth until they cough up the goods (see video on our YouTube channel here).

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Unfortunately in its search for food adult albatrosses often pick up undigestible bits, including an alarming amount of plastic debris. It might be mistaken identity (a cigarette lighter might resemble a squid) or there may be edibles attached to the debris.  The dutiful parent feeds it all to the chick.   Bits of plastic brought back from the sea by albatrosses were scattered on the ground all over the island: bottle caps, cigarette lighters, bits of toys, and even toothbrushes.  This debris had either been barfed up by the parents before they took off on another long flight, or were sadly left over from within the remains of dead birds.  Many dead chicks are found with their stomachs literally stuffed with plastic.

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If a chick is lucky enough to survive a few months, eventually the parents leave it to find its own way in the world.  Driven by hunger the babies begin to figure out what their wings are for and how to use them.  Gusts of wind are especially exciting.  The chicks all spread their wings and hop up into the air to try to get some hang time.

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Eventually they figure out the benefits of a running start.  Many practice flights end in water landings.  As long as they keep their wings dry the young birds have a pretty good chance of getting it all together and taking off for a life at sea.

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28°12.26′N 177°23.80′W   03-Aug-11 03:28 UTC

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