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Researchers hope this black-footed albatross chick, settling in on Guadalupe Island, will return here to breed.

© GECI/J.A. Soriano

‘They were destined to drown’: How scientists found these seabirds a new island home

On the morning of 16 June, Snowflake spread its wings and let the strong, cold wind of Guadalupe Island help it take a first flight away from its nest. But this was not the first time the young black-footed albatross had soared above the North Pacific Ocean: Five months before, as an egg, Snowflake had been flown more than 6000 kilometers on a commercial airline—in economy plus seating—from Midway Atoll northwest of Hawaii to the remote Guadalupe Island in Mexico.

Snowflake’s own flight, just 3 days before World Albatross Day, marked a milestone in a binational project of the United States and Mexico, aimed at keeping the birds safe from the rising sea levels that threaten their survival. On Midway, they “were destined to drown,” says Julio Hernández Montoya, a conservation biologist with the nonprofit Island Ecology and Conservation Group (GECI, for Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas), who helped lead the effort.

Now, with nesting sites on higher ground, the albatross will be more resilient to environmental threats, says Axel Moehrenschlager of the Calgary Zoo. “One of the things that’s really, crucially wonderful is that you’re putting more eggs in more baskets,” he says. Moehrenschlager, who chairs the translocation specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), calls the project “potentially groundbreaking.” Three projects have moved albatrosses within the United States and Japan. But this first transfer of a seabird species between nations “is exactly the type of approach that we need on a global level,” he says.

He and other conservation scientists caution that translocations are not first-line interventions for saving species—but sometimes, they are the only option. In the past 30 years, he notes, there has been a 30-fold increase in translocations of species ranging from corals to elephants.

Albatrosses, top predators in the ocean’s food chain, can spend years without touching land and fly thousands of kilometers in search of food. But they return every year to mate and nest in the islands where they were born. About 95% of the world’s black-footed albatrosses (Phoebastria nigripes) nest in the Hawaiian islands; Midway Atoll, in a remote part of the state, is home to close to 21,600 breeding pairs, about one-third of the global breeding population.

These 3-kilogram seabirds nest on low-lying sandy beaches—vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. During a 2011 tsunami, 30,000 albatross nests were lost on three atolls, says Eric VanderWerf, a bird biologist with the nonprofit Pacific Rim Conservation. IUCN lists the seabirds, as well as their close cousin, the Laysan albatross, as near-threatened. A 2015 study estimated that a 2-meter sea level rise and storm waves—possible in the next century under many climate change scenarios—would flood up to 91% of black-footed albatross nests on the Eastern Island of Midway Atoll.

“It is alarming that the rate of habitat loss could really impact them,” says Michelle Hester, a seabird biologist at Oikonos, a nonprofit that studies Pacific ecosystems.

VanderWerf teamed up with colleagues from GECI to move black-footed albatross eggs and chicks from Midway to Guadalupe Island, a reserve some 260 kilometers off Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula where the species and other seabirds once nested. The Mexican nonprofit has been working on the island for the past 20 years to eradicate invasive species, first removing nearly 50,000 goats and then eliminating nearly 1500 feral cats. Their removal “completely changed the island from a moonscape to a lush, verdant recovering island,” says Brad Keitt, a seabird biologist with the American Bird Conservancy who is not involved in the project.

Hernández Montoya’s team had previously tried to get black-footed albatrosses to nest on the island by attracting them with decoys and recorded courtship sounds, but none that visited settled in. At a meeting in 2016 on Oahu, scientists from Pacific Rim and GECI got the idea of reestablishing a new colony in the Mexican island by moving the birds’ eggs and chicks before they imprinted on their Hawaiian location; once imprinted, the birds would return there to breed. VanderWerf’s team had already successfully relocated black-footed and Laysan albatrosses’ eggs and chicks from Midway to Oahu, a higher island in Hawaii. (The two species live and nest close to each other, have somewhat similar behaviors, and face the same environmental threats, including sea level rise and plastics pollution.)

Snowflake, one of the black-footed albatross fledglings born in Guadalupe Island, took wing for the first time on 16 June.

© GECI/J.A. Soriano

Meanwhile, on Guadalupe, Hernández Montoya’s team had been monitoring a growing native colony of Laysan albatrosses, keeping it safe from remaining feral cats on a fenced-off, predator-free peninsula. “The idea [of transporting the birds across the Pacific] was a little bit wild,” VanderWerf says. Whereas Midway is tropical and hot, Guadalupe is high, dry, and rocky, but “The albatross don’t care,” he says. “They can do fine in either one.”

After years of planning, dozens of permits from both countries, half a million dollars in funding from several nongovernmental organizations, and extra complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, the teams finally chose 21 black-footed albatross eggs from Midway in January and flew them to Honolulu; San Diego; Tijuana, Mexico; and finally to Guadalupe Island. After a 4-hour all-terrain vehicle ride and a 30-minute hike to the island’s southern tip, they met their foster parents: experienced Laysan albatross pairs whose eggs had not been fertilized or had broken. Eighteen Midway eggs hatched in February.

The new parents fed and cared for their adopted offspring, but there’s no guarantee the young black-footed albatrosses will learn behaviors specific to their species, such as courtship behavior. But that appears to be innate. To encourage natural behavior, the team planted decoys and played recorded black-footed albatross vocalizations.

Worried about how well Laysan parents would care for the imported eggs, the team repeated the journey across the Pacific in February with 12 1-month-old, fluffy black-footed chicks. Nine reached the island safely. GECI’s team hand-reared them and again exposed the chicks to decoys and recorded vocalizations of their species. Scientists monitor the chicks daily until their ash-gray fluff gives way to adult feathers and they fly away; so far, three have done so. Previous research showed that 93% of hand-reared albatross chicks fledged, although there are no data yet on breeding success.

Hester notes that artificially forming a new seabird colony is difficult and has rarely been accomplished. Translocating birds is “a specialized skill,” she says, and the work may offer lessons for projects on other birds. “Albatrosses are a really good species to start with,” she says, because they tolerate people, nest on land, and take fostering well.

This project’s international cooperation sets a precedent, Keitt says. “That was a big, bold step made by governments and regulatory agencies.”

So far, the team is thrilled. “This was a complicated project,” VanderWerf says. “Doing all that in the midst of the pandemic … I still can’t believe we did it.” The effort “was quite a feat,” Hernández Montoya says. “It fills us with astonishment and joy.”

VanderWerf says the teams are talking about moving other seabirds, perhaps the black-vented shearwater and Leach’s storm petrel, to Guadalupe or other Mexican islands that had been “a seabird paradise” until invasive predators arrived. With those predators gone, the islands “have a lot of potential.”

As the rest of Snowflake’s fellows take wing, the team is planning to bring 80 more black-footed albatross eggs to Guadalupe Island in the next few years. But they won’t know how well the project works until Snowflake and the rest of the first batch return in 5 years to start looking for mates. “It will be an important moment when those birds come back,” VanderWerf says.