Wisdom incubating her egg on the same site she’s used for many years (Albatross and many other seabirds exhibit nest fidelity – they return to the same nesting site each year). Photo credit: Charlie Pelizza/USFWS
This article was written by: Eric Baker (Refuge Biology Program Volunteer) and Wieteke Holthuijzen (Kupu Conservation Leadership Program Invasive Plant Specialist).
Wisdom, the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, has returned once again to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial—and she is currently incubating an egg!
She was discovered by the Refuge’s Biology Program Volunteer Crew Leader Kristina McOmber on December 3 as she was returning from a Laysan duck population survey around the Refuge.
Wisdom’s mate, Akeakamai (a Hawaiian word that means a love of wisdom, seeker after knowledge, philosopher, scientist, scholar), was seen at the same location outside their nest site at Bravo Barracks on November 23.
Refuge staff were hoping to see her return any day, but also speculated that she might take a year off from breeding, as many albatross do, to instead invest her time and energy into molting.
Since albatross spend the majority of their lives (nearly 90%) in the air, flying thousands of miles each year in search of food and covering vast tracts of the North Pacific Ocean, healthy and robust feathers are a must.
It is probable that Wisdom laid her egg in the last few days; as she patiently incubates her egg, waiting for Akeakamai to return, she is already on the way to breaking her record as the world’s oldest breeding bird in the wild.
She will stay and incubate it for around 2-3 days until her mate returns to take over incubation while she leaves for the sea to replenish herself after the energetically intensive effort of egg laying.
Wisdom and her mate Akeakamai. Photo credit: Kiah Walker/USFWS Volunteer
“I find it impressive that not only has Wisdom returned for over six decades as the oldest living, breeding bird in the wild, but also that biologists here on Midway have been keeping records that have allowed us to keep track of her over the years,” said Charlie Pelizza, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Project Leader for Midway Atoll Refuge and Memorial.
“When I made it to lunch, I knew something was up. The staff was abuzz with the news that Wisdom was back and incubating. It’s amazing what a bit of good news can do to brighten the day.”
At least 66 years old, Wisdom was first banded in 1956 by the biologist Chandler Robbins, who himself is still going strong at 98. 46 years later after banding Wisdom, Robbins sighted her near the same nesting location and was able to re-band her with a sturdier steel USGS bird band.
If she had hatched in 1956, she would be 60 now. However, she was already breeding in 1956 and could certainly be older, since Laysan albatrosses (like many other seabirds) delay sexual maturity until at least age 5 and may not breed successfully until ages 8 to 10.
Over the years, Wisdom has gone through several bands, fledged at least nine chicks since 2006, and has traveled an estimated three million miles in her lifetime.
Last year, Wisdom successfully fledged a chick, Kūkini (which is a Hawaiian word for messenger); the Refuge hopes to see Kūkini return in the next few years.
In the past, many albatross were banded with aluminum bands that unfortunately became corroded by sand and salt water, sometimes falling off in 20 years or less.
Wisdom, identified by her red, plastic auxiliary band on her right leg (Z333) incubates her egg on Midway Atoll NWR. Photo credit: Kristina McOmber/Kupu Conservation Leadership Program & USFWS
Wisdom’s bands, fortunately, were continuously replaced and because of meticulous record keeping associated with bird banding, scientists and researchers are able to confirm that she is the same bird first banded by Robbins. Biologists may find even older birds as old worn bands continue to be routinely replaced.
Wisdom is not alone though. Midway Atoll NWR is the world’s largest albatross colony, home to nearly 70% of the world’s Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and almost 40% of Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), as well as endangered Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) that occasionally nest on Sand and Eastern Islands within the Refuge.
Albatrosses start to arrive on Midway Atoll NWR in late October and by the end of November there are hundreds of thousands all across the atoll.
In December 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers counted 470,000 active nests across the entire Refuge; since each nest represents two adults, the total breeding population at Midway was 940,000.
A low estimate of Midway’s overall population, this number does not account for the non-breeders present in the colony, resting, searching for a mate, and practicing their courtship display skills.
Beyond the albatross, birds from 20 different species breed on the Refuge, bringing the total population of breeding birds year-round to nearly 3 million.
Note: Midway Atoll NWR itself boasts the largest nesting colonies of Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses in the world, while Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as a whole is home to 97% of the world’s Laysan Albatross and almost 80% of Black-footed Albatross.
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