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Albatross that may have stowed away on ship released at sea

January 31, 2012 |  5:47 pm

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Call it the case of the stowaway seabird.

A man was driving down a Los Angeles street Friday when onlookers flagged him down, alerting him to an enormous bird that had hitched a ride in the back of his pickup truck.

With its white body, dark wings and curved yellow beak, it might have been mistaken for an oversized seagull.

But the bird, it turns out, was thousands of miles from home. It was an Laysan Albatross, a seabird with a 7-foot wingspan that normally nests on remote islands and atolls in the North Pacific Ocean.

International Bird Rescue took custody of the bird after the driver handed it over to lifeguards at Cabrillo Beach. The group held the albatross for four days at its wildlife rescue center in San Pedro and gave it a clean bill of health.

On Tuesday they released the bird from a boat off San Pedro to let it set off on a flight back home to Hawaii or beyond.

But how did an albatross get to Los Angeles in the first place? Rescuers have a pretty good idea.

They suspect the bird stowed away on a cargo ship, hitching a trans-Pacific ride to Los Angeles before disembarking and hopping into the pickup.

The seabirds are adept at soaring long distances and can spend years roaming vast areas of the ocean without ever touching land. But they can mistake the flat surface of a passing container ship for a nesting island, landing and sitting there unnoticed until the ship arrives in port.

But even with its tendencies as a wayfarer, albatross sightings in California are rare.

The wildlife rescue center in San Pedro has taken in a handful of them over the last decade, usually when the crew of a cargo ship finds one on board and cares for it until coming ashore.

In 1979, a Laysan Albatross was found wandering the streets of San Francisco, its wing feathers removed and wings clipped. The bird, nicknamed “Munch,” was nursed back to health, flown to Honolulu and released by the U.S. Coast Guard into a colony of its peers on Midway Island.

An albatross hasn’t turned up in Southern California in at least five years, said Julie Skoglund, manager of the wildlife center.

So when she and other staffers released the avian visitor Tuesday, they took special care. Skoglund scooped the bird out of its aquatic enclosure with a net, wrapped it in a beach towel, gave it a final examination and fitted it with a metal identification band before putting it in a crate.

The albatross honked, fidgeted and snapped its long beak as staffers loaded it onto a city lifeguard boat and motored away from Cabrillo Beach, far enough from the shore that the seabird wouldn’t be tempted to return to the mainland.

When they tossed the albatross in the water, it shook off, stretched out its wings and looked around for all of 10 seconds before skittering across the water, flapping its wings and lifting into the sky.

Rescuers applauded as the bird left, hoping it was bound for the Hawaiian Islands to nest with other Laysan Albatrosses.

“We want it to go back and be a successful part of the breeding population” Skoglund said.

The albatross is so skilled at long-distance flight that the journey is only expected to take a few days.

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--Tony Barboza

Photo: International Bird Rescue Wildlife Center Manager Julie Skoglund and Adam Ribota released a Laysan Albatross back to the wild. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times   

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