Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Thoughts on Albatrosses

On our trip to Hawaii, I had faint hopes of lifers, but one burning desire among the birds I wished to see most - I wanted to add an albatross to my life list. I had no true seabirds to my name, and in my eyes, the albatross - any albatross - is the pinnacle of pelagic birding.

For five days as our cruise ship sailed toward the islands, I scoured the horizon several times a day, hoping for one of these birds that I know spend their lives well out to sea, but to no avail. Then in Hawaii, at a new port of call each day, I scoured the coasts hoping to see one soaring above the cliffs and beaches, but nothing then either.

It seemed like seeing an albatross was to be an unfulfilled wish of this trip, until we docked in Kauai, our third port of call. That day, we'd planned a tour that included a visit to Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge, a recognized bird sanctuary. I spent a great deal of effort to keep my hopes grounded, but within moments of entering the refuge's grounds, they took flight.

First, it was the nene - several of these endemic geese were lounging about the roadways, casually watching the van pass by. Then, it was the red-footed booby colony - a tremendous cliff snow-covered in their white plumage and fluttering. But within seconds, a great shadow passed above me, and there it was - an albatross.

To be rendered speechless in the field is quite a feat, but there you have it. I could only stare at the bird's gracefulness, its speed, its sleek plumage, its dramatic air. And its proximity - there was one point where it couldn't have been more than 20 feet above me. I fumbled clumsily with my field guide to confirm the wing patterns as the Laysan albatross (already my suspicion based on color and range), and tried for a few minutes to get a photo, but I was wholly unprepared for the bird's intense speed. When the wings don't flap and the bird appears imperturbable, you don't realize just how fast it goes when soaring on wind currents - while there's no mistaking the views I got, they were only fleeting. Instead, I contented myself with a photo of the informational sign overlooking the coast, the only photo I could manage and the only time the bird was still enough for better than an awed glimpse. But bird or not, it stands as proof that I was there - I saw an albatross.

That shadow, the bird's elegance, the brief encounter I had on a tour that was all too short - these are birding moments I'll never forget, and those feelings are something I need to remember more: the discovery, the excitement, the amazement, the sheer joy.

This is why I bird.

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