Rare albatross dies despite rehab efforts

LYNNWOOD — A short-tailed albatross that died while undergoing rehabilitation here is being used to further research on the rare species.

Three fishermen rescued the large seabird last month in Neah Bay on the northwest coast of Washington.

The young female albatross had flown more than 5,500 miles across the North Pacific Ocean from Torishima, Japan, a small volcanic island south of Tokyo. It was banded by researchers there as a chick in March.

“To our knowledge, this is the first short-tailed albatross that has been rescued and taken to rehabilitation on the West Coast,” said Brent Lawrence, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Portland, Oregon. “So around here, it’s a new experience and an opportunity for research.”

Bud Sharp, of Silvana, was at sea fishing for salmon with his son, Cliff Sharp, of Sprague, and brother Dave Sharp, of Camano Island, when they spotted the albatross Aug. 14.

“It just happened to be swimming alongside us and it looked like it might be in trouble,” he said.

Sharp, 92, scooped the bird up and carried her on his lap to shore. He handed her off to a NOAA Fisheries research biologist who took the animal to get emergency treatment.

Staff at PAWS in Lynn- wood worked to save the albatross, but she died Aug. 30.

The Progressive Animal Welfare Society sees about 260 different species each year, Wildlife Director Jennifer Convy said, but the short-tailed albatross was a first for everyone on staff.

“This may be the only short-tailed albatross any of us ever sees or works on,” said the 20-year veteran of wildlife rehabilitation. “These are shy birds in the wild so it’s unlikely that you and I would ever see one.”

There are only about 4,400 short-tailed albatross in the world. The seabirds are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. They typically live off the coast of Japan and Alaska but young birds occasionally fly along the West Coast.

When the bird arrived at PAWS on Aug. 15 she was dehydrated and emaciated. Her webbed feet had holes and sores.

Staff made protective booties for the animal to make it less painful to walk and easier to keep the wounds clean.

“They aren’t very graceful walkers,” Convy said.

The bird’s leg had been broken and healed a few months before her rescue. Staff couldn’t determine how she was injured but they believe it added to the bird’s poor health.

Plastic was found in the bird’s stomach and Convey wanted to remind people not to litter. Albatross and other seabirds face threats from ingesting plastic and becoming entangled in garbage.

The albatross was eating squid and gained a pound and a half while she was at PAWS. She weighed 7.5 pounds when she died. Her wings spanned about seven feet.

Convy said PAWS staff aren’t sure why the seabird died. Laboratory work to determine the cause of death may take several weeks.

Bone, blood, tissue, feathers and some internal organ samples are now being studied. A taxidermist will prepare the bird for use as a teaching tool.

The young bird was grey and brown but her feathers would have turned white as it aged. Adults have a white back, black and white wings and a white head with light gold that extends to the back of their necks.

People can identify young and old short-tailed albatross from other albatross by their large bubblegum-pink bills.

Convy said PAWS staff learned a lot about the species while caring for her. They observed the behavior, feeding preferences and defensive instincts of the short-tailed albatross.

Convy was surprised by how tolerant the creature was despite the trauma of having people work on her. “Not nice, not nice at all, but definitely tolerant,” she said. “She was a biter.”

The experience may help rehabilitate other birds in the future, Convy said.

The number of short-tailed albatross are increasing in the Pacific Northwest and is expected to continue to rise.

The birds were almost hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. Their feathers and body parts were highly prized for hats, decorative items and ink pen quills.

By 1949, they were thought to be extinct until a few birds returned to their nesting territories on Torishima, which means “bird island.” The short-tailed albatross is revered in Japan, Alaska and some other cultures.

To learn more about the bird, go to bit.ly/1QLXyGv.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @AmyNileReports

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