Invasive Plant Threatens Seabirds

Laysan AlbatrossIt can be a fairly interesting process on how one finally comes around to composing a new post.  Sometimes creativity is just not in the cards or one has a smidge of writer’s block in which to contend.  For me, this week was nothing more than a culmination of both that began with the realization that a sudden trip to the Scripps Research Institute was in my future.  And my first thought as I was leaving the home front for a few days was that I still have a blank slate begging for words.

Perhaps it was the sunny beaches of San Diego or surfing the channels at the hotel that reminded me of a dire island situation keeping albatross from soaring the breezes.  Contrary to your initial thoughts, the blight is not humans, a predator, or a disease, but a plant.  That’s right; it’s an uncommon foe in the form of an invasive flowering shrub that has managed to take hold on the Kure Atoll, the furthest point comprising the Hawaiian Archipelago.

“The invasive non-native plant called Verbesina is encroaching on bird nests, inhibiting bird reproduction and pushing out native plant life. The seasonal workers spend many hours clearing weed-infested plots that are especially critical to albatrosses and boobies, two large birds that need both open space and wind to take off.”  Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources

Albatross FledglingSporting a 6-foot wingspan, the Laysan Albatross needs plenty of space to successfully take flight, and unfortunately the invasive shrub is limiting this much needed open real estate.  This overgrowth is effectively putting a stranglehold on the seabirds as nests and young are entwined within the plants and adults struggle to find a place to land.

According to NOAA, Kure Atoll “has ten thousand Laysan Albatross chicks raised every year, and with their parents and non-breeding adults, can altogether number 50,000.  When we add other species (Boobies, Tropic Birds, Terns, Petrels and Frigate birds, among others), we can find over a quarter of a million birds.”

Thus, with such an array of seabirds relying on the island for survival, restoration of the ecosystem is essential.  All in all there are approximately 40 acres of solid invasive shrub threatening native plants and animals.  Those open spaces that officials do create are swiftly used by the albatross as a landing and takeoff zone.  Even as officials work daily to uproot the shrubs and apply herbicides for control, it is estimated that it will take 10 years to eradicate the invasive plant from Kure.

Forest & Kim Starr
Photo credit: Forest & Kim Starr

About The Author

Scott serves as Director of Development & Communications for Audubon Canyon Ranch (focusing on preservation, education and conservation science) and has almost fifteen years of experience spanning for-profit and nonprofit sectors in biotech, wildlife conservation and management, communications, and philanthropy. In addition to a strong track record in organizational growth and leadership, he is the founder of Urban Bird Foundation and Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, and presided over ECHO Fund, a coastal protection and restoration organization, as President for four years. Scott holds an M.A. in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Sustainable Development and Policy, degrees in Micro & Molecular Biology and Environmental Sciences, and has complemented his studies with a Master's certificate in Environmental Resource Management.

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  1. Emily

    Albatrosses spend most of their lives in flight returning to land, frequently sub-Antarctic islands, to nest. One of the two primary threats to Southern Ocean seabirds relates to their foraging life at sea – bycatch on longlines and in trawls still kills many thousands of albatrosses and petrels each year. The second major threat comes while the birds are ashore from invasive species which destroy nesting habitat or feeding on eggs and defenceless young birds.

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