It is hard to grasp the scale of the disaster that is unfolding in Japan this past week. Images of the quake and the following tsunami are haunting as we've watched them in real time. One video I found especially poignent was taken by a fellow who just arrived in Japan to film the dolphin hunt. Not so much because of the images of the tsunami ripping apart the town, but for the film of people as they drove through town to high ground. Images of people who may no longer exist.
It seems strange, what with all the human death and devastated land and continuing danger and problems in Japan, to talk about the Tsunami's effect on some birds four thousand kilometres away from the epicentre. So first I'm going to point you to some places you can help. Money to help with the relief efforts for Japan can be sent to a number of humanitarian organizations. The CBC has compiled several links that can be found here. I'll also point you to the International Medical Corps, who are not listed on that page. Japan needs our help, it seems strange to see reports of people starving at a hospital in a economic powerhouse like Japan. But the damage is so extensive and the infrastructure so broken that even basic needs can not make it to the affected areas.
The tsunami that inflicted the most damage on Japan also raced across the Pacific Ocean, not to the same effect but still causing damage to places like Hawaii. Part way between Japan and Hawaii lie the Midway Islands, some 4,000 kilometres from the epicentre. These are mostly low lying islands/atolls that are most famous as the location of a major battle in the Battle of the Pacific during the Second World War. Nowadays they are better known as the sites of major seabird colonies, including large colonies of Laysan Albatross. One of those birds is the oldest known living bird, a sixty year old named Wisdom, who had just hatched her 35th chick.
About four hours after the events in Japan the tsunami reached Midway. It washed over the atolls, indundating some sixty percent of the second largest island, East Island. The breeding populations on the island were flooded, some washed into the sea, some buried or trapped in debris. The petrals which nest there nest in burrows, and many of them were buried in their burrows. Wisdom survived.
Ironically a very rare albatross, the Short-tailed Albatross is a part of this story. Only about 2,400 breeding pairs of this bird exist. They were almost completely wiped out from commercial hunting in the early part of the 20th century. It is estimated that some 10 million birds were killed in the hunt. By the late 1940s they disappeared completely from their breeding colonies and were declared extinct.
But albatross are a slow maturing bird, not reaching breeding age until they are 15-20 years old. And they spend all of their time, apart from breeding, at sea. After they had been declared extinct juvenile birds that had been at sea began maturing and returned to the one remaining breeding colony. The population slowly returned from perhaps as few as fifty individuals to the present population.
Now I said ironically and the reason for that is that Short-tailed Albatross bred in Japan. The last refuge for them was an island called Torishima. Now one of the biggest threats to having a lone breeding colony on Torishima is that it is an active volcano. And while one vent continues to erupt underwater in the caldera it also erupts on land, the last eruption being in 2002.
So to protect the species from being wiped out in a volcanic eruption another population was established on another Japanese island, Minami-kojima, an little island of under a half of a square kilometre. It now hosts about 400 pairs of Short-tailed Albatross, an important second population should a volcanic disaster wipe out the population on Torishima.
To further try and establish more breeding colonies decoys were placed on other north pacific islands, and Short-tailed Albatross calls were broadcast. On Kure Atoll (an atoll just beyond Midway and strangely a part of the City of Honolulu) a homosexual pairing of two female Short-tailed Albatross established a nest since 2010, but the eggs were infertile (female/female pairing is not uncommon in other albatross species and they have raised fertile eggs and chicks through breeding with male birds).
This season saw the first Short-tailed Albatross successful nest outside of Japan on Midway Island. Attracted by the decoys a pair established a nest, and successful hatched a chick. When the tsunami hit it also washed over this nest, sending the chick about 40 metres away. Volunteers have put it back near its nest.
Tens of thousands of nests were affected by the tsunami at Midway (and no doubt at Kure as well). Pete Leary is a US Fish and Wildlife employee on Midway. He writes a blog on his experience, at Pete at Midway. You can read about the tsunami and its impact on the bird colonies there. He's posted a number of photos there as well.