A long way for a feed

Subject: A long way for a feed
From: "Michael J. McLeish" <>
Date: Thu, 26 Mar 1998 10:53:54 +1000
Saw this in a not so local newspaper and thought some people may be 

                  The Flight of The Albatross
                  We knew they left their young but not
                  how far they went 
                  Call it the case of the disappearing albatross. 

                  For years, scientists have been struggling with an
                  ornithological conundrum: Where do the big marine
                  birds go when they leave their newly hatched
                  nestlings on isolated Pacific islands and vanish for
                  weeks at a time? 

                  Now researchers have an answer: everywhere in
                  the North Pacific Ocean, including the waters near
                  San Francisco. Like many visitors to the Bay Area,
                  they're apparently coming for the food. 

                  ``The distances they're traveling is amazing,'' said
                  David Anderson, a biologist who is tracking the
                  birds. ``And I don't mean one or two -- I mean all
                  of them.'' 

                  Scientists knew the birds weren't on idle pleasure
                  flights when they disappeared. That's because they
                  invariably return to their nests with crops full of
                  nutrient-rich fish oil, which they regurgitate into
                  the clamoring maws of their young. 

                  But no one had the the foggiest idea where the
                  birds were foraging. 

                  Now, thanks to sophisticated tracking devices,
                  scientists have pinpointed three black-footed
                  albatross that roamed 2,600 miles from a tiny
                  Hawaiian atoll to San Francisco. 

                  The resolved mystery may be credited to the
                  Albatross Project, which is bolstered by a
                  $200,000 grant from the National Science
                  Foundation. As part of the project, more than
                  1,000 schoolchildren are avidly tracking the birds
                  with the help of microprocessors and satellites. 

                  Anderson, based at Wake Forest University in
                  North Carolina, employs radio telemetry to track
                  albatrosses because the birds fly too fast for boats
                  and too slow for planes. 

                  Radio telemetry involves the use of radio
                  transmitters fitted to animals to log their
                  movements and behavior. 

                  While the technology has been around for decades,
                  transmitters suitable for albatrosses are relatively
                  new -- especially when coupled with satellite

                  ``This kind of thing wasn't even possible a few
                  years ago,'' said Wayne Thompson, a spokesman for
                  Wake Forest University. ``The transmitters were too
                  big to use on seabirds. But now we have ones that
                  are about the size of a dollar bill.'' 

                  Thompson said the new transmitters are small
                  enough to fit unobtrusively between an albatross'
                  wings, but powerful enough to transmit data to relay

                  On January 22, Anderson and his crew began
                  taping the transmitters to albatrosses nesting on
                  Tern Island, an atoll in the Hawaiian chain that
                  once served as a Coast Guard base. About 3,400
                  black-footed and Laysan albatrosses nest on the
                  island. So far, Anderson has fitted 26 birds with
                  the transmitters. 

                  As the birds wander from Tern Island, their
                  transmitters beam data to satellites stationed over
                  the Pacific. 

                  The satellites note the time, latitude and longitude
                  of each transmitted position. Later, the information
                  is transmitted to Wake Forest's computer network. 

                  ``What's really wonderful about this is that the
                  schoolkids are actually part of the scientific
                  process,'' said Anderson. ``They get the same data
                  we get, and they get it at the same time. 

                  ``We're in direct contact with them, and they
                  participate in our discussions -- there is no
                  filter. In a very real sense, they are scientists,
                  not science students.'' 

                  Michelle Bergey, a third-grade teacher in
                  Twentynine Palms, said the project helps her kids
                  learn about geography, navigation and marine
                  science, as well as the travel vagaries of ``their''

                  ``Because it all relates to what their birds are
                  doing, they stay very involved,'' Bergey said. ``And
                  some of this stuff is very complex, particularly for
                  third-graders. But context makes all the

                  Anderson said he was stunned when he began
                  getting data back from his albatrosses. They were
                  flying from Alaska to San Francisco, and most points
                  in between. 

                  ``One Laysan albatross,'' he said, ``flew more than
                  2,000 miles to a specific place on a small island in
                  the Aleutians, flew back to Tern Island, stayed over
                  a day, then flew straight back to the same place on
                  the same Aleutian island. 

                  ``Talk about navigational skills -- I can't even
                  find my way home at night.'' 

                  Of the trio of albatrosses in San Francisco, two
                  appear to be heading back to Tern Island and one
                  ``is still mucking around'' the city, Anderson said.

                  They may well have come for the calamari. 

                  ``Albatrosses are basically scavengers,'' said
                  Anderson. ``They're especially fond of big squid
                  die- offs. After squid mate, they usually die en
                  masse. It can involve thousands and thousands of
                  individuals. That's a real bonanza for an

                  Similarly, albatrosses will flock to dead whales and
                  other sizable chunks of marine carrion. 

                  ``We have no way of knowing, but that may be
                  why they'll return to the same place (such as a
                  particular Aleutian island) after flying thousands
                  of miles back to their nests to feed their young,''
                  said Anderson. 

                  ``It's possible they may have located a big carcass.
                  Or they could also be following boats. Both Laysan
                  and black-footed albatrosses like to trail fishing
                  boats, eating the offal that's cast overboard.'' 

                  Albatrosses, Anderson says, can fly such long
                  distances because they aren't really flying --
                  they're soaring. 

                  ``It's called dynamic soaring,'' he said. ``(They
                  can) go long distances without flapping, because of
                  a special shoulder joint that locks their wings into

                  While albatrosses leave their young for weeks at a
                  time during their extended explorations of the high
                  seas, the fledglings are in no danger of starving to

                  During their long flights, they gorge on fish or
                  carrion, keeping it in the proventriculus -- the
                  upper portion of the gut. Here the heavier liquid
                  elements separate, leaving a large quantity of
                  fat-rich material. One researcher calls the oily
                  stuff ``the albatross equivalent of a plutonium
                  battery -- almost pure energy.'' 

                  When an adult returns to its nest, it coughs up the
                  contents of its proventriculus into the gaping beaks
                  of its young, providing each nestling with up to 20
                  percent of its body weight in food. 

                  But as young Tern Island albatrosses eat, so are
                  they eaten. 

                  ``Large numbers of tiger sharks congregate at the
                  island each year when the fledglings begin flying,''
                  said Anderson. ``They eat the young birds that fall
                  into the water. About 10 percent of the fledglings
                  end up as shark food. The sharks disperse at the end
                  of the nesting season.'' 

                  While the Albatross Project has answered some of the
                  riddles about albatross behavior, the data are by no
                  means conclusive. Scientists now generally know
                  where Tern Island albatrosses go, but it's still not
                  completely clear why they're going there. 

                  Nor is a troubling trend understood -- a long-term
                  worldwide decline in albatross populations. 

                  ``There are a few theories du jour,'' said Anderson.
                  ``One is that the long-line fishing industry may be
                  a factor. It could be that the birds are getting
                  snared in the lines when they attempt to take the
                  baits. But at this stage, it would be a mistake to
                  jump to any conclusions.'' 

                  Further research will include additional telemetry
                  work. Anderson is planning to tag Tern Island
                  albatrosses for at least one more breeding season --
                  and when he does, thousands of kids across the
                  country will be avidly awaiting the results. 

                  ``As long as they keep e-mailing us the questions,''
                  he said, ``we'll keep trying to answer them.'' 

                  For more information, contact the Albatross
                  Project at 

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