Friday, December 10, 2010

Golden Gooney nesting at Midway; this is a big deal

The dominant big birds of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are two albatross species, black-footed and Laysan albatrosses, but an intriguing extended courtship appears to open the door for a third—the exceedingly rare Golden Gooney.

(Image: They take turns. This is the male Golden Gooney incubating its egg in a photo taken Dec. 3, 2010, at Eastern Island in Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS John Klavitter.)

This is exciting stuff in the bird world, because this bird is reproducing today on only two small Japanese-owned islands and its numbers remain small.

A pair of Golden Gooneys or short-tailed albatross at this writing is sitting on what is believed to be a fertile egg for the first time in the Hawaiian Islands—at least in recent memory. Their nest is on Eastern Island, one of three flat coral islands within Midway Atoll .

The two birds have been showing up at Midway for several years, initially spending most of their time on separate islets, but occasionally getting together. Last year they made a nest together, but produced no egg. This year they're incubating an egg.

Both of the birds were initially banded on Japan's Torishima Island. The male is an old timer. He was banded as an adult in 1987. The female is a comparative youngster, having been banded as a juvenile in 2003.

Albatrosses generally mate for life, so if both survive, they may begin establishing a small colony of their species at Midway. The birds can live as long as 45 years.

These albatrosses have long arms. Their wingspan of 7.5 feet makes them the biggest bird in the North Pacific. (That's still not much compared to the 10-foot wingspan of the wandering albatross, which is limited to the Southern Ocean, where it spends its life circumnavigating Antarctica.)

The short-tailed albatross' nickname, Golden Gooney, comes from the yellow coloring on its head and neck. The nickname is the more accurate title, because their tails aren't really particularly short, when compared to other albatrosses.

Feather harvesting caused their numbers to crash a century ago, and then in 1939, a volcano eruption on Torishima destroyed the primary breeding grounds, leaving just 10 nesting pairs. Worldwide numbers have now climbed to 2,400 birds, still far below the estimated historic population of 5 million birds.

The Midway egg is not the first there. A short-tailed female is reported to have laid an infertile egg about 20 years ago at Midway. And this year, there are two eggs at Midway's western neighbor Kure Atoll, likely also infertile since there appears to be no male attending the nest.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

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