Haulani at nest two

Kauaʻi Albatross, 2016

posted in: Birds, Photography | 0

I’ve been a volunteer with Cornell’s Kauaʻi Albatross Cam since its first season in 2014, but I live in Seattle, so I didn’t see an albatross in person until a trip to Kauaʻi in April 2016. I was walking the manicured streets of Princeville with my husband and another cam volunteer when she pointed to an adult Laysan albatross soaring overhead. There it was, my first albatross! I was downright giddy. My second came moments later: a fluffy chick named Kirwan, sleeping in a front yard. (Read all about Kirwan and more Princeville albatross here: My Albatross Diary.)


two adult albatross in Princeville, Kauai
Two adult albatross in Princeville, Kauai.


We saw additional fluffy chicks and sleek adults on our stroll through Princeville, then later that day a KAN (Kauaʻi Albatross Network) volunteer made my dreams come true with a trip to the current cam site. As in previous years, our cam site is on private land, generously made available by an anonymous Kauaʻi landowner. Out of respect for the owner, the birds and our cam viewers we kept our visit short.

Each of our chicks was in their usual spot: Honua in the lawn beyond the “art rock,” Kialoa near the step at the other end of the building, Haulani in the trees at cool, shady nest two. We saw adults, too, including frequent visitor A381 who circled joyfully overhead in the breeze before coming in for a landing. Honua looked back at us curiously with those big dark eyes, strolled and stretched. Haulani sat up and cocked his/her head.  Kialoa sat peacefully and kept an eye on the neighborhood.


Honua sitting up
Honua greeted us as we arrived on site.


Haulani at nest two
Haulani rested in the greenery at nest two.


Kialoa sat on the lawn near the step.


An albatross flies overhead
An albatross flew overhead. Capturing a photo of one of these swift birds in flight is easier said than done.


There I was, seeing our downy celebrities in person. I didn’t beg for an autograph although it was tempting. I fell in love with the birds on cam and face to face they were just as magnificent. It was a true joy to see them. I felt like I won the lottery.

There is a part of me that wishes these albatross could understand how special they are to me (and to many other albatross lovers in the world), but a wiser part recognizes that it is better for all albatross simply to be albatross, without being weighed down by human wishes, interactions or expectations. It’s our job to appreciate them and to learn from them, not the other way around. They’ve already got more than enough to learn without worrying about what humans are up to. What is squid and where do I find it? How do these wings work? How does this landing gear work?


Adult albatross A381 comes in for a landing, feet down.
A381 comes in for a landing.


Because of the albatross cam, people all over the world can observe Laysan albatross behavior daily from hatching to fledging without ever troubling the birds. The handful of people that do enter their sphere do so with great care, always mindful of the birds’ well-being. I can’t thank KAN and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology enough for putting the Laysan albatross cam together and giving us all this opportunity.


Honua walks toward the photographer
Honua goes for a stroll.


An thank you to the Laysan albatross for being themselves: fluffy and feathered, loving, goofy, gentle and wild.

Before my plane touched down again in Seattle I’d finished reading a brand-new copy of Holi Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors by KAN founder Hob Osterlund. It is a book about both albatross and human experience, moving as poetry. Beautiful. I teared up on the plane, but that was ok. I highly recommend the book!

Iʻm back to Seattle and daily viewing of our cam chicks. I’ll be drawing a map of the cam site now that I’ve seen it in hopes that it will help our viewers understand the area too. Chances are good that I’ll come up with some additional ‘tross art as well! I still can’t get enough of these birds.

Kauai albatross cam map 2015 by rowntreestudio.com

Albatross Season is Here!

Once again the Laysan albatross have gathered to breed on the north shores of Kauaʻi, and once again the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is running a live camera at a good nest site. Iʻm very excited to be volunteering again this year as a cam operator. Weʻve got two nests visible this year plus chicks at two other nests, on site but off view.

I’m torn between going on and on about these incredible birds and just handing you the cam link and telling you to check them out yourself. (Here it is! http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/41/Laysan_Albatross/) They start off as adorable fluffy chicks and over five months grow into elegant birds with seven-foot wing spreads, graceful in the air and a little goofy strolling on land. They are tranquil and affectionate but real show-offs when it’s courtship time.

Since we have multiple nests in view this year we thought it would be helpful for volunteers and the public to have a map of the area. We wanted to protect the anonymity of the site (which is private property) while still making key elements of the site clear. We also talked about making it a book-style map like you might find in the end papers of a fantasy or children’s story. It sounded like an interesting project and a bit different than my usual work so I took it on.

Cam map rough draft rowntreestudio.com
A very rough early map.

We started off by building a clear understanding of the site through very rough maps. I was lucky enough to visit the site last summer while on vacation but alas I’m very far away from it now. Volunteers on site help with photos and explanations to make the layout clear so I could start drawing.

I knew I wanted to use watercolor with ink lettering in the final piece but after experimenting with that I decided to do ink illustrations for the whole thing with watercolor added. Rather than draw out the whole thing perfectly I drew all the elements, sometimes taking a few tries to get something right, then scanned the drawings and assembled them with Photoshop. That’s especially helpful when someone looks at a rough draft and suggests that nest four should really move over to the right a few inches!

Crow quill nib and artwork by rowntreestudio.com
A crow quill nib and artwork.

I did the drawing and lettering with Noodler’s Ink in Bulletproof Black and a crow quill (Hunt No. 102) pen nib on Strathmore Bristol plate paper. That nib is probably my all-time favorite. It’s a variable-width nib with just the right about of spring for my taste. (For a similar feel in a larger nib I recommend the Tachikawa G nib, available through John Neal Bookseller.)

After the drawings were all assembled I printed the image on cardstock and painted the print. It’s not the best paper for watercolor but it worked well enough. I then took that painted version and scanned it. I brought together scanned handwritten text, the map and additional texture and color in Photoshop for the final image.

The map is now available to download through this Cornell site: 2015 Albatross Cam Map.

I would love to read comments and suggestions about the map from cam viewers! Is it helpful? Are there confusing elements or things youʻd like to see included? Your answers will help all of us on the cam team as we plan for the remainder of this season and next.