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One Picture

Birds
Raising Shorties
On a tiny Pacific island, scientists defy an active volcano to secure the future of the Northern Hemisphere’s most endangered seabird. So far they’re winning.

 

Far removed from Tokyo’s hustle and bustle, I find myself in the sort of situation one rarely associates with Japan: dang-
ling by a rope with my face pressed against cool granite, my nose filled with hot sulfur fumes from an active volcano looming above. The second-to-last thing I expect in this vegetation-free moonscape is to hear a cow. The very last thing I expect is to hear an entire herd of them.

Below me white beasts lumber about a steep hillside, mooing, delivering food to their young, and then flying out to sea for more. It’s decidedly un-cowlike behavior but typical for the largest and most endangered seabird in the Northern Hemi-
sphere, the short-tailed albatross, or what we scientists call shorties. Birds that, as you have probably guessed, some-
times sound like a bunch of cows. Loose volcanic ash fills my shoes as we skate down a scree field and through a notch in the 300-foot-high walls that stand between the steaming volcano’s vent and the world’s largest colony of short-tailed albatross.

Torishima (tori means "bird," shima means "island"), a dark, jagged hulk of volcanic rock belonging to Japan, is a product of Mount Iwoyama's outpouring. The island rises from the Pacific Ocean, 360 miles southeast of Tokyo. About 160 years ago its upper slopes were frosted white with breeding short-tailed albatross. Some say a million; others, five million. Either way there were enough to make this subtropical volcanic peak look like it was dusted with snow. But while shorties may look like snowflakes from a distance, up close what you notice first is two handfuls of bubblegum-pink bird beak. The adults’ heads are awash with gold. Their white wings with bold black epaulettes suggest a display of military rank when they take wing.

If most albatross are big—and they are—then these guys are HUGE. They are 15 pounds of squid-eating, ocean-wandering, lifelong-mating, over-seven-foot-wingspan huge. But their once-robust population is a shadow of its former self. At one point in the 1930s the species was down to as few as one or two dozen individuals. A bird can’t edge much closer to the brink of extinction than that and hope to recover.

How did that happen? In the late 1800s Japanese entrepre-
neurs created a new industry on Torishima: commercial albatross slaughtering for oil and feathers. It was neither a hunt nor a harvest; it was a massacre. Like most seabirds, albatross have no concept of land predators. They didn’t know to flee for their lives. Instead they sat patiently on their nests as club-wielding men strolled to within swinging distance.

Over the course of a few decades the men killed nearly all of the albatross, stuffed their feathers into schooners, cooked their carcasses to render fat, and left their bones to bleach in the sun. Records from this slaughter lead us to believe that up to five million birds were killed. About the time of World War II, short-tailed albatross were presumed extinct—a species lost for the sake of a few hundred thousand feather beds and pillows and some low-grade fatty fuel. Still, a couple of dozen immature birds remained at sea, unnoticed, avoid-
ing the final slaughter. From this handful, rediscovered in 1950, the species crept back. 

 

Torishima is now home to more than 1,900 of the world’s remaining 2,300 shorties. That’s up a bunch from two dozen but still a long way from a million. The rest of the breeding shorties nest on Minami-kojima, a rock spire 90 miles north-northwest of Okinawa that happens to be perched atop huge natural gas reserves and is claimed by Japan, Taiwan, and China. Their location puts these albatross in an area threatened by territorial dispute, which sounds bad. But the international tension over uninhabited real estate makes the island more of a de facto nature preserve.

Our Torishima field camp is a half-collapsed, 1930s-era Japanese weather station, now home to an eight-person expedition that has come to discover where the birds find the fish, squid, and assorted seafood and plastic debris that they feed to their chicks. Japanese biologists, representing the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, are joined here by Dr. Paul Sievert from the Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and me, an endangered-species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before dawn we assemble for breakfast inside a dark concrete bunker. Hayao Murakami, a longtime veteran of Torishima expedi-
tions, is stirring a steaming kettle. I see fins and eyeballs. Breakfast in Japan is a difficult meal.

Fumio Sato, the leader of the expedition, commands quiet as the weather report rises above the radio’s static. He is the island’s emperor, and nothing happens without his approval. Satisfied that the latest winter storm will die down by noon, he gives the signal to start gearing up for the first of many daily commutes across the island to the main albatross colony, Tsubame-zaki. Our reconnaissance trip around the volcano has us hauling hefty packs weighed down with albatross-trapping supplies: nets, poles, stakes, cables, and sledgehammers. 

The hike is moderately challenging but not harrowing. Along the way, if the wind is blowing from the south, we choke a little on the volcano’s sulfur fumes. If the wind funnels through the tube-shaped valley that is our passageway to the colony, we lose a layer of skin to flying volcanic ash. Either way we abrade the soles off the bottoms of our boots on the sharp volcanic rock.

From a rugged vantage point perhaps 400 feet above the colony, Sato-san sets up a spotting scope and begins count-
ing. Every day he tallies the number of chicks and adults on the colony. Some days the offspring are mostly hidden be-
neath their brooding parents. Other days many adults have gone to sea, to get food for the chicks. So Sato-san’s highest counts over the course of the trip are assumed to be the best estimate of total colony size and reproductive success.

Our rocky perch allows us to appreciate the precariousness of this colony’s site. To our right is a most unfortunate notch in the caldera rim. All of the birds sit on a steep, eroding slope below this notch. Typhoons cause torrents of ash-laden cal-
dera floodwater to rush through the notch and across the middle of the colony. Nothing can colonize that central swath. During poorly timed typhoons (November to May), the outflow can destroy nests and wash chicks clean off the colony. High winter winds send other chicks tumbling downhill away from their nests, which is tantamount to a death sentence.

Upon our descent to Tsubame-zaki, Sato-san consults with his Yamashina Institute crew to decide which albatross are the best candidates for capture. Eventually he makes his pro-
nouncement. As the winds calm, the crew sets up traps. Sievert and I watch. We seem to do a lot of watching on Torishima.

The group returns for several days before the first adult male arrives at one of the targeted nests. As soon as his chick is fed its squid smoothie, the trap is sprung. A lightweight net flips over the birds’ heads so fast, I don’t see it happen. Neither do the birds. Both adult and chick remain calm until they are swarmed by team members, scrambling to free them from the net. The adult is carried back to our makeshift satellite transmitter attachment station. The chick remains on the nest, clapping its bill at us.

 

No one has ever placed satellite tags on breeding adult shorties. Past efforts have targeted non-breeders and post-breeders. From them we learned that after the breeding season most shorties head more or less directly to Alaskan waters. Some loiter off Japan, waiting for a good south wind to push them north. Other birds wander into Russian and Canadian waters. But the incredibly productive waters along the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea continental shelf are this species’ primary haunts. A very few, probably lost juveniles, find themselves as far south as California. Such rare sightings are becoming steadily more commonplace in remote areas as more and more juveniles fledge the island each year and wander in search for food.

Our study goal is to see where these breeders get food for their young; where their routine thousand-mile trips to the albatross grocery store take them. Ten to 14 days of wander-
ing the sea for what? A single dose of fish and squid-derived stomach oil for their chicks; oil that chicks regurgitate as a defense mechanism; oil that smells so bad it made me wish I had packed a second pair of boots.

Albatross researchers are mostly unwilling to subject the birds to invasive forms of transmitter attachment. Surgical implants are hardly ever discussed. Harnesses hinder the birds’ ability to soar. So we usually attach the transmitters, which weigh 40 to 80 grams, to the birds’ back feathers with imported German Tesa tape—basically duct tape with sunscreen. It’s sticky and it doesn’t degrade in sunlight.

During the next several days our albatross trapping proceeds without a hitch, and we easily reach our target of eight tagged birds. Location data is streaming in even before we return to camp at the end of each workday. Soon satellite data indicates that the chicks’ food comes from two very discrete areas: the waters east of central Honshu Island, 100 to 200 miles northeast of Tokyo, and directly south of Tokyo, not far offshore from a very contaminated Tokyo Bay. In both places, the Kuroshio Current from the south collides with the cold Oyashio Current from the north, creating an incred-
ibly productive mixing zone. While our satellite tags don’t tell us what the birds are eating here, they do a bang-up job of informing us where they are eating, how fast it takes them to arrive, and how long it takes them to fill their stomachs with seafood. After Rob Suryan, our colleague at Oregon State University, processes this data, we will get a feel for how weather systems and winds influence albatross movements and how ocean productivity and seafloor bathymetry affect their distribution. We’ll also learn where and when the birds overlap with threatening commercial fishing operations.

The area just west of Japan is heavily fished. We don’t know whether short-tailed albatross are caught in Japanese com-
mercial fishing gear like they and other seabirds are else-
where, but there is no reason to suspect otherwise. Although U.S. fisheries have recently adopted a number of measures to reduce bycatch, five short-tailed albatross are known to have died on their longline gear since 1995. Probably more have been taken. Most retrieved gear is not monitored by fishery observers, and there is clearly a disincentive for fishermen to self-report the killing of an endangered species. A scientist who went along on just a few longline cruises on Russian boats saw a short-tailed albatross come up in their gear, so we know the birds are snagged in Russian fisheries as well. Seabird bycatch data from Japan has thus far been a giant informational black hole. But this much is certain: Fish-
eries are not the threat that the men with clubs once were. Data from the breeding grounds suggest that the population is currently growing at nearly its maximum biological potential, implying low mortality rates from all sources.

The short-tailed albatross recovery team, a group of experts dedicated to this species, agrees that the very volcano that forms the species’ major nesting island, that simmers above our heads, is also the biggest threat. In 1939 the volcano erupted, pouring between 30 and 100 feet of lava and ash on the colony, nearly wiping it out. The Yamashina Institute is establishing a satellite colony, Hatsune-zaki, on the opposite side of Torishima from the main Tsubame-zaki colony. The biologists’ tool for luring birds to the new site is social attrac-
tion, a technique that uses decoys and a solar-powered alba-
tross-party soundtrack, devices developed and pioneered by Audubon’s Stephen Kress to reestablish a puffin colony off the Maine coast. Hatsune-zaki’s slopes are gentle and vege-
tation has stabilized the substrate. In 2006, 14 pairs of birds joined the 60 life-sized albatross decoys set up at Hatsune-zaki, an increase from five pairs the year before. In 2007 about two dozen pairs were raising chicks there. Creating this new colony is the single most noteworthy conservation effort undertaken for this species since the clubbing stopped.

Having fulfilled our mission to discover where breeding short-tails fly to get food for their chicks, we retire to the three-foot-high cabin of the fishing boat that returns us to civilization. For the next 18 hours we lie prone, tossed in 12-foot seas. A loose thermos slams into a control panel and sets off alarms. Below deck, a bolt shears, and we are suddenly without rudder control. As we drift, it occurs to me that, like us, the short-tailed albatross has had a bumpy ride recently. But unlike us, these golden-headed birds are pointed in the right direction and moving forward, toward their comeback.

Greg Balogh is an endangered-species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.

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State of the Bird

Short-tailed Albatross
(Phoebastria albatrus)

Looks: Huge, with wingspan over seven feet, heavy pink bill. Young birds are brown, adults (12-plus years old) are mostly white with yellow on head, black marks on wings.

Behavior: Lives at sea, coming to land only to nest. Feeds on squid and other sea creatures.

Range: North Pacific Ocean, mainly western areas near Japan, regularly north to Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, rarely east to California.

Status: Still endangered but increasing from a low of a few dozen in the 1930s and 1940s, with population now up to about 2,300.

Threats: Like other albatross, short-tails are killed by longline fishing operations and are vulnerable to oil spills and other pollution at sea. A major eruption of the Torishima volcano during the breeding season could wipe out 40 percent of the population.

Outlook: Promising, especially if alternate nesting colonies can be established.—Kenn Kaufman

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Coming Up Short
Join a research team as they tag short-tailed albatross with tiny satellite transmitters in order to track their paths.

















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