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February 1, 2022

The Bird Banding Lab finalizes work on a 20-year-old project to build a complete dataset of all banded and resighted pacific albatrosses. This dataset spans 80 years and covers the efforts of the monitoring program initiated in 2001 to assess the Black-footed and Laysan Albatross population. This collaborative project between USGS and FWS resulted in a curated dataset of 1 million records.

A USFWS Biologist holds a set of bird bands and pliers and, finishes banding a Black-footed Albatross while another man crouches to release the bird.
Jon Plissner (USFWS Biologist) bands a Black-footed Albatross on Midway Atoll, Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Albatrosses are widely known to be some of the most imperiled seabirds in the world today. Because of their nomadic nature, colonial nesting habits and foraging methods they face serious threats from habitat loss, oceanic plastic pollution, and conflicts with the commercial fishing industry. As a result of these perils, two species, the Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) and the Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), have been listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and listed as a bird of conservation concern by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Both species were considered for listing by the USFWS under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses occupy a wide range across the North Pacific with the vast majority inhabiting the area around the Northwest Pacific Hawaiian Islands. These pelagic seabirds spend most of their lives at sea thus making comprehensive population studies restricted to the few months they spend on land in colonies during their nesting period. The majority of these two populations reside in large nesting colonies on Midway Atoll, French Frigate Shoals, and Laysan Island.

Although the official Endangered Species designation was not determined in 2000, the review process outlined a specific need for more analysis including species specific population demographic parameters. With these questions in mind, the USFWS initiated an intensive monitoring program in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands for both species. Because previous efforts were minimal and incomplete, the goal of this program was to complete a comprehensive dataset to assess these threats and identify management strategies should the threats prove substantial. This project has been an emblematic example of Department of Interior’s inter-agency cooperation which includes the USGS Colorado Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, USFWS Migratory Birds & Habitat Program, USGS-Bird Banding Laboratory, USFWS Pacific Islands Refuges and Monuments Office

The US Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory at the Eastern Ecological Science Center has been an integral partner of this project since its inception in 2001. As part of the data management team, the lab’s role has been to locate, digitize, review, and store all known banding and recapture records for these two species. These records would then be incorporated into a dataset used to analyze several demographic parameters of Laysan and Black-footed Albatross populations including reproductive success and individual survival. Individual survival can be measured by recording which individuals (identified by bands) return to the colony year after year.   

Long-term datasets are required to measure changes in long-lived populations. The Bird Banding Lab was uniquely positioned to curate such a dataset due to the existing albatross banding records within its archive dating back to the first albatrosses banded in 1937 by FC Hadden on Midway Atoll. Because these species routinely live longer than 30 years and have their bands replaced due to wear, the Bird Banding Lab was able to connect the historical records with the data from the constant monitoring efforts that began in 2002. The result is a long-term comprehensive dataset spanning more than 80 years.  

In 2021, the Bird Banding Laboratory reached an important milestone: completion of its curation work with the albatross records. The culmination of this 20-year effort has resulted in a dataset of bandings and recaptures reaching more than 1 million records now stored within in the lab’s archives. Notably, this work discovered the oldest known banded bird in the wild, Wisdom, a female Laysan Albatross who is at least 70 years old. Most recently, this work also discovered the newest longevity record for Black-footed Albatross, an individual at least 62 years old.  

In September 2020, the data management team was recognized for its efforts and was awarded a USFWS Inventory and Monitoring Regional Data Management Award. This annual award recognized the leadership and sound data management practices of the team. In addition to staff from the US Fish and Service, USGS Bird Banding Laboratory team members Jennifer McKay and Matthew Rogosky were also recipients of this award.

The Bird Banding Laboratory has completed its curation work with the dataset. Next steps include scientific analysis and demographic modeling work by the USGS Colorado Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Statisticians at the USGS Colorado Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Statisticians at the USGS Colorado Co-op will analyze the dataset to assess population level demographic parameters such as reproductive success and individual survival with the goal to provide recommendations on the future of the monitoring program, the population status of each species, and potential official listing as endangered species.

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