Coming undone

Opinion by Holly Moeller
Jan. 26, 2015, 9:35 p.m.

KAʻENA POINT, HAWAII: I can tell you exactly when I became infatuated with albatrosses. I was living in Boston, commuting to my internship at a biotech startup on the T and reading a book called “The Sea and the Ice” by Louis J. Halle. I spent 40 minutes, each way, accompanying the naturalist on what was (to me) a dream journey from New Zealand to Antarctica.

Halle wrote of a stop the ship made on a Southern Ocean island populated by a colony of albatross. Having read that albatrosses have an extra joint in their wing, he approached a nestling, picked it up, and stretched out its wing. His reading was correct: In addition to the wing joints at elbow and wrist that all birds possess, this chick had a third at its knuckle, allowing it to fold its extra-long wings compactly along its back.

I suppose you can blame my awestruck response to this story on the fact that I’m a biologist. But really, the albatross is an amazing bird. It spends the vast majority of its time aloft, skimming the surface of some of the ocean’s roughest waters, and may not return to land for up to 6 years in one stretch. During its brief time on land at breeding colonies, though, its story is worthy of the most hopeless romantic: birds pair off after months, or even years, of intricate courtship and remain loyal to those pair bonds for decades, despite seeing each other only once every year or two.

Despite my fascination, this visit to  Kaʻena Point State Park marks only the second time I’ve seen albatross in person. That’s because it is a rare privilege to see these birds on land also occupied by humans. We humans, of course, pose a direct threat (Kaʻena used to be an off-roading playground). But we also have companions, friends (dogs and cats) and pests (rats and mice; mongooses and possums) that delight in feasting on eggs and chicks.

For the albatross, exquisitely evolved for life at sea yet completely unaccustomed to sharing its nesting grounds with predatory mammals, this is a lethal combination. So places like Kaʻena Point lost their albatross, their other seabirds, their native plants and, along with it, their wildness.

But now, some of this wildness is returning.

At Kaʻena Point, I am witnessing both the vow renewals of early-arriving albatross pairs and an astounding natural recovery. Four years ago, the government completed installation of a predator-proof fence, a 6-foot-high, half-mile-long fine mesh screen, embedded in the ground so tiny mammals can’t burrow underneath, and capped by smooth metal so that they can’t scramble over top. Humans can still enter through double-gated entryways. And of course, the birds can still wing in and out at will.

Within a year of the fence’s completion, scientists reported dramatic increases in colony size and nesting success. Today, walking through the 60-acre enclosure feels like getting a glimpse of ancient, pre-human Hawaii. There are even endangered Hawaiian monk seals snoozing peacefully on the beaches.

This fence, the first installed in Hawaii, was inspired by dozens of others in New Zealand, including one protecting a Southern Royal  albatross colony. It won’t be the last: First Wind completed a similar fence a year ago on Maui as a wind farm mitigation project.

In some cases, like where they’ve defended seabird colonies, these fences have been successes. That’s because seabirds don’t ask for much on land: just a clear spot to leave their eggs while they forage from the sea. It’s far harder to protect, say, forest birds, which need a larger area to support a sustainable population. In New Zealand, some scientists argue that it’s better to relocate bird populations to isolated, predator-free offshore islands, instead.

What it comes down to – what it always comes down to – are the relative costs. The Kaʻena Point fence cost a cool $290,000. That’s actually cheap compared to the budget of other conservation projects. And on a blustery off-season Tuesday, the park was nonetheless full of human visitors who clearly appreciated the investment. Even more appreciative are the breeding birds, whose numbers swell year after year. This re-established colony gives the birds one more foothold for survival.

Such success stories won’t be echoed everywhere. On a planet with 7 billion humans and counting, wild places are necessarily eroding in the face of human need, despite the activism of conservation interests. For every bird colony fenced by a first world nation, millions of acres of rainforest will be cut down in developing countries. For every bird colony fenced by a first world nation, millions of acres of rainforest will be cut down in developing countries. Still, it’s nice to know that at least a few places can still be restored, and that the handiwork of mankind can come undone.

Contact Holly Moeller at hollyvm ‘at’ 

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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