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Laysan Albatross

Phoebastria immutabilis ORDER: PROCELLARIIFORMES FAMILY: DIOMEDEIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

One of the most marvelous sights in the Pacific ocean is the graceful glide of a Laysan Albatross at play among the winds and waves. These expert soarers can travel hundreds of miles per day with barely a wingbeat. They nest on islands of the tropical Pacific, but they may head out to Japan, the Aleutian Islands, or California to feed. Laysan Albatrosses are numerous, though they face threats from longline fishing, plastic trash in the ocean, and predation by dogs, rats, and cats.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Male
Length
31.1–31.9 in
79–81 cm
Wingspan
76.8–79.9 in
195–203 cm
Weight
77.6–151.7 oz
2200–4300 g
Female
Weight
77.6–127 oz
2200–3600 g
Relative Size
Slightly smaller, more slender, and narrower-winged than a Brown Pelican; much larger than a Western Gull.

Cool Facts

  • You can help albatrosses by avoiding unsustainably caught seafood. This includes fish caught by longline fisheries that do not use seabird-safe equipment. The Seafood Watch program offers convenient information and an app about sustainable seafood.
  • You can also help albatrosses by reducing your use of plastics and making sure plastic litter goes into garbage cans. Discarded plastic ends up in the oceans, where albatrosses pick it up and eat it or feed it to their chicks.
  • Laysan Albatrosses are masterful soarers, able to fly great distances and through the fiercest storms while barely even flapping their wings. To a large extent, the faster the wind blows the more maneuverable they are.
  • One Laysan Albatross found its way back to Midway Island from the Philippines—a journey of 4,120 miles. Another made its way back to Midway from Washington state traveling at an average of almost 350 miles per day.
  • Ever heard of a “tubenose” before? That’s the term birders and biologists use to describe albatrosses and their relatives (petrels, shearwaters, fulmars, and storm-petrels). These birds have a pair of bony tubes above or inside the bill that excrete salt—allowing these ocean-going birds to drink seawater without becoming dehydrated.
  • Albatrosses’ amazing size and graceful flight led sailors to regard them as good luck. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a crewmember foolishly shoots an albatross, setting off a string of terrible misfortunes.
  • When the wind is calm, albatrosses have trouble taking off. They typically need to face into the wind and run along the ground or water’s surface, wings spread, to take off; or to launch themselves from a high point.
  • The Laysan Albatross gets its name from its Laysan breeding colony in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where it is the second most common seabird.
  • Laysan Albatrosses live very long lives. They usually don’t start breeding successfully until they are 8 or 9. The oldest known individual was 65 years old, when she was identified in 2016 by the band on her leg while she was at her nest.

Habitat


Ocean

Laysan Albatrosses range across the northern Pacific Ocean from about the latitude of Costa Rica to the Aleutian Islands and southern Bering Sea. They tend to forage in colder, food-rich waters, although they have been found in waters ranging from about 35°F to 79°F. The birds nest on open, grassy or sandy expanses of islands—particularly Midway Atoll and Laysan Island (which together account for about 94 percent of breeding pairs), other small Hawaiian Islands, the larger islands of Kauai and Oahu, and a few sites off Mexico and Japan.

Food


Fish

Laysan Albatrosses eat mainly squid as well as fish eggs, crustaceans, floating carrion, and some discards from fishing boats. They feed by sitting on the water and plunging with their beaks to seize prey near the surface. Adults with chicks to feed take foraging trips that last up to 17 days and travel 1,600 miles away from their nest (straight-line distance).

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
4.3 in
10.8 cm
Egg Width
2.7 in
6.9 cm
Incubation Period
62–66 days
Nestling Period
165 days
Egg Description
Creamy white with brown spotting.
Condition at Hatching
Covered in gray-white down giving a salt-and-pepper appearance; eyes are open; weighing about 7 ounces.
Nest Description

On sandy islands such as Midway and Laysan, the female lies in the sand and scrapes out a hollow with her feet. By rotating around, she forms a circular depression, then gives the nest a low rim by assembling twigs, leaves, and sand picked up from the immediate area around the nest. On larger islands such as Kauai, Hawaii, the birds nest more often on grass or under trees and build the nest rim from leaf litter, ironwood needles, and twigs. The nest (including rim) is about 3 feet in diameter and a couple of inches deep. Often the female continues nest construction while incubation is under way.

Nest Placement

Ground

Females place their nests on sparsely vegetated ground, typically close to a small shrub if available.

Behavior


Soaring

The classic behavior of albatrosses is dynamic soaring—a flight style marked by very infrequent wingbeats and masterful soaring. The bird takes advantage of wind speed and direction changes at different heights to fly great distances with very slight alterations of their wing position. On the ground these big birds walk ponderously and usually have to run along the ground, into the wind, to be able to take off. Pairs tend to form lasting bonds. They return to the colony beginning in November, where they perform elaborate courtship displays. These include coordinated movements in which the birds touch bills, spread one or both wings, bob their heads, place their bill under one wing, and pause with their bill pointed at the sky. After mating, both birds leave the island, with the female returning first to lay a single egg. It can take up to a decade for a young albatross to successfully reproduce: 1-year-olds usually don’t return to the colony at all; 3- and 4-year-olds return to attempt breeding but usually are not successful until they are 9 or 10. They often breed in colonies alongside Black-footed Albatrosses. Introduced dogs, cats, rats, and mongoose threaten eggs, nestlings, and adult birds; on the water they are vulnerable to tiger sharks.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Near Threatened

Laysan Albatrosses are numerous, but as with all albatross species there are serious threats to their population, and this species is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. A 2009 estimate put the global breeding population at about 591,000 pairs, or just under 1.2 million breeding adults, with more than 90% of the total breeding at just two sites: Midway Atoll and Laysan Island. Laysan Albatross rates a 15 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan lists it as a Species of High Concern. In the early twentieth century hundreds of thousands of Laysan Albatrosses were hunted each year for their feathers. When feather hunting came to an end, in the early 1920s, the entire Laysan Albatross population was estimated at about 18,000 pairs. By the late 1950s it had rebounded to about 280,000 pairs and has doubled again since then, though it is still lower than pre-feather-hunting levels. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, albatrosses colonized Kauai and Oahu, and in 1983 they began nesting in small colonies on Mexican islands including Guadalupe Island. Fully 99 percent of Laysan Albatrosses nest on small, low-lying tropical islands, and these breeding areas will likely be submerged by rising sea levels as a result of climate change in this century—this is the major long-term threat to the Laysan Albatross. More immediate threats include introduced predators such as dogs, cats, rats, and mongoose; lead poisoning from paint chips on Midway, the largest single colony; bycatch in fisheries; and ingestion of plastics. Large losses occurred from gill nets and drift nets set to catch fish (drift netting killed up to 17,500 albatrosses per year, but ended in 1992). Longline fishing, in which ships tow many miles of line with baited hooks, still catches and kills thousands of albatrosses. Since the early 2000s, U.S. (Hawaii and Alaska) longliners have adopted fairly successful solutions to bycatch, but other nations’ longline fisheries have not. The oceans contain enormous amounts of floating plastic debris, which adults often pick up and feed to their chicks. This plastic can cause death by starvation or dehydration, puncture a bird’s digestive system, or leach harmful chemicals into their systems. Albatrosses take a long time to reach maturity and raise at most only one young per year, so populations take a long time to recover from any increases in adult death rates.

Credits

Range Map Help

Laysan Albatross Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Laysan Albatrosses leave their breeding grounds from July to October to forage across the northern Pacific Ocean; they tend to go northwest toward Japan and Alaska—one reason they are seen off the West Coast less commmonly than Black-footed Albatrosses.

Find This Bird

Laysan Albatrosses are pelagic birds of the open Pacific Ocean. Your best bet for finding one off the continental United States is to take a pelagic birding trip from the West Coast. Note that you are more likely to see Black-footed Albatrosses, but Laysan Albatrosses are fairly regularly seen as well. If you are in Hawaii, there are breeding populations on Oahu and Kauai where you can see the birds from land if you visit in the appropriate months (roughly November to July).

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