Sunday, April 24, 2016

Why Midway? (The Birds!)

There are many answers to the question "Why Midway?" although maybe they are all related. I realized after my first post that I failed to answer the most obvious one  which is "Why am I here at Midway?" so I'll tackle that before trying to answer the others.

On Sand Island with Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses

I'm here because I was offered a job with the National Wildlife Refuge Association to work here for 18 months helping the US Fish and Wildlife Service with their habitat restoration efforts at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. In short, the Service is undertaking a massive effort here to turn a former Naval Air Station back into prime habitat for a variety of wildlife, including various seabird species, a highly endangered duck, Hawaiian monk seals, and green sea turtles. It's a significant challenge and my role here is to help the refuge staff utilize science to its greatest effect. What exactly this will entail isn't clear quite yet, but will likely include setting up monitoring programs to help them figure out how to best go about converting degraded habitats (think airport runways and areas where large barracks once stood) into thriving, native plant-dominated ecosystems that benefit various, threatened and endangered, wildlife species. And although the decision to leave my job at The Nature Conservancy was difficult, it seemed like after 13 years working as an ecologist on their Zumwalt Prairie conservation project, the time was right to take on a new challenge 
in a totally different environment.

So now I'll try to answer the "Why Midway?" question from another angle, specifically, "Why is Midway such an important place?" and "Why is the US Fish and Wildlife Service investing so much effort into restoring it?". The most simple answer these questions is "The birds!". Midway Atoll is one of 10 sites that make up the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and is part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, an area of exceptional biological significance for both it's marine resources (think coral reefs, whales, seals, fishes, sea turtles) and also for plants and animals that inhabit these remote islands, reefs, and pinnacles. In this latter category are species that are either endemic to (i.e., evolved on and live only on) these small islands or species that may have once inhabited the main Hawaiian islands but no longer occur there because of their long history of human occupation. And while Midway Atoll undoubtedly plays a role in all of this, it is its importance for seabirds that really put makes it stand out as a globally significant area for conservation. 

Thousands of Laysan albatross now nest on the former Naval Station "parade grounds" on Sand Island. These birds breed in the winter and when this photo was taken in April 2016, the chicks, about 3 1/2 months old were brown and flightless.
Eighteen seabird breed on the three islands (Sand, Eastern, and Spit) that make up Midway Atoll, including three species of albatross (Laysan, black-footed, and short-tailed); Bonin petrel; wedge-tailed shearwater; Tristam's storm-petrel; white- and red-tailed tropicbirds; masked, brown, and red-footed boobys; great frigatebird; and four species of tern (little, least, sooty, and gray-backed). Many seabirds have long breeding cycles which make their chicks vulnerable to predation. Over the course of many thousands of years, they have adapted to this by choosing to breed on small, remote islands where predators were absent.  As we, humans, extended our range to include these faraway places, bringing with us our beloved cats and dogs (and also our less-loved rats!) seabirds have suffered. Midway's importance for seabirds is evident in its native Hawaiian name, Pihemanu which means "loud din of birds" and although Midway has had over one hundred years of human use, nearly all of the seabirds have persisted, albeit some in very reduced numbers (other types of birds were not so lucky, but we'll save that for another post). The critical role that Midway Atoll plays for seabirds prompted the US government to designate it a wildlife refuge in 1988.

The two species seabirds that seem to really dominate Sand Island, where I spend most of my time, are Laysan albatross Bonin petrel. Nearly three-quarters of the worlds Laysan albatross  breed on Midway Atoll and over half a million nest across the three islands. These very large (80 inch wingspan) and long-lived birds typically don't breed until they are 9 or 10 years old and take mate for life. A single egg is layed each year and it takes 5-6 months for it to grow large enough to fly. Both the male and female share the duties of raising the chick which involves flying out to sea -- sometimes for days at a time and travelling hundreds of miles -- to feed on fish, eggs, squid and such before returning to the island where the food is then regurgitated to feed the chick. The oldest known wild bird in the world is a female Laysan albatross, appropriately given the name Wisdom. She is at least 65 years old and currently is raising a chick just a short distance from my house here on Sand Island. 

Adult Laysan albatross feeding its chick
While reading about Laysan albatross is certainly interesting, living with them makes you appreciate them in a more complete way. At any given time there are probably fifty to one hundred albatross in my little "yard" and I often have to squeeze around a nestling while trying to get through the front door. As animals that have not evolved around people, they show no fear of us. Sitting outside today during the afternoon I had several adult albatrosses waddle up to me and nibble on my shoe. They also don't pay much attention to vehicles and you have to really work hard to avoid them when riding a bike or driving one of the golf carts we use to transport materials for work. Then there is the noise factor. Although chicks are pretty quiet, adults and sub-adults spend an enormous time in courtship activities, click here to see a video on youtube to get an idea of what one pair sounds like. Then magnify this by 50 or 100 to get an idea of what it sounds like at my house or at the office. They are incredibly noisy but also very curious and entertaining to be around and I look forward to getting to know them better.

It's getting late but I need to say something about Bonin petrel, the other species that seems to be everywhere here on Sand Island. This bird seems to be mostly nocturnal and builds its nests in burrows that it excavates. Other than the northwestern Hawaiian islands this species also breeds on several islands in Japan but Midway Atoll hosts its largest population. At night the skies swarm with Bonin petrels and they make a strange shrieking and growling sounds and are attracted to lights. Because of this, all shades must be closed in our houses at night to avoid birds crashing into the windows. It also means that wearing a headlamp outdoors is contraindicated you have a good chance of having a petrel fly into your face!
A pair of Bonin petrels outside my house one night
Bonin petrels are out of sight during the day (no one seems to be sure though if they are underground or out at sea) but not out of mind because anytime you leave a paved area you need to be very careful where you walk so as not to fall into one of their burrows. At this time of year, the burrows usually contain a chick so if you step into one you need to find out if you buried a chick and rescue it if you did. This entails getting down on your knees an digging out the sand carefully, handful by handful. Often, you find a very warm gray ball of down that just fits in the palm of your hand. A Bonin petrel chick! 

A Bonin petrel chick steps out of its burrow on a warm night for some fresh air

So that's a quick introduction to some of the more abundant bird life here at Midway Atoll. In future posts I'll write about other birds but also on other topics as well so stay tuned!


  1. Rob this sounds like such an amazing place and I'm really interested in how you'll influence the programs there. Looking forward to more updates and pictures!

    I have one burning question though... Have you a handle yet?

    1. Good question Asteroid. Sadly they do not use radio handles here but stick to boring last names. But maybe I need a handle anyway? I've been trying to get people to call me "Lobster", which is easier for the Thai folks to say than "Rob"!

  2. My students read an article about Wisdom and G000 for their English final in February.

  3. Fascinating. Saw a National Geographic or Disney film when I was a kid about the albatross, appreciated your comments on them. Did not know that there were bird species that had no fear of humans. Hope your hearing survives the experience! - M

  4. Tres bien, mon ami! It would seem fulfilling enough to collect observations on the breeding birds. Bonne chance focusing on the task at hand! To that end, I'll be interested to read future posts about the direct conservation milieu.

  5. I am exhausted after watching that courtship behavior. What an expenditure of energy!