Albatross Internet Darling Takes First Flight

The world watches as a Laysan albatross chick grows up and takes to the sky.

Kaloakulua's father stands watch over his one-week-old chick.

On Tuesday a young Laysan albatross named Kaloakulua took to the skies on her maiden flight, plunging off a cliff 250 feet high (76 meters) and setting course for the open ocean. She won't touch down on land again for another three years.

The camera was installed on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i on January 27—the day Kaloakulua emerged from her egg—by biologists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Since then, volunteers from the Kaua'i Albatross Network have manned the controls, panning and zooming the high-definition camera to capture the comings and goings of albatross at the nest site.

Laysan albatross pairs share parental duties and work for seven months to raise a single chick (Kaloakulua's parents are shown here).

Millions of Internet viewers watched as Kaloakulua grew from a banana-size hatchling to a full-grown albatross with a wingspan exceeding six feet (1.8 meters). They marveled at albatross courtship dances, worried at the sight of potential predators, and observed Kaloakulua's parents returning from long trips at sea to feed her.

In all, the experience opened a window onto a world that's been previously inaccessible to most.

"Very few people have ever had an albatross nest in their backyard," said Charles Eldermire, leader of the Bird Cams Project at Cornell. The live-streaming footage, he says, "offers a new perspective that only this technology can provide."

Kaloakulua gets her first meal—stomach oil from her mother—on January 27, 2014.

How to See a Seabird

Over the past three years, the Bird Cams Project has been placing high-definition, live-streaming cameras on the nests of many species, including well-known ones like red-tailed hawks and great blue herons. Eldermire says the group decided to add a Laysan albatross nest because of the species' exotic allure.

These seabirds are strong, agile fliers that spend most of their life soaring over the northern Pacific Ocean in search of squid. They touch down on land only when the time comes to find a mate and breed. That means they've been hard to study scientifically, and much of their life history has remained a mystery to ornithologists.

The vast majority of Laysan albatross pairs nest on the remote outer reaches of the Hawaiian archipelago. But in the past few decades, as their numbers have recovered to nearly 600,000 breeding pairs—following bans on albatross hunting and high seas drift-net fisheries (a technique for catching squid and salmon) in the 20th century—a small segment of the population has started nesting again on the human-inhabited islands of Kaua'i and Oahu. (See "Oldest Known Wild Bird Hatches Chick at 62.")

On Kaua'i, some albatross even nest in residents' backyards, which was key to making the nest camera possible. One household agreed to host a camera in its backyard, and to supply the broadband Internet connection needed to transmit the images.

Kaloakulua's mother returns to feed her on May 27, 2014.

Long, Strange Trips

Albatross are unusual in the bird world because they leave their chicks unattended for days at a time, beginning when the chicks are only a few weeks old. The parents head out to sea and travel enormous distances—sometimes as far as Japan and Alaska—in search of food.

Earlier this year a handful of albatross parents on Kaua'i and Oahu were fitted with GPS tags by a research team headed by Josh Adams at the U.S. Geological Survey. This enabled the scientists to track the birds as they ventured out to sea.

The map below shows the tracks of two individuals, one of which flew all the way to the Alaskan coast in early May before heading back to Hawaii to feed its hungry chick. (Neither of these birds were Kaloakulua's parents.)

"The distance basically corresponds to a commute between San Francisco and New York," said Hob Osterlund, founder of the Kaua'i Albatross Network.

When the parents return, they feed their chicks a meal of partially digested stomach contents by regurgitating it into the chicks' open mouths. Since her parents had to forage such great distances, Kaloakulua sometimes had to wait two weeks for one of these meals.

Notable Moments

Since January, nearly two million people in 195 countries have watched Kaloakulua's daily activities. Many were treated to moments never before seen on a live-streaming wildlife camera.

Some highlights:

• When Kaloakulua was one month old, she started wandering away from the nest her parents had built on the lawn of a Kaua'i resident. She even built a new nest for herself out of grass in a nearby location.

• On numerous occasions, feral cats and dogs were seen lurking in the background. Historically, the Hawaiian Islands were free of land-based predators, so albatross are not evolutionarily hard-wired to fear them. That's a major problem for the conservation of albatross on human-inhabited islands, where there are now cats, dogs, and mongoose. Luckily, Kaloakulua was not harmed by any of these non-native animals.

• Other visitors were more welcome. Laysan albatross start returning to the breeding colony where they hatched when they're three years old, at first to look for a potential mate. Some of these individuals visited the area around Kaloakulua's nest and treated camera viewers to elaborate courtship dances. (See "Same-Sex Mothers: Letting Albatrosses Be Albatrosses.")

Two young albatross perform a courtship dance on April 10, 2014 (the dance starts at the 40-second mark).

• When Kaloakulua was four months old, she regurgitated plastic that one of her parents had inadvertently fed her. This highlighted another major problem for albatross conservation: Many chicks starve to death each year because their stomachs are cluttered with an assortment of plastic ocean debris. (See "With Millions of Tons of Plastic in Oceans, More Scientists Studying Impact.")

Kaloakulua spits up plastic on June 1, 2014.

• The final act of the Kaloakulua reality show occurred on June 24, when the five-month-old chick wandered to the edge of a cliff and set out on her own. Her departure from Kaua'i was out of view of the Cornell camera, but was captured by tourists.

Kaloakulua takes her first flight on June 24, 2014. She probably won't be back on land for another three years.

A Brave New World

Once at sea, Kaloakulua will no longer see her parents, and she'll need to learn how to catch food for herself.

The biologists and volunteers involved in the project are hoping that she makes the return journey to Kaua'i in three years' time. In the meantime, they plan to have another albatross nest cam up and running next year.

So stay tuned.

Follow Katie Langin on Twitter.