Laysan Albatross

(Phoebastria immutabilis
Hawaiian Name: Mōlī
laysan albatross pair
Pair of Laysan Albatross on Kaua’i (photo by Andre F. Raine)

The Laysan Albatross is the most numerous of the three North Pacific albatrosses, and the second most numerous Hawaiian seabird. The Laysan Albatross breeds in large numbers across all of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, as well as small populations on Kauaʻi and Oʻahu. Its population was estimated at 2.5 million individuals in 1990, with the largest breeding colony being on Midway Island, consisting of 400,000 breeding pairs . Populations of Laysan Albatross continue to increase due to protection at its primary breeding grounds in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. These recent population increases have led to establishment of new breeding colonies in the Bonin Islands off Japan, Wake Atoll, and multiple islands off the northwest coast of Mexico. Colonies have tried and failed to establish on most of the other Southeastern Hawaiian Islands. Despite the expanding population, they are still susceptible to entanglement in fishing lines and plastic ingestion, which killed an estimated 15,000 birds in 1990. The species is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List.

The white and brown plumage and large size make it an easy bird to identify, and readily separate it from the all-dark Black-footed Albatross. The impressive 6 foot wingspan allows this bird to fly almost effortlessly across the ocean, where they range as far as the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea, Japan, California, and Mexico.

laysan albatross in flight
Laysan Albatross in flight at Lehua Islet

In Hawaiʻi this species is easiest to see on Kauaʻi, where a visit to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge any time between November and July will usually produce Laysan Albatrosses soaring around the refuge, where there is a recently established and expanding colony. Small colonies are also found in Princeville and the Pacific Missle Firing Range on Kauaʻi, and Kaʻena Point on Oʻahu. Laysan Albatross are also occasionally seen from shore from all the Southeastern Hawaiian Islands from November through April, but are completely absent from July through October.

Laysan Albatross breed in massive dense colonies on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (see the photo below) where they form monogamous pair bonds for a the breeding season. This species often will not start breeding until they are 8 or 9 years old, and will live for up to 60 years! When Laysan Albatross for pair bonds during their first few breeding seasons, they perform an elaborate dance between 2 or 3 individuals, which consists of 25 different dance moves. Both partners must perform it correctly for the pair to establish. However, some apparently do get it wrong, since there are a few records of Laysan pairing with Black-footed Albatrosses and producing hybrid young. In the photo below from Midway Island, see if you can find the Black-footed Albatrosses hiding amongst the many Laysan Albatrosses. We counted fourteen, but we may have missed a few!