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The Laysan Albatross in Kauai

The Laysan Albatross are large seabirds, living mostly on the vast Pacific Ocean.  The adult birds have white body and head feathers and dark brown wings with a wing span of 6 feet in flight.   Most of their lives, albatross stay on the open ocean – fishing and sleeping on the water.  However, they cannot lay eggs on the water, so they must return to land.  In November each year, the adult albatross return to land to breed and raise their young chicks. 

Albatross are native to the Hawaiian Islands.  Most nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a string of 130 uninhabited islands and atolls, stretching from Kauai to the Midway and Kure atolls, 1200 miles to the northwest.  One of these islands is Laysan, which gives its name to the species of albatross.

Over the past 20 years, albatross have migrated to Kauai, nesting on the north shore in the Princeville and Kilauea areas. The majority live in a wildlife refuge on the north shore of Kauai, the Kilauea Point Wildlife Refuge, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).  This sanctuary is located at the Kilauea Lighthouse.  A few have chosen to nest in agricultural lands and even in residential neighborhoods on the north shore.

The nests in the residential areas presents the residents and visitors an opportunity to observe the albatross throughout their life cycle on land.  We can watch the courting dances, the nest building, the hatching of the young, and the fledging as the chicks head out on their own.

Adapting to populated areas.

When the albatross arrived on the north shore in the 1980's, the area was already populated, so this was not a case of people invading their habitat.  There were houses, streets, shopping centers, and golf courses already in place.  Early, the albatross tended to nest in vacant lots, but over the years, the lots filled in with houses.  This has not bothered the albatross, who continue to nest in the neighborhoods.  They are very calm birds without fear of people. 

Usually they build nests in hedges or under trees near the houses. Residents and visitors are used to having them around.  Albatross are not spooked by lawn mowers, traffic, or other typical neighborhood activities.  They are curious, often going up to glass doors and looking into houses or even walking into open garages.

When a pair builds a nest, everyone respects their space.  If they nest in a lawn area, that section of the lawn is left un-mowed.  If they are close to a driveway or road, cones and signs are placed to warn people of their presence. Albatross build ground nests by pulling up grass and twigs into a raised pile of dirt.

The general rule is to stay 15-20 feet away from either the adults or the chicks.  Because of their calmness in a residential setting, it may appear they are not threatened.  By maintaining our distance, we help keep them calm.  This is particularly important when they are sitting on an egg.  If an albatross does feel threatened by someone too close, they might stand up suddenly and accidentally break the egg.

Since they are calm and don't flit away, the albatross are excellent subjects for photos and videos.  We use telephoto lenses to be sure we don't get into their space.  We use binoculars to safely read the leg tag numbers to keep track of who is who.


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