The Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) is a large seabird that ranges across the North Pacific. This small albatross is the second most common seabird in the Hawaiian Islands, with an estimated population of 2.5 million birds, and is currently expanding (or possibly re-expanding) its range to new islands. It is named for Laysan, one of its breeding colonies in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The Laysan Albatross is easy to identify. In the North Pacific it is simple to separate from the other relatively common albatross, the all black Black-footed Albatross. It can be distinguished from the very rare Short-tailed Albatross by its all dark back and smaller size. The Laysan Albatross’ plumage has been compared to that of a gull, two-tone with a dark gray mantle and wings, and white underside and head.
Behaviour and range
The Laysan Albatross has a wide range across the North Pacific. Its main breeding colonies are located in the Hawaiian Islands, particularly the islands of Midway and Laysan. It also nests in the Bonin Islands near Japan, and has recently begun to colonize islands off Mexico, such as Guadalupe Island. When not breeding they range widely from Japan to Alaska and down to California, but usually far offshore.
The Laysan Albatross nests in colonies on scattered small islands and atolls, often in huge numbers. They also have a protracted breeding cycle. Young birds return to the colony three years after fledging, but will not mate for the first time until they are seven or eight years old. Over these four or five years they form pair bonds with a mate that they will keep for life. Courtship entails especially elaborate ‘dances’ that have up to 25 ritualized movements.
Both birds incubate the single egg for about 65 days, with the male being the first to incubate the egg. After incubation the chick is brooded for a few days, after which both parents are out at sea to provision for the growing chick. The chick takes about 160 days to fledge, a long investment for the parents (which may explain the long courtship, both parents want to sure the other is serious). The chicks are fed an oil from the parents stomach.
The Laysan Albatross, while a common species, has not yet recovered from the wide-scale hunting that happened in the early 1900s, with feather hunters killing many hundreds of thousands, and wiping them out from Wake Island and Johnston Atoll. This slaughter led to efforts to protect the species (and others) which led eventually to the protection of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The species is still vulnerable to long-line fisheries, and the ingestion of floating plastics. On some of the new islands it has colonized it has also been taken by feral cats.