The rarest of the North Pacific albatross species, the Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus, has only been documented breeding on islands off Japan, despite increasing sightings of individuals among other albatross colonies in the Hawaiian Islands in recent years. A single female laid and then abandoned infertile eggs on Midway Atoll from 1989-2001, but there was no indication of a male ever attending the nest (click here).
On 31 October 2010 a Short-tailed Albatross nest was discovered on Kure Atoll, 90 km north-west of Midway, with a final phase plumage bird incubating a single egg. The bird is a 17-year old (number 13A 0703) banded as a chick on Torishima by Hiroshi Hasegawa in 1993. On 2 November the same individual was found to be incubating two freshly-laid eggs, which it was still incubating on 8 November. On the day that the first egg was recorded only 60 Black-footed Albatrosses P. nigripes, a tiny fraction of the island's population, had returned to begin courtship, and none had yet laid eggs, so it seems certain that the Short-tail was incubating its own egg. The earliest laying date for Black-footed Albatrosses is typically 7 November, which supports the idea that both eggs belong to the Short-tailed Albatross.
Since albatrosses only ever lay one egg a season, the presence of two eggs strongly suggests a pair of females, which likely have each laid infertile eggs that will not hatch. However, a second female is yet to be spotted. Female-female pairs are relatively common amongst Laysan Albatrosses P. immutabilis, particularly in new colonies, and the phenomenon also been documented in Black-footed Albatrosses.
Kure Atoll has two previous reports of Short-tailed Albatrosses ashore - one in 2008 and one in 1994. Both observations were within 300 m of the 2010 nest and were of immature-plumaged individuals.
It is possible that the assumed pair on Kure Atoll has been nesting there for a number of years, but has gone unnoticed. This is the first winter field camp at Kure Atoll, so in previous years any nests that were initiated, and then abandoned, would likely have been missed by the time the previous camps were set up in May.
Sightings on Midway begun as early as 1938 and from 1965-2009 at least 16 different individuals have been recorded ashore. In recent years, up to four individuals have been seen on the atoll at any given time. Sporadic sightings of Short-tailed Albatrosses have also been made at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Laysan Island, French Frigate Shoals and Kauai.
The discovery of the Kure breeding attempt is good news for the species as expanding its range to include other breeding sites will potentially protect against potential losses at its primary breeding site at Torishima. We will keep our collective fingers crossed that there is a male Short-tailed Albatross involved in this nesting attempt.
For information on records of Short-tailed Albatrosses within the Hawaiian Islands visit:
Pyle, R.L. & Pyle, P. 2009. The Birds of the Hawaiian Islands: Occurrence, History, Distribution, and Status. Honolulu: B.P. Bishop Museum. Version 1 (31 December 2009). http://hbs.bishopmuseum.org/birds/rlp-monograph/.
For information on Kure Atoll visit http://www.
With thanks to Cynthia Vanderlip, Field Camp Manager, Kure Atoll Seabird Sanctuary, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources for information by satellite ‘phone from Kure Atoll.
Lindsay Young, ACAP North Pacific News Correspondent, 11 November 2010