Monday, June 19, 2017

One Good Tern Deserves a Noddy

An adult white tern on Midway Atoll 

Not long after arriving at Midway I had an un-nerving experience.  I was walking down the road when I suddenly realized that I was being followed. Not by a person but by several small, brilliantly white, birds with long blue bills. Their wings beat quickly as they flew just a foot or two over me making hoarse “wreck wreck wreck” sounds. They seemed to want to land on my head or my shoulder and so I extended my hand to see if one would light, but they didn’t seem interested in getting quite that intimate. This is typical behavior for manu-o-Kū – the white tern!

White (sometimes called “fairy”) terns are small seabirds found across a wide portion of the tropics including the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.  They occur throughout the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands but if you are visiting the main Hawaiian Islands you will find them only on the south shore of Oahu where a small population persists around Honolulu. At one time, white terns probably also occurred on the other main islands (e.g., Kauai) before cats, rats, dogs and other predators wiped them out. Unlike many seabirds that nest on the ground, white terns like to nest up high in shrubs or trees. And they don’t actually build a nest, they simply find a place that they think will hold an egg securely (the female lays just one) and “nest” there. On Midway typical nesting sites for white terns include ironwood trees and shrubs like plumeria and tournefortia, especially where a branch forks creating a small depression. But they also nest on air conditioners, windowsills, garbage can lids, utility boxes, and other odd places. After a short fall hiatus, “tern season” begins in December with the first chicks born around March and peaking during the warm summer months of June, July and August.

The white tern holds a special place for the Hawaiian people which is reflected in its native name (manu means bird and is one of the four great Hawaiian gods). Moreover, the Hawaiian people have likely had a close relationship with this bird for hundreds if not thousands of years. Ancient Polynesian voyagers used white terns to navigate as they are one of the most reliable indicators of land. Compared to albatrosses and other far-ranging seabirds, white terns stick pretty close to home (within a hundred or so miles). Like a suburban commuter, terns leave their islands each morning to spend the day at sea foraging, returning each evening. If the navigator of a canoe wanted to find land, he’d look for white terns flying and, depending on the time of day, either head in the direction they seemed to be coming from (morning) or follow it back towards land (evening). Terns follow us and vice-versa. 

My experience with white terns at sea is mostly limited to swimming where I often find myself being followed by a small, raucous flock. What is it that makes the tern want to follow people whether on land or in the water?  I’m not sure anyone really knows. It could be that they are just very curious creatures. This would jibe with one of their other interesting behaviors which is to sit on a windowsill looking inside towards the occupants. Many a morning I have eaten breakfast under the dark black, watchful eyes of one or two white terns.

A pair of white terns investigating me from the windowsill of my house

I have also enjoyed watching white terns forage from my favorite relaxation spot out on the cargo pier. Terns fly low over the water looking for small fish near the surface and then swoop down quickly to capture them in their bills. When foraging to feed their chicks they have to gather several fish at a time and somehow they are able to do this – catching fish when they are already holding one or more crosswise in their bills.

Everything about this bird seems surreal. Its pure white plumage punctuated with blue beak, legs, and feet. It’s habit of fluttering around you like some spirit animal. Like most other native birds on Midway, white terns have virtually no natural predators and as a result do not seem to have much fear of people and, thus, can be approached at very close distance allowing you to really feel a part of their world. This extends to their sex life as well and it is common to see birds engaged in either foreplay or copulation, the former of which consists of intense, alternating, preening of one another. White terns are thought to pair for life, which can mean a very long time and courtship behaviors – which includes high altitude “couples flights” help maintain their pair bonds. And then there are the chicks. One day there’s an egg on your windowsill and the next you find a tiny white and brown ball of fluff with oversized, webbed, feet.  The parents share equally in both incubation and feeding. Parents fly out to sea and return with a beakful of a whole fish which seem impossibly large for the chick to swallow but the little fluff ball somehow always manages having what seems like insatiable hunger. As the chick grows, the size of the fish brought to it increases commensurately.

It takes about 48 days after hatching before a chick is ready to fly.  Clockwise from upper
 left: White tern egg on windowsill; a newly hatched chick; 2 week old chick; 1 month old chick.

During the summer it’s sometimes necessary to relocate a chicks and raise them in captivity. This happens when some project – for example, tree removal – eliminates the chick’s “nest site”.  As the chick's parent can no longer find it, the chick must be fed by hand. Each day volunteers make three trips to the “white tern nursery”, located just down the road from the office, where branches have been affixed to large ironwood trees to create safe places for the chicks. Volunteers then feed the chicks regular meals of Great Lakes smelt, by hand, three times a day until the chicks are big enough to feed on their own. This is, without doubt, one of the best jobs there is on Midway as when the chicks get big enough to fly they actually follow the lucky fish dispenser back and forth from the office begging for treats.

Fledgling white tern chicks swoop down to take smelt from the hand of
Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer Aisha Rickli-Rahman

It seems that nearly everything about the white-tern lends itself to superlatives; and even the scientific name of the species – Gygis alba – reveals the sublime effect this bird seems to have on the imaginations of those lucky enough to spend time around them:  the genus, Gygis, is a variation of the ancient Greek word “guges” which means “mythical bird”.

So maybe at this point you’re wondering where the “noddy” ties into this story or, maybe, you’re even cynically thinking that in the title of this post I have crassly sacrificed good natural history for the love of bad puns. Fear not! Another name for the white tern is “white noddy”, noddies being a collection of taxonomically-disparate, fork-tailed seabirds in the family Laridae.  White terns are not the only noddies on Midway as we are “blessed” with both brown noddies and black noddies not to mention several species of terns – sooty tern, gray-backed tern, little tern, and least tern. Clearly, I don’t have time to do justice to all of these species here but maybe I can at least provide a proper introduction.

Black and brown noddies, as the name would suggest are most similar to white terns in terms of habitat and behavior. Both are common at Midway and, if they were easier to tell apart, I might be able to tell you more about how they differ. My understanding is that the black is less common as it is an obligate-tree nester while the brown noddy can nest in either tree or on the ground. Brown and black noddies are more likely to form small flocks than is the white tern and gangs of them can often be seen on the beach this time of year. These birds seem to share the predilection of white terns for following swimmers and they also often accompany me on swims.

A brown noddy perches on an old ironwood stump on Eastern Island (Midway Atoll)

Let me also tell you about the sooty tern!  These easily-riled birds are not common on Sand Island but are found in astonishing abundance on the other two islands of the atoll where people are scarce. Sooty terns are gregarious ground nesters that form large colonies on Eastern and Spit Islands. During their nesting season – which lasts from April until October – they blanket areas of the atoll and must be avoided at all cost. Should you fail to be pay proper attention and happen to walk too close to one of their colonies you will trigger them to take off, creating a swarm of thousands of screaming birds. You may be temporarily deafened and notice that one of them is now swooping down and try to take a piece of flesh from your face! You may then also suddenly find yourself walking among their well-camoflaged eggs and  praying that you don’t accidentally step on one. Gray-backed (or spectacled) terns are rarer than the Sooty tern, but no less easily agitated and tend to nest around the edges of the sooty tern colonies. They must also be treated with extreme caution.

As for the final two terns on our list, the little and the least (seriously, who comes up with these names), they are both pretty rare and exciting to see.  Being the mediocre birder that I am, I have little to report but a few random sightings that I probably would not have even noticed were it not for the astute observations of others. But they are here and the breaking news is that the least terns are currently nesting!

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may have thought, until now, that Midway was all albatrosses and petrels.  I hope that this short detour into the lives of other important and interesting seabirds that inhabit the atoll gives you a more complete appreciation of the bird life here. And there is more!  You can look forward to a couple more bird-related blog posts in the future.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Moaning Birds

With less than six months to go here, I am feeling some urgency and want to be sure I have the chance to share with you more observations of the incredible wildlife of Midway Atoll. I've written quite a bit about albatross, touching on their fascinating courtship and breeding and also the precarious early lives of the chicks and their coming of age spectacle. In other posts I've written more broadly about the birds of Midway, the behavioral consequences of isolation and touched on some of the amazing marinecreatures whose lives reach onto the edges of the atoll.  But there is so much more!  So beginning with this post, my plan is to write a series of short pieces on Midway's wildlife so you can better appreciate the unique nature of this place.

While albatrosses and, in some locales, terns dominate during the daylight hours on Midway, once the sun sets, it is the petrels and shearwaters that rule.  Bonin Petrel and Wedge-Tailed Shearwater are nocturnal, burrow-nesting seabirds that have, since time immemorial, made their home on remote, uninhabited, oceanic islands where their nests are safe from rats, cats, dogs, snakes, and other predators. Like albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters are long-lived seabirds that spend most of their time in the open ocean returning to land only to breed. It is only there that I, a terrestrial organism, have the opportunity to observe them and so whatever information I am able to glean during these interactions is woefully incomplete. Their lifestyles also make them difficult subjects for scientific study so even today there is much that is simply not known about them.

"Bonin Petrel Season" begins in August when the birds make their way back to Midway from their maritime home in the Central Pacific Ocean to begin their long breeding season. Their frenzied courtship season lasts for nearly six months during which birds also attempt to establish a territory around their burrows. During this time, petrels – numbering in the hundreds of thousands - fill the sky every evening just as the sun begins to set. They fly high and low, circling, swirling in a way that reminds me of the huge "clouds" of Mexican free-tailed bats I used to watch during my summer at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Here on Midway, one of the only places in the world you can observe this, the phenomenon is known locally as a "birdnado" (bird X tornado).

At dusk each day in the fall and winter the skies on Midway
fill with thousands and thousands of Bonin Petrels.
Powerful and agile fliers, the petrels occasionally engage in high-speed chases. They seem pretty good at avoiding crashing into one another but not so much when it comes to "foreign moving objects" such as a human being out walking or, worse, riding a bike. This is both annoying and dangerous (for both human and petrel). Imagine getting hit in the face by a robin-sized bird flying at great speed as you pedal your way through the pitch black darkness on a pot-holed road! You can increase your chances of petrel-impact by wearing a headlamp. Often I've had to make the difficult choice of trying to navigate in nearly complete darkness without a light against the risk of getting "cold-cocked" by a petrel. 

After the sun goes down the petrels continue to fly, enabled by what must be excellent night vision.  Unlike bats, whose flights are mostly quiet, the Bonin petrel punctuates its flight with rather disturbing moaning, growling and screeching sounds. "Kukuer", "tititi" or "kikikiki", "kikooer", and "churr" are just a few of the ways these calls have been described though I'm not sure these really convey how un-melodic they sound. Better you listen to the sounds yourself by clicking on this link.

A pair of Bonin Petrels court near their burrow

As the night progresses, birds make their way to the ground covering the "lawns" and obstructing roads and walkways.  Birds may be solitary or be seen in pairs engaged in their various and courtship behaviors which include moaning, biting, preening and chasing. In addition to the birds, you may notice sand flying out of a hole in the ground. Petrels dig their burrows by picking at the soil with their bills and then kicking backward out of the burrow with their feet. Petrels are pretty open-minded about what is "habitat" and do not limit themselves strictly to the outdoors. I often encounter petrels in the garage at the office where the space between the chest freezer and the wall seems to be a popular "dating spot".  When I arrived last year, there was a freshly hatched petrel chick hidden behind a garbage can.

By morning the petrels have disappeared. Where did they go?  Some birds are probably out at sea while others remain in their burrows.  But even though the birds themselves aren't apparent, their numerous burrows, which seem like they might have been made by tiny badgers, make them impossible to ignore. Anywhere the sand is deep enough to allow it, a petrel has likely constructed its burrow and a large portion of Sand Island is perforated by them. Unlike a badger's burrow which you can typically walk over without collapsing it, petrel burrows are shallower and the sand and coral substrate makes them very unstable. Walking in an area with petrel burrows – that is, walking pretty much anywhere off an established road or trail – brings with it the high risk of falling into one. Like human-petrel collisions, this is also bad for both parties. People twist ankles and knees; eggs are crushed and birds become entrapped. Proper protocol after stepping into a burrow is to get down on your hands and knees to free any birds that were buried and to reconstruct the nest as best as possible. Walking across areas with petrel burrows is a learned-skill and someone who doesn't learn it well may be called, derisively, a "burrow crasher" (though not usually to the person's face). Obviously, a person's weight probably plays a role in whether or not they tend to fall into burrows so I wonder if this might too be a backhanded way of making fun of those, like me, that aren't exactly slender.

Once the nest is established and the single egg is laid things calm down a bit and the daily birdnado seems somewhat diminished. Like albatross, both male and female share in the incubation of the egg as well as the feeding of the chick. Nesting in a burrow apparently makes a lot of sense on a subtropical island as underground temperatures are cooler during the daytime and relatively warm at night. Predation of eggs and chicks by frigate birds and other aerial predators is also greatly reduced. Bonin Petrel chicks, round balls of gray and white fluff, begin hatching in March and they just might be the cutest thing you've ever seen. As they get bigger they learn to beg and one evening I was treated to the sight of a chick that had come outside its burrow being fed by its parent.  Like albatrosses, petrel parent feed their chicks by regurgitating stomach oil into the chick's bill.

A young Bonin Petrel chick

In late May petrel chicks begin to fledge though I will admit I'm not sure I've ever actually witnessed this as the fledglings look very similar to adults. After fledging, there is a brief period of time when Bonin Petrels are absent from Midway which provides a short window of opportunity for people on the atoll to get any projects done that require excavation or the movement of any heavy equipment off roads. Late summer and early fall is thus a very busy time for contractors here.

Though much less abundant than the Bonin Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters are hard to ignore during the times of year they are present here at Midway. The shearwaters don't seem to spend much time flying around over the island and, in fact, I hardly ever see them and have never seen one of their underground nests or a chick. Although I've read that they have a "musky odor", I will also admit to never having had the chance to verify this with my own nose.  So what could I possibly even write about?

The breeding season of Wedge-tailed shearwaters is distinct from that of the albatrosses and petrels beginning with first egg-laying in June and culminating in the fledging of chicks in November.  I wonder if this has something to do with the geographic range of the species which encompasses broad swaths of the Pacific and Indian Oceans both south and north of the equator (from Mexico to Japan and from New Zealand to South Africa!). As you might expect, breeding begins with courtship which takes place near the pair's burrow entrance and includes what might be the creepiest moaning sounds uttered by any bird. The sound, produced using their throat as well as a "gular pouch", is composed in two parts, a "OOO" made while inhaling and an "err" that is exhaled. You must hear it to truly appreciate it which you can do by clicking here.

A pair of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters

During this time of year, the sound of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters are heard nearly every evening. As these birds are not as numerous as petrels, the moaning is not ubiquitous, but rather emits from specific locations, often from within a stand of naupaka shrubs or ironwood trees. The localized, hidden sources of the sounds combined with the near pitch black darkness of the atoll, add to the eerie quality of the chorus. Here's how FC Hadden, a resident of Midway in the 1930s, described it:

Any person taking a walk around Midway in the evening when it begins to get dark, during March or April, is apt to have a most hair-raising experience. Suddenly out of the dark will rise the most blood-curdling howls, yowls, moans, and groans. Not only that, but it sounds as if there must be a dozen tomcats tearing each other to pieces, from the wild cat-like shrieks that penetrate the ear, then some woman begins to groan and gasp and moan, as though about to die in the greatest of pair. All of these various ghoulish noises are so heart rending, so horrible, that one must indeed be brace to investigate them. What a horrible experience it must have been for those first sailors who were shipwrecked here many years ago. Certainly they huddled around their fire trembling and shaking when they first heard these wild cries. 
Early residents of Midway referred to the Bonin Petrel as the "small moaning bird" and the Wedge-tailed Shearwater as the "large moaning bird".  Unlike the albatrosses, whose daytime habits, humorous antics and outgoing personalities endeared them to people, the "moaning birds" were mostly scorned. Being creatures of the night, one can only imagine that some thought of them as evil. This was after all one hundred years ago when people were less scientifically-minded and more superstitious (although these days I often wonder how far we've actually come). The burrows that they made were also an inconvenience, not just because they made walking difficult but they also reduced harvests from the gardens that were established to provide food for the island's residents (today, there is an enclosed greenhouse). During the Navy years the petrels and shearwaters continued to be treated badly.  Ornithologists Harvey Fisher and Paul Baldwin visited Midway in 1945 to investigate conditions for the various birds there and reported

The "moaning birds," of which the Wedge-tailed Shearwater was the most dismal-voiced, were generally disliked by the men. They received little sympathy, burrows were purposely tramped down and adults were persecuted constantly. This was the only openly discussed form of deliberate destruction of birds we found, as irresponsible target shooting was done more or less on the sly and was not generally approved. Bonin Island Petrels were in areas desired for lawns and consequently were destroyed. Bulldozing in certain areas must have killed thousands of shearwaters and petrels in their burrows.

Although data are scant, the numbers of petrels and shearwaters are thought to have declined precipitously on Midway throughout the years when the Navy maintained its air station. In addition to direct persecution and destruction of habitat rats,which were transported to Midway by ship sometime in the early 1940s, also took a heavy toll. By the time that the US Fish and Wildlife Service took over management of the atoll in 1996, populations of these birds were at just a fraction of their original numbers.

Today, Bonin Petrel populations appear to have rebounded to approximately their original numbers – the best guess is somewhere around 1 million birds, although large areas of the atoll, especially Eastern Island are still covered in pavement and thus inaccessible to them. As this is a species with a relatively small geographic range, this recovery holds real significance for the global population (its other strongholds are volcanic islands off the coast of Japan). For reasons that are not clear, Wedge-tailed shearwaters have been slower to recover, perhaps a consequence of their more restrictive habitat requirements. Habitat restoration efforts aimed at increasing the amount of sand dune and naupaka shrub habitat may aid in their recovery.

Nocturnal, burrow-nesting birds are in need of good PR. Special events
can help educate the public as to the great value of these birds.

 As an agency committed to the conservation of birds and other wildlife, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has taken exceptional measures on Midway to ensure that petrels and shearwaters will continue to thrive at Midway Atoll. One thing that hasn't changed though is the difficulty that people seem to have in liking these birds. Some seeking to change public opinion have created small informational placards that sit next to the salt and pepper on the tables of the Clipper House. Others have gone as far as putting on special events in their honor, for example, the Bonin Petrel Appreciation Night that was hosted last January by visiting seabird biologist Roberta Swift. Maybe the PR is working. After a year, I can honestly say that after some hesitation I have become a genuine fan of the "moaning birds" and look forward to proudly displaying a portrait of a Bonin Petrel on the wall of my living room back in Oregon when my time here is through.


Fisher, H. I. and P. H. Baldwin. 1946. War and the birds of Midway Atoll. The Condor 48:3-15.

Hadden, F. 1941. Midway Islands. The Hawaiian Planters Record 45:179-221.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Twelve Down

What a damn cliché it is to say "time flies" but doesn't it?  It's been twelve months since I arrived at Midway and probably a good time take stock of the situation. And given the fact that my previous post, a sort of mini-travel guide to the atoll which I expected to have broad appeal, seemed to founder a bit on the internet shoals, perhaps it's time to spice up this blog with revealing personal details, juicy gossip and perhaps a couple of scandalous photos thus making it better suited to modern-day social media. Violence? You'll have to wait for that as I plan on devoting an entire future post to it.

I came to Midway with a couple of goals in mind. To take break from the responsibilities of the job that I'd had for 13 years and to expand my professional horizons while gaining some new skills. I also realized that as the years were passing by, the list of places I wanted to see was growing faster than the list of places I was visiting and thought spending a chunk of time out here in the far Pacific Ocean might be a good first step towards my goal of "seeing the world". I also looked at this this assignment as a personal challenge. How would I fare living in such a small and remote place so far from family and friends? Would the isolation -- very limited options for entertainment and internet that brings back memories of the old dial-up days – drive me nuts? Or would it compel me to do slow down and focus on low-tech activities that modern-day, hectic life had prevented me from doing?

"So how's that all working out for you?" you might be wondering. I'll try to answer this question first from a professional perspective and then from a personal one.

The opportunity to work on island restoration and seabird habitat issues (as opposed to North American temperate grasslands) has been great. Not only is Midway Atoll a very different ecosystem from the grassland I had been working on, but the scale of the work is very different. At Midway we are working to create habitat basically from scratch (an abandoned golf course, building demolition sites, etc.) which is in sharp-contrast to the work I was doing on the Zumwalt Prairie where the focus was on protecting and enhancing habitats that were mostly intact. The intensive restoration work being done at Midway combined with the sites extreme isolation requires that plants need to grown right here in our own native-plant nursery before being planted at restoration areas. This has exposed me to many new facets of restoration ecology, including seed collection, plant propagation methods, and detailed restoration site planning. It's also given me the chance to conduct a variety of experiments, for example, on best practices for broadcast seeding for different native grass and forb species.

Restoration at Midway usually requires starting from scratch with plants grown in our own native-plant nursery

In addition to new skills my experiences here have changed the way I think about ecology and conservation. Living in close proximity to millions of albatross with such an intimate window into their lives has given me insights into nature I could never get from reading books or any other means. Is nature fragile or is it resilient?  This question is at the heart of many debates regarding the place of humans in the natural world. If you believe that nature is finely-tuned sensitive to disruptions, you're probably of the mind that people need to live as lightly on the planet as possible to avoid doing harm to the plants and animals that we share it with. The counter-argument, that after billions of years of evolution, plants and animals have been through it all, leads many to believe that people are just as much a part of nature as other species and that we shouldn't make such a fuss. Albatross are some of the toughest animals out there and have survived for millions of years in some of the most challenging environmental conditions the planet can dish out. The annual survival rate of an adult Laysan albatross is over 95% and birds don't seem to even age in any conventional sense. The oldest known wild bird ever known is a 67 year old Laysan albatross that was born in the middle of a Navy base on Midway and continues to return each fall to breed within a stone's throw of where she was born. Despite the obvious toughness of these seabirds though they can be taken down in a matter of days by a single mouse.  What this says to me is that nature is be both tough and vulnerable simultaneously and you need to look at each species and each situation anew and not put too much faith in your assumptions or past experiences.

Related to this are my thoughts about what kind of knowledge is most needed if we – humans – are to figure out how to protect the plants, animals, and ecosystems that make our world such an amazing and hospitable place to live at a time when our numbers continue to grow and our technology gives us virtually super-human powers. Almost 25 year ago I gave up a career as a computer scientist to study of ecology because I wanted to do something that might help reverse what I perceived as downward trend in the health of the natural world. In graduate school I learned how to do research and collaborated on several research projects during the years I worked as an ecologist for the Nature Conservancy.  Scientific research -- at least some research – is important but the typical study looks only at how a one or two factors (fire, grazing, etc.) affect one or two other things (the population size of some species, the amount of some nutrient in the soil, etc.) over the course of a few years in some particular place. Results of such studies tend to be very limited and are time and place specific. Research is also typically designed and conducted by "experts" without a lot of direct involvement from the people who are supposed to benefit from the knowledge gained making the results difficult to understand and apply in the real world. I worked on a really cool project with folks from Oregon State University on the effects of cattle grazing on grasslands and unlike many studies we deliberately measured the effects of different levels of grazing across a wide range of species. But the study only looked at grazing in June and only for two years. Despite the huge amount of effort put into that research, the results were complicated and have proven difficult to translate into specific recommendations for land managers.

Another way of acquiring conservation-relevant knowledge is something called adaptive management which might be best described as a cross between formal research and old school trial and error. Adaptive management was developed nearly half a century ago but started to attract a lot of attention in the 1990s as a way to address the uncertainties in managing complex systems and provided a means improve what seemed like a pretty spotty track record of decision making in land and water management, especially by government agencies. If research provides you with facts about how nature works, adaptive management gives you a way of figuring out how to apply that knowledge to real world situations. I feel that what prevents us from being better stewards of the planet these days is not a paucity of facts but our inability to apply that knowledge effectively.

Several things are required to actually do adaptive management: setting objectives, monitoring indicators of the species or ecosystem and then using the data to evaluate how well management is working and then deciding whether to continue with the status quo or trying something different. Today, the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as many non-governmental organizations and private land managers have adopted adaptive management as their foundation for decision-making. Well, at least in theory, that is. It turns out that actually doing adaptive management is pretty challenging. Crafting thoughtful objectives for a wildlife refuge, national park, or ranch requires discipline and often falls pretty far down on the list of priorities for a land manager or biologist. Because the effects of management can take a long time to manifest, monitoring needs to be done consistently over the long-term, spanning the tenure of personnel whose responsibility it is to conduct it. Long-term monitoring is much more difficult to fund than research and often must come out of the core operating budgets making them very susceptible in times of budget shortfalls. Finally, adaptive management is not something that a group of ecologists and biologists can do on their own as it takes coordinated effort across all parts of an organization, from top-level managers to the folks with their "boots on the ground". Successful implementation of adaptive management requires that an organization be capable of executing a well-choreographed "dance" for years if not decades.

At a meeting of the Society of Ecological Restoration some years back Debbie Pickering and colleagues at the Nature Conservancy presented a paper on how adaptive management was being used to manage habitat for the rare Oregon silverspot butterfly at the Cascade Head Preserve on the Oregon coast. In that paper I recall her remarking on how difficult it was to find other examples of anyone actually doing adaptive management, despite its apparent standing as a best management practice. I took that as a challenge and spent the next few years working with my colleagues at the Zumwalt Prairie to reshape and integrate the planning and monitoring we were doing into an information-driven management program. When I left, things certainly weren't perfect but I think I can honestly say that we were doing adaptive management.

One of the attractions of this job here at Midway was the chance to take what I'd learned about adaptive management on the Zumwalt Prairie and apply it to a new system (ecosystem + human organization).  According to my job description, my primary role here is to "set up a robust habitat restoration monitoring system that can be utilized and maintained by USFWS staff to holistically evaluate the success of restoration efforts, encompassing and integrating complex and large-scale weed control and native plant propagation programs" and I have been working for the past twelve months to do that. While translating my ecological skills and knowledge from grasslands to islands has been, on the whole, fairly successful, getting things done within the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been more of a challenge that I had anticipated.

Prior to this job, I didn't know much about the inner workings of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and my work experience with the federal government was limited to a three month stint I did as a biology technician at Carlsbad Caverns National Park one summer while I was still in graduate school.  Although I am not actually employed by the government (my paycheck comes from a non-profit partner organization called the National Wildlife Refuge Association) my position here at Midway gives me with a quasi-insider's view of the workings of the agency.  I have met some extraordinary and dedicated staff; true professionals that give me confidence that our land and its wildlife are in good hands. The volunteer program here at Midway brings in people of a variety of backgrounds though all sharing a deep love of wildlife and natural places and a willingness to work their asses off in exchange only for food and a place to rest at the end of an exhausting day. It's also been informative to see how the agency approaches science-based land management and conservation, as opposed to how it was done by my former employer, The Nature Conservancy. But it's also revealed some real limitations in the ability the organization's ability to implement adaptive management effectively at a remote location such as Midway. Two significant obstacles are staff turnover and communication challenges. Because of its remote location and the personal sacrifices that are requires, the typical tenure of a Fish and Wildlife employee at Midway is just a couple of years and volunteers and interns rotate through every six months. The communication style here is very different from what I've experienced working for other organizations and tends to be more towards the "need to know" end of the spectrum and often I feel like I am out of the loop on things that I should know. Because adaptive management requires people in all facets of an organization to work closely together good communication is critical and I have tried to help with that by developing a set of shared calendars. Midway is also more "complicated" than the average refuge and staff may be asked to set aside their normal duties for a day or a week to respond to an emergency or assist with a special event.  

Midway has also given me a chance to reflect on the years I spent working with Nature Conservancy, both in terms of the organization but, more importantly, the work I was doing on the Zumwalt Prairie. Beyond a couple of my former co-workers back in Enterprise, I've had surprisingly little contact with my former TNC colleagues. On the academic side of things are pretty quiet too.  I still enjoy conversations with a graduate student from the University of Idaho and exchange occasional email with one or two colleagues from Oregon State. When I left my job with TNC last year it was with the intention to resume my work on the Zumwalt Prairie in some capacity when my assignment on Midway concluded and thought I had made that clear to my colleagues, but I'm not sure that the message got through and I now wonder how easy it will be to re-connect in the future. And though I felt like I had developed a good reputation and was kind of a "go to" guy, now I wonder whether this I was simply the benefactor of the reputation of my employer. These are the kinds of things you think about on an island.

From a personal perspective, my time here on Midway, despite some hardships, has been a positive experience, though not in the way I had expected. Living on an island in the middle of the blue Pacific might sound dreamy to some people and I guess it did for me, but it's important to keep in mind that, despite the white sand the blue lagoon, this is not a pristine paradise but an abandoned military facility still in the early years of recovery that also happens to be located such that garbage is constantly washing up on its shores (look closely at the white sand and you'll see fragments of multi-colored plastic). The atoll is small – less than 3 square miles in total – and though a bi-weekly plane connects us with Honolulu, you can't leave without permission (I've been "off-island" twice). For anyone who's become accustomed to the connectivity that characterizes our modern lives, life at Midway can feel pretty isolated.  I've half-jokingly suggested getting t-shirts made that say "Midway Atoll" on the front and "We Can't Google Shit!" on the back.

The limited options available here on Midway make life more simple for sure and I find myself having much more of a "daily routine" than I ever had previously. I wake up and go to bed at pretty much the same time every day – even weekends. I swim every afternoon after work as long as the ocean conditions abide.  Every day, I go to lunch at the Clipper House at 11:35 am. On Sundays I have made it part of my routine to break with my daily routine and just try to do things different. I could go on more but it would be very boring and I think you get the point. What I will say though is that I find this kind of habitual lifestyle to be pretty satisfying overall. It's always seemed to me that as people get older they tend to be more set in their ways and I wonder if life on Midway is easier to adapt to now that I'm past the half-century mark.

Living so far from family and my close friends has certainly been one of the biggest challenges of this assignment and I am grateful that my wife, Andie Lueders, has been so supportive of the whole thing. Midway, however, is a much more social place than most people would imagine. The number of people living here (there are about 45 as I write this) is just big enough to make it work and the fact that nearly everyone here is far from home and family and living in what is basically a small, self-contained village makes it feel like a real community. The highly skewed sex ratio (of the 45 about 6 are female and most of those are under the age of 30) and the fact that over half of the residents are from Thailand creates some interesting and odd dynamics; as a guy I've often felt utterly ignored by most of the long-term male residents though I am not sure all of the attention given to those of the opposite sex would be preferable. Already having a good friend working here on Midway before I arrived also has made things much easier for me and thank god I haven't pissed her off too badly yet. Not only has Ann Humphrey been a solid friend but she has also served as my ambassador to the greater Midway community and makes sure I know about all of the social events and other activities.  The Thai men have also been very kind and welcoming and despite some language difficulties I have made some good friends. The Aree house – a residence that is home to several Thai men but also serves, informally, as a "hang out/party/karaoke spot" -- plays a tremendous role in maintaining a fun and social atmosphere here. To its residents, who put up with the parties even when sometimes they'd probably rather be sleeping, I extend a most sincere ขอขอบคุณ !   Sports – especially ping pong and pickleball – have also helped me stay busy and make friends.

Friends old and new (Apiwat Juethong and Ann Humphrey)

Adding significant spice to Midway's social scene are also the cohorts of Fish and Wildlife volunteers that arrive every six months as well as the visiting workers (which include everything from marine biologists and archeologists to engineers to filmmakers). Although I think the majority of people I have met during my life are interesting to some degree, the typical Midway visitor is of a special breed and I've enjoyed many fascinating and informative conversations, some revealing extraordinary personal connections. I may have even made one or two new lifelong friends. This is not to say I don't miss my good friends from home and even find myself sometimes feeling nostalgic for acquaintances I only ran into occasionally. You might think that in an age where we can communicate so easily by phone or email that I'd keep in better touch with friends, but I get surprisingly few emails and even fewer phone calls. I'm not sure if this is a reflection of the sorry state of my social life or just that most folks today have replaced direct, personal, communication with Facebook and other forms of social media. On the rare occasion when I receive a letter or package in the mail it is a genuine treat – many thanks to those of you who have been so thoughtful!

Every "care package" is photographically documented before being consumed!

I wasn't sure how I would deal with the isolation of being here and the hundreds of "extra hours" of time that I'd have to myself.  I have not filled my idle hours reading the classics or becoming an accomplished painter though I have read a few books and created a few childish-looking drawings. I've heard that one of the things missing people's lives today, when a smartphone can be turned to during moments of boredom, is time to reflect. Here at Midway we certainly don't have that option and I think I've benefited from having more time to think about the things that make me happy and how I want to spend the rest of my professional and personal life. Writing this blog has been an important part of that. I had not actually planned to write a blog prior to coming here but quickly realized how exceptional and strange a place Midway is and felt compelled to share my thoughts and experiences. Like a lot of people, I find writing, especially when I know I'm going to put it out there in public, difficult and the final edits always makes me a little queasy. Although I wish I was mature enough to not care what other people think, I guess I still do. Thank you to those who have taken an interest and shared your reactions, positive or otherwise (my Fish and Wildlife Service colleague Lonnie recently informed me that I'd mistakenly referred to a "short-footed albatross' in my last post!).  I have just six months still to go on this assignment but dozens of things that I'm interested in writing about.  I hope you keep on reading! 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

36 Hours

36 Hours

A remote haven for seabirds and other wildlife set like a jewel within an azure lagoon offering unexpected cross-cultural amenities for the adventurous traveler.

Wildlife viewing by bike on the southern shore of Sand Island

Getting to Midway Atoll, a small outpost of sand and coral more than 1,000 miles from Honolulu, isn’t easy but for those intrepid enough to make the voyage, it can be the experience of a lifetime. Once a US Navy Air Station, now a wildlife refuge situated within the largest conservation area on the planet, Midway provides critical habitat for rare and endangered seabirds – including Laysan duck and and black-footed albatross – as well as sites of great historical significance including a variety of WWII relics. A dynamic, perhaps even idiosyncratic blend of custom and culture makes Midway a unique destination sought after by the world’s elite travelers (President Obama made a quick visit here in 2016) and yet it maintains an unpretentious charm. Relatively small in area – the three islands that comprise total less than 3 square miles and travel is done by foot or by bicycle – even the most footloose of visitors can experience myriad natural and cultural fascinations in just a couple of days. Currently, travel here is somewhat complicated by lack of commercial flights and visitor services but not impossible, especially if you’re willing to volunteer your time with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to help out with conservation projects. If you can, time your visit during “albatross season” when over a million large, somewhat awkward yet undeniably magnificent seabirds, descend on Midway to nurture their next generation to life.

( 1 )  3 P.M. Ø REDONDO

A short golf cart limo ride gets you and your baggage from the tarmac to Charlie Hotel  in a matter of minutes providing ample time for a quick tour of Sand Island. Arrange to have your rental bicycle waiting for you to save time then fill up your water bottle (double-filtered water is available in the small water and ice shack across from the hotel) and have the hotel staff make arrangements with airport operations to let them know you’ll be crossing the runway during your bike tour.  Then hop on your trusty cruiser and head out towards the Visitors Center and Museum which is located in the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial Headquarters. Small, yet informative, the museum covers both the cultural and natural history of Midway including its importance to native Hawaiian people (the coral reefs here are thought to be the birthplace of all life) as well as the key role the islands played during WWII. A new exhibit explains the recent expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument within which Midway lies. Be sure to check out the green glass fishing floats and the large scale replica of Sand Island. A table in the back of the museum has albums of fascinating historic photos and other curiosities, including a 1964 copy of the Gooney Gourmet, a cookbook written by members of the Midway Officers Wives Club. Climb back on the saddle and head south passing by the old orchard and the historic Public Works buildings. Continue south and as you approach the runway check out the large, cleared area on your left. Once a forest of the invasive ironwood tree, this area is now a restoration demonstration site and now hosts various native Hawaiian plant species, including the rare and endangered Popolo. Now follow the bike path across the runway to the south side of the island and head west taking in the waves breaking on the reef just off shore. Continue west towards Frigate Point (beware of patches of soft sand in the trail) looking out for the extremely rare short-tailed albatross between the path and the runway. Eventually the path doubles back (crossing the runway again) towards town. Your timing should be just about perfect to arrive at the Clipper House as the doors open for dinner.

Fusion dining at its funkiest at the Clipper House
( 2 )  5 P.M. Ø FUNKY FUSION

The Clipper House is the one and only restaurant on the island featuring a funky mix of American, Thai, and other world cuisines served buffet-style. Chef Pong Wichasawatdi and his all-Thai staff earned their chops on luxury cruise ships and put their culinary experience to good use.  Menus constantly change but if you are lucky you might find a steaming pot of Green Chicken or Beef Massaman Curry and Thai-style Sticky Rice. Larb Moo (spicy pork salad), Tom Ka Gai (chicken coconut soup), and Seafood Tom Yum soup are other Thai specialties executed by the Clipper House to fantastic effect. On the flip side of the menu look for Steak Diane, Adobe Chicken, Baked Acorn Squash, and Zippy Shrimp,  all local favorites. The salad bar features locally produced greens and other produce grown in the island’s hydroponic greenhouse. Thrill seekers can take advantage of the rare opportunity of having Thai and American dishes side by side in the same hot table. Notable fusion concoctions have included Thai Red Curry Mac and Cheese and the incredible Pad Thai Chicago Dog. For dessert, check out the selection of cakes, cookies, and pastries and if Kidjarom’s New York Style Cheesecake is available, don’t even think of passing it up. Otherwise you might opt for the ever-popular self-serve frozen dairy dessert available in vanilla, chocolate, and (occasionally) Clipper-House Coffee flavors.


While shopping options are somewhat limited at Midway, the Ship’s Store does a fabulous job of stocking truly necessary items. Forgot shampoo or dental floss? Jack Phosri, manager of the store has your back! Even more important is the stores selection of beers, wine and spirits. If you are used to big city selection, you might be surprised to find only a handful of brands in each category but if you allow yourself to simply comprehend the fact that this is the only store selling adult beverages and snacks within a 1,000 mile radius, you can feel absolutely righteous as you tip-toe out of the store with a couple of six packs of Chang Lager (US $11), a liter of Johnny Walker Black (US $55) and a jumbo bag of Tostito Blue Corn Tortilla Chips (US $6). The Ships Store also houses a large selection of souvenir merchandise offered by the Friends of Midway Atoll including t-shirts, post-cards, water bottles, and the classic, all metal, Zippo lighter (an essential gift for anyone you know who uses disposable plastic lighters, commonly found among other plastic ocean debris that washes up on the shores here).  Be sure to stock up as the Ship’s Store has very limited hours and this will likely be your only chance to visit. Celebrate your newly acquired purchases with a quick trip to Cargo Pier where you can relax on a bench and get a good view of Hawaiian green turtles basking on Turtle Beach and foraging for algae along the pier; you’ll also get a great view of albatross and other seabirds flying over open water as the sun settles in the western sky.

Get your karaoke on after hours at the Aree House


Over twenty hardworking Thai nationals (all men) live and work full-time on Midway maintaining the infrastructure and providing essential services to all of the island’s residents. After a long week of labor, it’s time to kick back, and long-term residents and visitors alike are all welcome at the Aree House where you can always find a cooler of beer and the warm, hospitality that the nation of Thailand is known for. Though it may be hard to decipher some of the card and dice games typically played on weekend nights, karaoke is a popular pastime that anyone can easily join in on. Put in a request for your favorite tune or just wait until a song inspires you to sing along. The Beatles, Neil Young, ABBA, The Eagles, and Selene Diaz are eternally popular but there is a wide selection of songs available cutting across a dozen or more genres. Thai pop songs often prompt the more accomplished local singers to croon. On warm summer nights the garden with its benches, water features, and attendant albatross chicks make for an exceptionally convivial and international setting. Charlie Hotel is right next door, but be sure to bring a flashlight as there are no external lights on Midway (to protect the birds) and it can get very dark!


With so much to see in a short time, you’ll want to set your alarm and rise early.  Even if you don’t, the albatross will probably wake you up anyway. Coffee and breakfast await you at the Clipper House but you’ll want to get your feed on quickly because you need to be at the Finger Piers at 7 am to meet up with Sam Songserm and his able crew of weed control technicians. Locally known as the A Team, Sam  and his crew travel by boat to Eastern Island  to wage war with verbesina (a noxious weed) and there is usually a couple of empty seats available (make sure they’ll be coming back at lunchtime!). Why drag your sorry keister out of bed so early to go to Eastern Island? While Sand Island harbors an incredible abundance and diversity, the presence of man, prevents some species from living there. Uninhabited, Eastern Island allows the visitor to observe a number of seabird species either absent or infrequently encountered on the rest of the atoll including Great Frigatebird, three species of Boobie (Red-Footed, Masked, and Brown) and both Sooty and Gray-backed Terns. As it lacks any old buildings or ironwood forests, the environment and wildlife of Eastern Island also provide an experience more similar to that of what a 19th century shipwrecked sailor might have had. Pack a spare camera battery to be sure you don’t miss out on once in a lifetime photographic opportunities!


The Hawaiian name for Midway is Pihemanu which means the “loud din of birds”. Yes, indeed, these albatross can certainly make a racket but they also display a rich set of behaviors that can be appreciated only by spending some serious quality time with them. Both Laysan and Black-footed albatross are abundant on Eastern Island making for excellent opportunities to better acquaint yourself with them. The black and gray Laysan Albatross is more numerous and tends to occur more towards the center of the island while the dark-colored Black-footed Albatross prefers areas near the shore. Dances of these species, while somewhat similar to the uninitiated, include distinct and elaborate maneuvers and gestures. Air snap, Rapid Bill Clapper, Head Shake and Whine, and Scapular Action are just a few of the moves you may see. Pick an area where both occur and take some time to revel in their exuberance.

Left: Spinner dolphins are seen frequently in the lagoon. Right: Wildlife recolonized Midway after the closure of the Naval Air Station.

 ( 7 )  1P.M. Ø REEF TIME

If the weather abides and other factors align, a snorkeling trip to the outer reef should be included in your itinerary. After a lunch at the Clipper House head down to the Finger Piers where you can get fitted out with gear at the Snorkel Shack. Be sure to inquire with locals as to the water temperature or check the NOAA Tide Station to see if a wetsuit is recommended. Travelling across the azure waters of the lagoon is nothing short of magical and you are often accompanied for part of the journey by the local pod of Spinner Dolphins whose name derives from their habit of leaping far out of the water to execute incredible pirouettes. Just a few miles from the harbor is Reef Hotel which, despite the name, was actually a surveillance post constructed by the Navy during the cold war. All that remains now are some old rusty steel posts which, along abundant coral provide a home for a dazzling number of sea creatures. Unicorn Fish, Convict Tang, Moorish Idol, Giant Ulua, White-throated Eel and Spotted Knifejaw are just a few of the species you’ll see. Watch out also for Spiny Lobsters that take refuge in crevices in the coral and the humongous Sea Cucumbers that laze about on the ocean floor. Because it is a wildlife refuge no fishing or any other type of collecting is permitted which allows the animals here grow to remarkable size.

After dinner, pack some refreshments and ride out to West Beach to witness one of the best sunsets the planet has to offer. A small bike parking area and some old fishing buoys mark the start of a trail that leads through the local naupaka shrubs to the beach.  Although the beach itself is actually closed to the public, you can find a nice place to sit just before you reach the signs marking the off-limits area that affords a great view of the western sky. Watch for the green flash just after the last drop of sun disappears below the horizon.

Sunset from Cargo Pier

Captain Brooks, the one and only pub on the island, makes up for its small size with its large reputation as a great place to cut loose and have a good time on a Saturday night. Be sure to arrange for the pub to be opened in advance ($30 / hour minimum purchase) and spread the word to ensure a good turnout. Only beer, wine, and soft-drinks are served so if you are hankering for the hard stuff, be sure to BYOB. Pizza, popcorn and other snacks are also available. In addition to foosball, darts, and board games, the pub’s ring game often draws a small crowd (watch out, it’s addicting!). Dancing is encouraged, just put in your musical request with the bartender and he’ll likely be able to oblige you.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself at the Aree House instead of at your hotel room after last call as the heat generated at parties on the island takes a while to dissipate!


Sleep in, enjoying the sounds of albatross courtship through the open window as you slowly awake to your third and final day on the atoll. The Clipper House doesn’t open until 9 am on Sundays and stays open through the morning giving you the opportunity to take a leisurely walk on North Beach before enjoying a leisurely brunch. From the Clipper House walk west towards Rusty Bucket watching for glass fishing floats among all the other flotsam washed up on the beach. Or maybe you will find some other treasure among the toothbrushes, lighters, fishing gear and other random trash? This might also be a good time to evaluate the impact that you are having on the environment and to think about how you might reduce the amount of trash you generate. As refuge regulations don’t allow for the collection of anything living or dead, small plastic figures or interesting bottles can make for pretty nice keepsakes of your visit to the atoll. North Beach is also a favored hauling out spot for endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals. Seals need their beauty sleep too so if you see one remember keep your distance (at least 150 feet) so as not to disturb its slumber!

The Old Generator Building is one of over a dozen notable historic sites at Midway Atoll.


Before Midway became famous for its abundant wildlife, its renown stemmed primarily from its role in defeating the Japanese Navy during World War II and paving the way for a US victory.  Official recognition came in 2000 when Midway Atoll was designated as the Battle of Midway National Memorial. For history enthusiasts, Midway offers not only a wealth of wartime artifacts but also important relics from both before and after. Start your tour at the memorials across from the Visitors Center. Each of the three stone slabs is inscribed with dedications to the various fighting forces that shaped the war’s outcome. Next, head towards the Ship’s Store veering right at the intersection to visit the Navy Memorial (also known as the Gooney Memorial for the large wooden albatross statue that once stood there). The Navy Memorial is located adjacent to the Midway Mall which was, during the Cold War years, the hub of social activity for the thousands of folks (Navy personnel, contractors, and families) once stationed at Midway. Although most of the facilities have been closed for some time, some – bowling alley, library, barber shop – are still in use. Check out the now defunct Midway Theater where Bob Hope once entertained the troops. Continue towards the harbor and check out the Seaplane Hangar. This giant building was actually once twice its current size but had to be refashioned after Japanese fighter planes bombed it during the war. Next stop is the Old Generator Building where the valiant Marine Lieutenant George H. Cannon sacrificed his life when he refused to give up his post despite severe injuries incurred during the Japanese bombing of Midway on their way to Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Now head back towards town and check out the Midway House just across from the hotel. This elegant structure, designed by famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn, was once the home of the Naval Officer in Charge of the Naval Station. Heading back towards the Clipper House check out the sole remaining Cable Company Building.  Built in 1903 this, along with several other structures of identical design housed the workforce of the Pacific Commercial Cable Company which selected Midway as a hub for the communications cable they stretched from San Francisco to the Phillipines. Your historic tour would not be complete without taking a moment to reflect on the effect the war had on the Japanese people. Just west of the Clipper House you will find a small clearing with a black granite stone resting on a tree stump dedicated in 1999. The inscription, written in Kanji can be roughly translated as “Rest, the deep blue”, perhaps expressing hope that peace will reign over this remote outpost into the future. The flight back to Honolulu is a long one so some point it would be wise head back to the Clipper House for one final, hearty, and no-doubt eclectic, meal.

Postscript: This post was inspired by the "36 Hours" feature of the New York Times, Sunday Travel Section.