Laysan Albatross

Phoebastria immutabilis

(c) Glen Tepke
  • DIOMEDEIDAE
  • Albatrosses
  • Procellariiformes
  • Albatros de Laysan
  • Albatros de Laysan
Introduction
The Laysan Albatross is best known for its gliding flight, awkward landings, and elaborate courtship rituals. These birds spend nearly half the year at sea, not touching land until breeding season. Though large for a seabird, the Laysan is small for an albatross. They may live more than 40 years. These birds are named for Laysan, one of their Hawaiian island breeding colonies.
(c) Glen Tepke
Appearance Description

The average Laysan measures 32 inches in length and weighs 6.6 pounds, with a wingspan often exceeding six feet. Sexes are similar, with gull-like plumage. The head, neck, and rump are white; the tail, upper wing surfaces, wingtips, and back are dark. Under-wing patterns vary. The eyes are recessed beneath dark ridges which help shade the eyes. The hooked bill is salmon-colored with a gray tip. Tube nostrils on each side aid in salt removal. The legs and feet are flesh-colored, and the toes fully webbed.

Range Distribution
Most Laysans breed on islands within the Hawaiian archipelago, including Kauai; more than half select Midway Island as their breeding colony. The birds then disperse into the North Pacific Ocean from July to November. Non-breeding Laysans concentrate near the Aleutians and in the Bering Sea. In the mid-1980s, a new colony was found on Guadalupe Island off central Baja, California; others colonies now exist on Japan's Bonin Islands, and on several islands off the coast of western Mexican—a significant range extension.
Habitat
Laysans nest in sandy, grassy areas on low atolls, sometimes near taller vegetation. Non-breeding birds reside primarily on the cold open ocean. Habitat is related to the distribution of squid—the bird's primary food source. Squid, in turn, are found near the shrimp-like euphausids upon which they feed.
Feeding
While squid make up the bulk of the Laysans' diet, the birds also consume flying fish eggs, crustaceans, fish, natural carrion, and refuse from ships. Laysans, often feeding in flocks, sit on the water, where they seize prey near the surface with their powerful beaks. Utilizing their high levels of rhodopsin—the visual pigment that enhances nocturnal vision—the birds feed mainly at night, when squid tend to surface.
Reproduction

Laysans first breed at about nine years of age. Experienced males arrive at breeding colonies in early November, with females following a week later, and first-time breeders a month later. Elaborate courtship dances performed by both sexes include bowing or swinging the head, mutual preening, and pointing bills skyward. Following copulation, both sexes participate in nest building. The nest is a shallow depression with a built-up rim on open ground. One creamy white, brown spotted egg is incubated by both parents for about 64 days. Upon hatching, one parent stays with the young while the other forages; the two then switch roles. Parents may forage as far as Alaska in search of food for the nestlings. Chicks are fed via regurgitation by both parents, and depart the island at five and a half months of age.

Migration
Laysans leave their Hawaiian breeding grounds in July; most go northwest toward Japan, then northeast toward the Aleutian Islands. Non-breeders wander throughout the North Pacific, and are often observed off Alaska in summer and off California in winter.
  • 874,000
  • 874,000
  • Declining population; high threats; restricted breeding distribution
Population Status Trends
Laysan populations have expanded both in range and numbers on Midway, Laysan, and French Frigate Shoals in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In 1922 there were 5,000 Laysans on Midway; by 1992, there were 200,000 breeding pairs. However, high mortality rates have led the Laysan Albatross to be listed as vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union.
Conservation Issues
Japanese feather hunters decimated many Laysan colonies at the turn of the century. Colonies at Volcano, Wake, and Marcus Islands have never recovered. Between 1958 and 1964, thousands of albatross were killed by collisions with antenna towers and aircraft strikes during landings and take-offs at Midway. Tens of thousands of albatross were intentionally killed in order to reduce such collisions. Today, eggs and birds continue to be removed at Hawaiian island airfields, in order to discourage nesting and ensure aircraft safety. On land, introduced predators, and lead poisoning from abandoned military buildings on Midway kills thousands of Laysans annually. At sea, the species is vulnerable to oil pollution, and the ingestion of floating plastics; tens of thousands also die in gill-nets, drift nets, and long-line fishhooks annually. Alternative long-line fishing techniques now being developed include weighing lines down, setting them at night, and using "screamer lines" to scare birds away.
 
Another beneficial human activity—the importing of topsoil and grass to Midway's Sand Island—has stabilized the sand dunes and increased albatross habitat. This coupled with the diminished human presence on Midway have led to increased Laysan populations there. At Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai, protection by fencing and wildlife personnel has helped establish a breeding Laysan colony.
What You Can Do
Join Save the Albatross, a campaign of Bird Life International (www.birdlife.org) working to develop viable alternatives to the long-line fish hooks that kill 100,000 albatross annually:   http://www.rspb.org.uk/supporting/campaigns/albatross/
 
Join beach cleanups in your area. Trash that enters the ocean may end up in the stomachs of albatross chicks via parental regurgitation, causing death. Properly discarding of debris, particularly plastic, will prevent seabirds from eating it.
 
Don't discard used oil into city sewers or municipal water supplies. It can end up in the ocean where albatross rest and feed; if their feathers become oiled, the birds are no longer waterproof and cannot survive.
 
Never let balloons drift off; albatross and other seabirds can become entangled in the strings, and marine mammals can mistake the balloons for food.
 
Cut up monofilament fishing line, which can entangle coastal birds, prior to discarding it.
 
More Information
Learn about Island Conservation's many projects to remove introduced predators and improve seabird habitat: http://www.islandconservation.org.
 
Remain aware of local, regional, and federal land management decisions, particularly those that affect our wetlands. 
 
Natural History References
Whittow, G. Causey. 1993. Laysan Albatross (Diomedea immutabilis). In The Birds of North America, No. 66 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
 
Safina, Carl. Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2002.
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000
Conservation Status References
Whittow, G. Causey. 1993. Laysan Albatross (Diomedea immutabilis). In The Birds of North America, No. 66 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
 
Safina, Carl. Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2002.
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000