First Short-tailed Albatross Chick Born Outside Japan Survives Tsunami and Fledges
|Far removed from Tokyo’s hustle and bustle, I find myself in the sort of situation one rarely associates with Japan: dangling by a rope with my face pressed against cool granite, my nose filled with hot sulfur fumes from an active volcano looming above. The second-to-last thing I expect in this vegetation-free moonscape is to hear a cow. The very last thing I expect is to hear an entire herd of them.
Below me white beasts lumber about a steep hillside, mooing, delivering food to their young, and then flying out to sea for more. It’s decidedly un-cowlike behavior but typical for the largest and most endangered seabird in the Northern Hemisphere, the short-tailed albatross, or what we scientists call shorties. Birds that, as you have probably guessed, sometimes sound like a bunch of cows. Loose volcanic ash fills my shoes as we skate down a scree field and through a notch in the 300-foot-high walls that stand between the steaming volcano’s vent and the world’s largest colony of short-tailed albatross.
Torishima (tori means "bird," shima means "island"), a dark, jagged hulk of volcanic rock belonging to Japan, is a product of Mount Iwoyama's outpouring. The island rises from the Pacific Ocean, 360 miles southeast of Tokyo. About 160 years ago its upper slopes were frosted white with breeding short-tailed albatross. Some say a million; others, five million. Either way there were enough to make this subtropical volcanic peak look like it was dusted with snow. But while shorties may look like snowflakes from a distance, up close what you notice first is two handfuls of bubblegum-pink bird beak. The adults’ heads are awash with gold. Their white wings with bold black epaulettes suggest a display of military rank when they take wing.
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