BIRD WATCH: ‘Wisdom’ lives on in albatross colony

A NEWSPAPER CLIPPING from Huntsville, Ala., contained some unexpected surprises.

A reader moved to that area last year and has been on the lookout for articles involving birds.

Daniel Acedo hit the jackpot, as far as I am concerned. The article’s writer is Steven Austad, who is the chair of the biology department at the University of Alabama. His subject was “Wisdom.”

Wisdom has been in the headlines more than once.

Each time, readers can only shake their heads in amazement bordering on disbelief.

Wisdom is a Laysan albatross. There are tens of thousands of albatross living on a small atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. During World War II, this land known as Midway Island was a strategic outpost for the Americans and their allies in the battle with Japan.

After the war, remnants of its human occupation remained for decades. Today, it is known as Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. It is the world’s largest albatross colony.

That’s where Wisdom comes into the story.

For most of the year, albatross spend their lives at sea.

They fish the waters of the Pacific on wings that span 6½ feet.

Once they leave the nest, young albatross fly thousands of miles before ever touching land again.

It takes years for these birds to not only mature but to find a mate.

Eventually, they return to the place where they were born to nest and raise one chick.

Return to the nest

Wisdom has been doing this since at least 1956. This past December, along with other Midway albatross, she once again returned with her mate to nest.

She is reputed to be the world’s oldest wild bird, with her estimated age being 66 years.

How her age was determined was a surprise for me.

Back in the ’80s, my husband I were visiting birding friends who lived in Maryland.

At one of the “good places,” they pointed out some birders dashing across the field we were about to explore.

Nathan waved to them and remarked, “That’s Chan Robbins.”

Of course we were excited to see one of the nation’s best birders in action.

At that time, Chandler Robbins was the author of the field guide “Birds of North America.”

That book and the guide by Roger Tory Peterson probably had the world’s share of birders using field guides for North America’s birds.

In December 1956, Robbins was ringing (a form of banding) Midway’s albatross.

He caught a female while she was incubating her egg and placed a ring around one leg.

At the time, Robbins was 38 years old. He estimated that Wisdom was at least 6 years old.

This wasn’t the only time the two would meet.

Forty-six years later, at the age of 84, Robbins was still involved with this albatross colony.

It numbered over a half-million birds.

In 2002, he came across a bird he had ringed in 1956.

Considering the dangers and stress that a sea bird would encounter over that span of time, it is amazing Wisdom not only survived but is still raising offspring.

Lived through earthquake

When the 2011 Japan earthquake created a tsunami that rolled over the atoll, it killed more than 100,000 albatross. Wisdom wasn’t one of them. She was 61 at the time.

Chandler Robbins is also pretty amazing. He retired from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland 10 years ago but keeps up with the work on Midway.

At the age of 98, he still goes into the office every week. Wisdom has outlived several “life” partners in her 60 years of producing offspring.

It has been estimated that she has flown some 3 million miles, which is the equivalent of three round trips to the moon.

The story has a happy ending, according to Austad’s report. Wisdom’s current mate, a much younger fellow, has been appropriately named in Hawaiian.

“Akeakamai” means “lover of wisdom.”

It will be awhile before I receive a newspaper clipping as interesting as this one was.

________

Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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