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Friday, November 21, 2014         

OCEAN WATCH


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Some Laysan albatross pairs prove to be same-sex couples

By Susan Scott

POSTED:

Last week I saw three rare and remarkable marine animals in one of the planet's most breathtaking environments. Wilderness walks don't get better than this one, and it's right here in our own back yard.

The state made Kaena Point a Natural Area Reserve in 1983, and the area's transformation has been a beautiful thing to watch. That year at Kaena Point, I saw my first Laysan albatross, and someone was shooting at it from a pickup truck. This time I saw those regal, black-and-white seabirds dotting the dunes and hillsides, all sitting peacefully on recently laid eggs amid native plants and respectful hikers.

Besides giving residents and visitors the privilege of walking among Hawaii's native animals, the Kaena Point comeback has also allowed researchers to study Laysan albatrosses in new ways. And those rascals (the birds, not the researchers) held some surprises.

It was once thought, for instance, that all the Laysans sitting on eggs this time of year were males taking the first shift of brooding. After an albatross couple reunites at their nest site in November, the paired-for-life birds mate, and the female lays one white egg about the size of a large avocado.

To replenish herself with squid and the eggs of flying fish after this labor, the female then flies back to sea, leaving the male to tend their precious egg for 24 or more days.

But not always. Through genetic analysis researchers discovered that about one-third of the couples at the Kaena Point colony are female-female pairs.

Apparently when females can't find a mate, some team up with another female. After enticing mated males to, well, cheat, the two fertilized females each lay an egg in a nest, pick one, ignore the other and raise the resulting hatchling.

I took the above photo at Midway and had always assumed the cuddling couple was male and female. When I look at it now, though, I see this picture in a whole new light.

Seabird biologists still have much to learn about this albatross adaptation, and the research continues.

I was so engrossed in albatross appreciation during my Kaena hike, I nearly forgot to look up. When I did, it was just in time to see a spectacular breach by one of our other celebrated winter visitors, humpback whales. They're back in our warm waters now, returned from the Arctic to give birth. The numerous whales off the point that day were extra-frisky, showing us awed hikers breaches, blows, flukes and fins.

Nearing the navigation light at the tip of the point, I noticed four people standing still and silent, staring at the tide pools below. I guessed what was getting their rapt attention, and sure enough, on top of a large black rock, a monk seal snoozed in all its fluffy gray glory.

When seals are wet their fur looks smooth and shiny like dolphin skin. When sun-dried and windblown, though, a Hawaiian monk seal's fur coat is a sight to behold.

The Kaena Point parking lot was once notorious for break-ins, but with more visitors, and random appearances by police officers, it's safer to park there now. A friendly HPD officer even asked me to reposition my car so he could see it better. The hike from there is 2.5 miles, one way. A round trip takes about three hours.

A rat-, mouse-, mongoose-, cat- and dog-proof fence is going up around the 59-acre preserve, a crucial tool in the battle to stop predators from eating eggs and killing birds.

The fence will take the transformation of Kaena Point another big step forward. And lucky us. We residents get to watch it happen.

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Susan Scott can be reached at www.susanscott.net.






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