It’s mid-February on Kauaʻi, long past time the two albatross eggs in a nest should have hatched. I know the truth of these eggs, and my heart aches for these two diligent birds who will see another year go by without a downy ball of fluff bursting from its egg home. Like them, I’ve dropped a number of eggs in my lifetime. One managed to get fertilized but didn’t stick.
I pass by every week, noting which parent sits on the nest. One week, it’s KP747, a female. A couple weeks later, it’s KP708, another female, returned from filling up on squid far out at sea. By the first of March, the two are still dutifully alternating shifts, awaiting a chick that doesn’t exist. This steadfast devotion is one reason albatross have become my favorite bird.
Birding runs in the family. My mother’s favorite bird was the Canada goose, once nearly hunted to extinction where she grew up on a farm outside St. Louis. My grandmother’s favorite the Northern cardinal. From Tennessee, she called them redbirds. As a child growing up in a suburb of Chicago, my favorite was an American robin. In grade school, I remember carving a linoleum block of this large songbird—its round body, long tail, and orange belly—and made prints as Christmas gifts.
When I celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary at 30, my doctor asked about children. Did I want them? How many? Why was I waiting?
I wanted children. I grew up planning to have them. I married thinking we’d have kids. Two, maybe three. I took my husband’s name, so our family would all share the same identity.
At 36, Eric and I moved to Hawaii, where we’d honeymooned. Without 80-hour work weeks and the stress of running a fledgling business, we hoped maybe I’d get pregnant. We sold a four-bedroom house, gave away most of our belongings, and put the rest in a 10-x-10-foot storage unit.
In Hawaii, there was much to do. We hiked miles of trails to hike into rainforests and bogs and arid canyons. I joined a canoe club and paddled in 42-mile races from one island to another. We snorkeled with manta rays, sharks, and eels. We celebrated New Year’s on a remote beach under the stars with ahi steaks seared over an open fire. And we tried to make a baby. But as we settled in to our island home, month after month, our hopes for a family ebbed away.
One day Eric passed me the newspaper and pointed to an article. “You’d like this,” he said. The headline read: Volunteers Wanted at Wildlife Refuge. That’s when I got to know albatross.
At 40, I started walking the coastline, recording data on albatross—the GPS coordinates of where they lay their eggs, the numbers on the bands circling their legs.
Laysan albatross are long-winged birds, graceful ballerinas in flight, males and females with air-brushed faces and engaging eyes. Everything about them is extreme. They fly the whole of the north Pacific Ocean, gliding up and over waves with just a tilt of their six-and-a-half-foot wings, soaring for days on a few flaps while sleeping “on the wing,” as ornithologists say. The oldest known living bird is a Laysan albatross. She’s 70. But the thing that really gets me is albatross devotion. They live independent lives at sea, but their devotion to their partners can last a lifetime. They show up every year on nearly the same day on the very same patch of ground to pair up and raise a chick. Their highly-evolved devotion extends to the egg in their nest, each taking incubation shifts that can last three weeks—three weeks of sitting in meditation, three weeks of no eating, no flying, no stepping away from the nest. Once the egg hatches, both parents will clock upwards of five-thousand-mile roundtrips, filling their bellies, returning to their chick to regurgitate a meal. After a few hours rest, they’ll head out to sea and do it all over again. And again. From mating to chick’s fledging, some nine months will have passed.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Laysan albatross—the species and individual birds, identified not only by the uniquely numbered bands ringing their legs but also by their behavior. I know KP803 and KP787 are usually the first to arrive, kicking off the November breeding season. That KP202 and O949 like to nest in the shade of an ironwood tree. Because females only lay one egg per year—an egg the size of a 12-ounce soda can—and there are two in their nest, I know KP747 and KP708 are a female-female pair.
Every year, I watch as these two females show up, scratch a nest cup out of dirt and leaves, and lay their eggs. Then, they take shifts, waiting for a chick to pip its way to freedom. But it never does. There are no chicks. The eggs aren’t fertilized.
At 55, I have no more eggs. No children, either.
By mid-March, the girls are still stoically tending their nest. Other nearby chicks are already a month old. “It’s okay to give up,” I encourage KP708. Her face has thinned. She needs to abandon her egg and head back out to sea to replenish her lost energy stores. After recording her band number in my yellow rite-in-the-rain field notebook, I take one last glance at this beautiful bird, her dark eyes like mine. But hers are punctuated by a streak of eyeliner à la Cleopatra and some of my favorite vintage Hollywood actresses.
Some of us don’t have children. And we live happy, satisfied lives.
The next time I walk by the nest, its eggs are exposed, punctuated with exclamation point-like leaves from a nearby ironwood tree. The dedicated albatross females have chosen life at sea, their true home, and I imagine them wings outstretched—and soaring.