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A photo of an albatross with her baby.

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

PHOTOGRAPH BY HOB OSTERLUND

Katie Langin

National Geographic

Published June 28, 2014

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.

And so ends the first chapter of the first ever live-streaming wildlife camera aimed at an albatross nest.

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.

A photo of albatross parents at their nest.
Laysan albatross pairs share parental duties and work for seven months to raise a single chick (Kaloakulua's parents are shown here).
PHOTOGRAPH BY HOB OSTERLUND

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.)

Map of albatross range.
*Preliminary data subject to revision. NG STAFF, JAMIE HAWK. SOURCE: USGS

"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.

 

14 comments
Jeanine Meyers
Jeanine Meyers

Mahalo Katie and NG on sharing Kaloakulua's story with the world! We hope to have more viewers next season, and there's no doubt in my mind we will thanks to your coverage. One of our (Kauai Albatross Network) dreams is to have a seabird sanctuary and education center on the north shore of Kauai. We need to provide safe breeding grounds for not only our beloved Laysan Albatross, but Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and the endangered Newell Shearwaters.  As sea levels rise, we will be able to provide refuge for Black-footed and the rare Short-tailed Albatross as well. It's only a matter of time before they loose their main breeding grounds and find Kauai to be their new home. Imagine how many nest-cams we can have for the viewers!  

Angela Serota
Angela Serota

Outstanding article, Katie! We on Kauai feel blessed and privileged to watch these amazing birds return to our island to court, find a mate, and eventually parent. Thank you for beautifully telling Kaloakulua's story. With the support and efforts of Cornell and Hob's Kauai Albatross Network, KK and you have become global ambassadors by introducing thousands to the Laysan albatross and educating them about their world. Mahalo nui loa!

susan dierker
susan dierker

Mahalo Katie and NGS for this wonderful article about Kaloakulua. It is not only beautifully written but, very informative.

Mika Ashley-Hollinger
Mika Ashley-Hollinger

Mahalo for a beautiful story.  It captures all the precious moments we spent with Kaloakulua and all her friends...and now that can be shared with the world!

Kristina Macaulay
Kristina Macaulay

Jimmy and I deployed the GPS tag on bird #3305 from Na Aina Kai! So excited these guys are making the news!

annis parker
annis parker

Hob this is brilliant. I am privileged to have  you as a friend and to have seen the albatrosses when last on Kauai. I would still like to see you down here in N.Z with the Royals and also am waiting the 3 years hoping to see if my namesake come in from the sky. Annis 

Kim  Rogers
Kim Rogers

Well done, Katie. You got all the pertinent points just right. Thank you for including the threats, too. Albatrosses are truly amazing birds--as are most seabirds--and we humans need to do whatever we can to help the species survive. I'm happy the world got to experience some of what we on Kauai are privileged to witness each year and now your readers are getting a glimpse, too.


Mahalo,

Kim Steutermann Rogers


Hob Osterlund
Hob Osterlund

Fabulous job telling the story, Katie!  Kaloakulua is a bright, curious, adventuresome chick.  Viewers from all over the world fell in love with her.  How could they not? Once you see such affectionate and hard-working birds, you can't help but want the best for them.  She now carries our blessings on her wings as she glides all over the North Pacific.

Mahalo for a fine piece.

Hob Osterlund, Founder

Kaua`i Albatross Network

albatrosskauai.org 

Mary Jozwiak
Mary Jozwiak

It has been a wonderful experience watching this camera and learning about the albatross!  Thanks to all involve with bringing this camera to the viewers!

Barbara Kissack
Barbara Kissack

Thank you for this fine article.  It's been a remarkable experience to watch KK grow up and fledge.  Thanks, too, to everyone involved: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, KAN, property owners -- everyone!

Julianne Petersen
Julianne Petersen

Watching KK for these past few months has been an absolute treasure.  I looked forward to seeing her daily.  Thank you all cam operators, bird lovers and Nat Geo for posting this.  I await her return and more albatross next year

karen moseley
karen moseley

Great Re-cap of the  saga of  KK.  I was  a  daily visitor since  January, sometimes  4-5 times per  day.  I  read books  on Trosses  and  recounted her  adventures  to others  each day.  It was  a  truly  amazing  experience.  Keeping  track  of her  feedings  was  agonizing  at times,  but  she  grew and grew. She fledged early  for her  species.  It was  bittersweet to see her  depart.  Thanks  to  the owner  of the  nesting property, Cornell  Web  Cams, and the Kauai  albatross  Project.  KK  has  a  data link  transmitter  that will be downloaded when she returns  in 3 years.  Looking forward  to  that wonderful  visit  by KK.  Fly  safe and long,  KK.  It is truly amazing  how  a human can bond  to  a  chick thousands of miles  away.  National Geographic  through the  years  has  taught me  much  about  the animals  and  birds  we  share this planet  with  since  early times.

Thank  you for  this  excellent  article.  Hopefully  others  will  get to know  KK  by your article.

jeanne yamonaco
jeanne yamonaco

@Hob Osterlund thank you so much!!!  we protect what we love and you have helped us fall in love with these beautiful birds!!!

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