One Albatross to Another: “Same time next year.”

Laysan albatross kauai
This Laysan Albatross Awaits the Return of Its Mate.

Laysan albatrosses don’t roam the wide seas of the Pacific Ocean in flocks. They don’t even forage for flying fish and squid with their mates. What it comes down to is Laysan albatrosses travel through their watery world solo.

That’s why they’re known as synchronous nesters.

I counted 28 Laysan albatrosses on my survey this past Sunday. Mostly, as I understand it, males return before females. Maybe it’s to ready their nest site. Maybe it’s to ensure their DNA gets first dibs when their mates touch land again, the first time their webbed feet have done so in many months. Maybe the females run late, because they are taking every last opportunity to fatten up before they deplete a vast amount of energy to push an egg the size of an avocado through an opening the size of a pencil eraser. Can you blame them?

Whatever the reason, most of the 28 albatrosses I saw the other day may have been loosely congregating in the same areas, but they were clearly singles. Some sitting quietly with eyelids drooping. Or standing guard, four-inch bills to the wind, as if remembering the smell of their mates’ intoxicating perfume. Some pacing through red dirt on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean, the timepieces in their brains (or elsewhere) having told them it was time to return to this exact spot on Kauai (their internal GPS devices surpass anything we have manufactured), where their mates would also appear, and they would proceed to do what it took to produce fertile eggs that in 65 days (or thereabouts) would reveal wet, downy chicks that both parents would feed for the next five or six months until their offspring graduated from fuzzy, land-bound dependents to sleek, soaring seabirds.

Laysan albatrosses Kauai
A Pair of Laysan Albatrosses Reunite.

Except for six. Six albatrosses had paired up. Presumably, at least, three females had already arrived, and the three pairs sat quietly, seemingly absorbed in the energy of their mates, sometimes leaning in to nuzzle, mostly just watching life (and me) go by. Was this what post-coital albatross sex looked like? Or was this still the act of foreplay?

Whatever it was, I figured these pairs were mates—and done with the years of elaborate dancing that albatrosses go through to select another with whom to rear young. It takes the work of two adult albatrosses to raise one chick. There are no absentee fathers in this part of the bird world.

This time of the breeding season, as pairs reunite, I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the albatrosses and unimpressed with myself. Every year, I am brought to tears thinking about these birds flying tens of thousands of miles across the big Pacific Ocean—alone—from Hawaii to the shores of Japan to the Aleutian Islands in the north and, perhaps, a quick visit to the Pacific Northwest, only to return to this spot within days—maybe hours—of their mate. Do they have built-in mobile phones as well as GPS systems? “Hello, beautiful? How you doin? Same time; same place?”

Laysan albatrosses look very much alike. It’s near impossible to distinguish male from female. That’s why their band numbers are so important.

Laysan albatross pair. Kauai.
Laysan Albatross Pair Cozy Up.

For the past six years, I’ve logged band numbers on the albatrosses that have showed up in this particular spot. Of the three couples I saw on Sunday, only one individual had nested here last year—a bird banded as KP011 (right). Now, cover your ears if this kind of talk makes you squeamish, but KP011 wasn’t getting cozy on Sunday with its mate of last year. Last year’s mate was K334. The second bird in this photograph is KP802. Was KP802 an interloper? Was K334 a fling? Maybe KP802 was just keeping KP011 pleasant company while awaiting K334’s return? Or maybe KP011 and K334 are both females and KP802 was just doing his fertilizing job. (If this doesn’t make sense, see my blog post in which I elaborate on female-female albatross pairs.)

We know so little about this species that spends nearly 100% of their lives at sea. Every year, I learn something new about Laysan albatrosses. This year, as the love stories of “All My Albatrosses” and “As the Birds Fly” unfold, I expect to learn something new about KP011. When I do, I’ll let you know.

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