Story, Photos and Videos by Eric Kershner
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to stare into the eyes of an albatross? I know I have! I’ve always dreamed about visiting Midway Atoll to see the millions of seabirds that call the island their home. Well that dream came true for me! I was fortunate enough to serve as the acting refuge manager for Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial for two months beginning in mid-November of 2020.
Now, I’ve studied puffins before, and I’ve worked in large tern colonies in Maine and Southern California, but neither of those experiences came close to preparing me for what it would be like to spend two months on a remote island surrounded by albatross.
When I first arrived on Midway, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of albatross present. They were literally everywhere you looked — they even nested and did courtship dances on my porch! The noisy sounds of courtship echoed throughout the night for the first few weeks until the first eggs were laid and the colony slowly settled down. Then some adult birds began to disperse on long foraging trips.
As I spent my free time sitting with the albatross, I began to admire the pair bonds and dedication to their life-long mates. You can watch the courtship dances and guess how long certain pairs had been together and identify suspected new pairs all based on their coordinated dance. What I surmised was this: the more established pairs were well-coordinated and not easily distracted from the intricate movements of headshakes, sky moos, wing lifts, and bill snaps. These dances went on for hours. I posited that the newer pairs or younger birds were the ones that lost interest in their dance within minutes or were not coordinated at all — one bird doing a sky moo while the other a wing lift — not practiced and definitely out of sync.
When the dancing was done, the tenderness and affection between mates was on full display. Albatross spend a lot of time preening each other. The pair takes turns — one preening the top of its mate’s head and on the neck, then the pair switches. These moments were an obvious display of devotion that I was only just beginning to understand.
You see, the life of an albatross is quite complex. Once the single egg for that year is laid, one member of the pair leaves the atoll for the next 2–3 weeks — sometimes flying thousands of miles to find prey. In the meantime, the partner shows intense dedication to tending to the egg. They do not leave the nest; only occasionally standing up to stretch its wings and legs. There is no food for them and the only water they receive comes when it rains. It is a surreal sight during a rainstorm to watch thousands of albatross try to catch raindrops in those long bills.
These birds sit on the nest until the mate finally returns. You would think that once the mate returned, the adult tending to the egg would be anxious to leave its duties and get some food! But in reality, it is a real struggle to get the tending adult to relinquish the responsibility of protecting the egg and take a turn foraging. I witnessed mates physically pushing the incubating partner off the egg as both birds were eager to tend to it. This transition always ended with the egg swap and a long session of preening before the mate took leave of the atoll for several weeks.
I enjoyed watching these incubating birds stand and “talk” to their egg. They make a dog-like whimper sound while looking at the egg then reposition themselves to resume incubation. We suspect that as the chick inside develops, it responds to the adult, creating that bond between chick and parent — critical for when the parents are feeding and need to find their chick in the mass of hungry chicks across the atoll.
My time on Midway ended before the eggs began to hatch so witnessing the next phase in the albatross journey will have to wait until the next visit to this island. On this visit, I had looked into the eyes of the albatross and come to admire deeply these majestic birds and their spectacular life journey. I believe many lessons can be taken from their dedication, affection, and even their struggles. From the dedication to a mate and egg each year, to the time spent without food during incubation, to the distance traveled to find food for themselves and their chicks, and all of the threats they face along the way. Nests were flooded, eggs would break, mates would not return, and the presence of plastics were prevalent aspects each day. Yet, they are the only species evolved for this environment, and so, they persevere.
The time alone on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific, with no distractions was unparalleled. The coronavirus pandemic, the riots on the Capitol, and the tears in our country were a long, long way away. I was immersed with no distraction into a world where there is only nature, and these remarkably resilient, giant, and noisy birds. This time was an opportunity to reflect on my life and gave me perspective to think about the impacts I have on the environment and how I can improve my actions so the next time I have the opportunity to sit amongst the albatross I can do so knowing I am doing everything I can to protect them.
That’s the next dream I want to make a reality.
Eric Kershner is Branch Chief of Conservation, Permits, and Regulations in the Migratory Bird Program in FWS Headquarters