Friday, November 25, 2016

Savage Love (“Midway Style”)

After a couple of months of relative quiet, the albatrosses started arriving in the middle of October. The first sighting, a lone black-footed albatross in a field behind the “Fuel Farm” spotted by Chugach employee Suriya Hemphumee on October was met with much excitement, not just by the geeky biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service, but also by other island residents. After going to check out the birds, I remember telling “Jack” (Phosri Kriengsak), one of the power plant operators, that the albatross were back and he replied with a big smile “Really???”. Most everyone I spoke to seemed to think the albatross were a little early this year.The first Laysan albatross arrived about a week later (typical, as black-footed albatross always constitute the vanguard); a single individual that appeared one sunny, breezy day near the old water tower. Slowly but steadily more birds arrived until eventually – over the course of a week or so – it seemed like there were birds nearly everywhere. 

Arrival of the albatross as illustrated by repeat photography in a field north of Charlie Barracks on Sand Island, Midway Atoll (one photo taken each day during the period of November 3-22, 2016).
This being my first time experiencing “albatross welcome week” I was not sure what to expect but will admit that I was not prepared for what I would witness. Postcards of snuggling albatross couples with captions touting their long lifespan and monogamous lifestyle had led me astray. Imagine if your only knowledge of organized crime was a Broadway production of West Side Story prior to finding yourself in the middle of gang shootout in Compton?

The first albatrosses appeared lonely, tired, and somewhat disoriented. Given that many of these birds had been out in the ocean for months and had travelled thousands of miles to get here, perhaps, that is to be expected. It didn’t take them long, though, to recoup their energy. As more birds arrived, disputes over spacing and territory quickly arose. Albatross don’t require a lot of space on their breeding grounds but do have preferences as to where to build their nests and do try to maintain a little space from neighbors (according to a study by Earl Meseth conducted on midway in the early 1960s, nests are always separated by at least 32 inches). As it is males that arrive first, it is among them that disputes over nesting locations seem most common. These can range from, in their mildest form, two birds sitting low and thrusting their bills out towards one another while holding their ground, to full-on brawls that occur when a bird “trespasses” into an area where others have already settled into their territories. As tensions escalate, one bird often locks down on the bill of the other and shake it violently, leaving one or both bloodied. It is also common for the aggressor in one of these encounters to wrap its neck around another bird and attempt to wrestle it to the ground. Fights are accompanied by loud screams that you would think signal mortal wounding, though, it seems, they rarely lead to serious injury.

Squabbles erupt among Laysan albatross as they attempt to claim potential nest sites. 

If the bro’ fights weren’t bad enough there is the raping. Is the, perhaps, anthropomorphic term “raping” really the right word? I don’t know, but honestly, I can’t think of a reasonable alternative. Although authoritative sources state that the “male rarely copulates with female other than his mate"2 what one observes on the breeding grounds strongly suggests otherwise, unless there are a lot of single dudes out there. During the first few weeks, as females are returning to the atoll, they seem to be constantly harassed by males (you can tell the difference as males have larger bills relative to the size of their heads). When a female lands, it is instantly recognized by nearby males which begin chasing her and trying to climb on top of her. The female often senses danger and tries to escape with its wings held high but what often ensues are ridiculous pile-ups consisting of three or more males with a terrified female crushed underneath. Whether or not, given the anatomy of these birds the male attackers can actually affect insemination during these non-consensual encounters isn’t clear as males don’t have a penis but instead just an opening (a "cloaca" in technical jargon) very similar to that of the females. After watching albatross have sex several times it would seem to me that the female would have to cooperate for sperm to enter, however scientific studies that might shed light on this question, apparently, have yet to be conducted. Females typically try to defend themselves by biting the attacker but what often ends up saving them are the males themselves, as sexual assault devolves into a testosterone-fueled brawl among the aggressors giving the female the opportunity to escape.

A female Laysan albatross is forcibly mounted by two competing males.
As the sex-ratio on the atoll becomes more balanced things calm down a bit and more socially-acceptable (to humans, that is), oxytocin-inspired, pair-bond behaviors gradually supplant the testosterone frenzy. Once mates arrive, male birds spend more time cuddling with their long-departed lovers and less attacking their neighbors. Preening each other seems to be a very popular form of love amongst the paired birds with attention paid especially to the neck and head (makes sense since these are parts of the body that are not easily reached by an individual). Albatross also just have a way of assuming very cute postures. Consensual sex is also observed in all of its clumsy, web-footed seabird glory as males clamber atop willing females to get the essential business done. This is often followed by dancing and other courtship behaviors. During this early stage of the breeding season an amazingly rich collection of behaviors unfolds. In Meseth’s study of Laysan albatross he detailed at least 26 behavioral elements including the air snap, headshake and whine, head flick, rapid bill clapper, eh-eh bow, scapular action, sky moo, stare and whinny, bob-strut, bill touch, bow clapper, nest threat, bill thrust, charge, glare, victory cry, escape run, and mutual preen. Even though, after six months here at Midway, I have seen these things hundreds of times, I am still fascinated by them and in my reading about the history of Midway it seems that I am not unique in this regard. Beginning in 1904 when employees of the Pacific Commercial Cable Company came to Midway and continuing through the Navy years and into the present, watching the albatross has always been an important form of entertainment for island residents.

Albatross courtship and mating. Clockwise from upper left: A pair of Laysan albatross dance on the breeding grounds; mutual preening; a pair of black-footed albatross enjoy each other's company; Laysan albatross copulating (consensual).

Before you know it there are eggs! The first egg seen on the atoll this year was on November 9th which just happened to be my birthday. Quite the gift! Before laying an egg the female builds a nest, often with the help of her mate. Some of the nests seem fairly minimal while others are are much more substantial and well-constructed. Nests are built using just the bill and have a foundation of sand or soil sometimes lined with dried leaves or grass. Excavation of material surrounding the nest often results in their being a kind of moat around it. I have only seen one bird actually lay and egg but it seemed like an arduous and uncomfortable. Not surprising since they are quite large, averaging 11 x 7 cm (4.2 x 2.7 inches) in size and constitute nearly 10% of the females body mass!

Laysan albatross female with brand new egg.
As I write this post the albatrosses seem to be incredibly busy. Fights are few as most birds are either courting and mating or have already settled onto their nests and begun the marathon that is reproduction for these species. If all goes well, male and female, in nearly equal turns, will incubate the egg for just over 2 months and then care for and feed their chick for about five months before it is big enough to fly off on its own. For some birds things already have not gone well. Heavy rain fell on the atoll this week which resulted in the inundation of some nests and more storms are sure to come. The waves that overwashed the atoll during the tsunami of March 10, 2011 killed an estimated 110,000 albatross chicks (Laysan and black-footed combined). Albatross will stick tight to their nests with the most incredible tenacity but if the egg is lost they have no choice but to put off breeding until the next year as they lack sufficient reserves to lay a second egg. Knowing that many of the nests will not succeed can be a bit saddening, but the energy and enthusiasm that albatross possess imbue the atoll with a feeling of vitality and inspiration.


The title of this blog post was inspired by the refreshingly candid and honest newspaper column Savage Love by Dan Savage. If you have never read it, check it out!


Monday, October 31, 2016

Pseudo-Post Apocalyptic

In previous posts I’ve given you stories about dancing seabirds, fascinating flowers, endangered seals, and charming men from Thailand. Today though I want to share with you a darker view of Midway. If you’re the kind of person that has bad dreams after reading disturbing things, this might not be the blog post for you. And if there are children in the room, this might be a good time to lock them in the coal closet (well, at least that’s what my parents used to do when they wanted to get rid of us for a spell).

Upon arriving at Midway I was struck by the incredible abundance of seabirds which, coupled with the remoteness of the island and the lack of fear exhibited by wildlife, give the island a surreal flavor for sure. Visitors to the Galapagos or other remote islands would likely have similar impressions and feelings. But the strangeness didn’t stop there. Riding my bicycle across pot-holed roads, among derelict buildings, passing by rusty heaps of scrap metal and old guns, with not another human soul in sight, I have often found myself thinking about what it would be like to one of a handful of survivors of some kind of apocalypse. Some of these buildings are impressive hulks that can even be entered to consummate the feeling of post-nuclear near-annihilation. The seaplane hangar, which suffered great damage during a Japanese bombing raid during World War II, is a great place to do some thinking about the fragility of human societies.

The Seaplane Hangar, an enormous steel framed building  was bombed
on December 7th, 1941 and nearly destroyed. Though never repaired, it's still used for storage.

Many aspects of life on Midway add to the impression that we live in some sort of post-apocalyptic world. It is a motley crew out here: a dozen or so Americans that for whatever reason decided to station themselves thousands of miles from anywhere. Add to this a couple dozen men from Thailand that certainly must be escaping something, if only perhaps pitiful wages in their home country. When away from my desk and computer, it’s not hard to imagine that this we are the only ones in the world remaining.  Although writers and filmmakers have imagined many variations on what the world might be like should catastrophe come to pass, most agree that motorized modes of transportation would be scarce as the facilities used in the production of oil and gasoline would be the first targets hit. So if we forget about the birds for minute we can easily imagine a more sinister reason why Midway’s residents travel about the island on old rusty bicycles and golf carts.

Midway's only ambulance seems to be a relic passed on from another, more prosperous time and is an example of the island's tradition of keeping old equipment in service as long as possible.

Folks on the island seem to be pretty much oblivious to things happening in the outside world, including even major US elections1. I remember an occasion last summer when a group of a dozen or so of us argued back and forth on the topic of when and where the Olympic Games were to be held that summer. After five minutes of back and forth – in both English and Thai – no one could offer a definitive answer we weren't even sure if they had already happened or not. It was almost like we were discussing something hypothetical or imaginary. In the so-called civilized world, this kind of ridiculous conversation, unlikely as it might be, would quickly be settled with someone pulling out a smartphone to look it up, but given the lack of connectivity here at Midway that is not something that ever happens. It’s not that people don’t have smartphones, most do, but in proper post-apocalyptic fashion, they seem more like souvenirs from a more technologically-advanced world that was left behind.

Derelict and dilapidated: a few of Midway's pseudo-post-apocalyptic treasures. Clockwise from upper left: The old power plant where WWII hero George Cannon suffered fatal injuries yet refused to leave his post; abandoned office in old Naval Air Facilities (NAF) hangar; massive generators of the old power plant; mysterious cross and refrigerator in room in NAF hangar.

Nothing speaks post-apocalypse better than Midway’s “boneyard”, an assortment of junk piles that covers several acres by the harbor. It is here – not Wal-Mart – that residents of the atoll go when they find themselves in need of something. In fact, on Midway, when you say you’re going “shopping”, it means you’re heading over to the boneyard to find something (wear sturdy shoes and be sure you're up to date on your tetanus vaccinations). Here I’ve found old, but serviceable, aluminum poles, cricket bats, a functional cooler, a giant bolt that I use as a stake, snowshoes, and a table and chair. You could also find wrecked cars, boats heavy equipment (there is, I think, a giant asphalt-grinding machine), washing machines, refrigerators, satellite dishes and nearly anything else you might desire. Common household trash judged to have no value is taken to a giant burn pile on the edge of the island an on certain days when the wind is right the acrid smoke burns your nostrils as it blows by. But anything that could even possibly find purpose in the future is hoarded. There are small piles of possibly valuable things cached nearly everywhere on the island. Closets are crammed with surplus clothing, spare rooms in houses piled high with old furniture and nick knacks, and a drawer in the kitchen of my with dozens of MREs (the famous “meals, ready to eat” which have caused nearly as many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder as shell shock). Should materials be needed for the set of the next Mad Max sequel, the boneyard would be a profitable place to seek them.

There's something for everyone in the Boneyard. At first glance it looks somewhat
random but closer inspection reveals considerable organization.

The hydroponic garden, located next the abandoned, former dining hall, provides fresh vegetables to supplement the island exile’s diet of canned and deep-frozen foods, and could also be envisioned in a post-apocalyptic outpost. But as soon as my stomach's rumbling sends me to the Clipper House for lunch, the illusion falls apart. Whereas my fantasy had me living disconnected from the outside world and post-civilization, life here on Midway is in reality completely the opposite. Food grown in various parts of the world is hauled in by ship and by jet. Thousands of gallons of fuel are burned each month to keep the lights on and the air conditioners humming. And even if most island residents ignore the news, they maintain close communication with family and friends back home and frequently share photos and stories through social media thanks to our satellite communications system. Maybe what we have here is more like pseudo-post apocalyptic?

Midway has played a key role throughout US military history including as a surveillance outpost
during the Cold War years.

While it is true that many of the things that lend Midway a post-apocalyptic feel are simply a consequence of its remoteness and decaying infrastructure, it is hard to escape the historical importance it's held during times when it seemed not too far fetched that the most world's most powerful nations might just bomb each other into oblivion. The Battle of Midway is famously recognized as a pivotal victory for the US against the Japanese. Less well known is the role that Midway played during the Cold War. Shortly after the Korean War the Soviet Union began military maneuvers in the Pacific prompting the US to deploy the “Airborne Early Warning Barrier”, a system to keep track of Soviet planes. Midway was a key resource with over 30 flight crews stationed on the atoll and flights departing the island's airfield every four hours to conduct surveillance across the Pacific all the way to Adak Island in the Aleutians. Midway also served an important function during the Vietnam war, as a fueling station for ships and aircraft and also as a base for the Missile Impact Locating System and other weapons programs. Should things have gone a little differently in this small corner of the globe, it is hard to say how things would have turned out but it would probably be fair to say that there were times when apocalypse was a very real possibility.

1 - A notable exception was the recent death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej which was was met by island residents with deep sadness.

Postscript: Popular culture has conjured many visions for a post-apocalyptic world but none for me has been more compelling than The Road  by Cormac MacCarthy. In this dark novel, the protagonists, an unnamed father and his son (the boy), wander through a world so ruined that nature as we know it no longer exists. A recommended, though very dark, read!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Meet the Natives

In an earlier post (Floral Inflation), I described how Midway Atoll went from having just a dozen or so species of plants to over 200 over the course of about 100 years (the botanical equivalent to the acceleration of a Lamborghini). And although I included the names and photos of a few native plant species, I didn’t really do them justice. I thought I should revisit to topic and introduce you to some of the beautiful and interesting native plants we have out here and so I began the task of researching the plants and taking some photos. Little did I know that I would be pulled, in an ironically-metaphorical sense, “into the weeds”. What once seemed like a neatly circumscribed topic became muddied with complications. What is native to this place? And how do we know?  What to do about the fact that the very physical environment of Midway has changed so radically over the decades? It has taken me some time to extract myself from the thicket but I hope that you will find what I have to share with you worth the wait.

Every ecologist is well-versed in concepts of “native” versus “exotic” and uses this as a way to separate the “good species” from the troublesome. Back in New Mexico and Oregon it was a pretty straightforward task to take the list of plants found at a site and split them into these two categories. Generally speaking, if a plant existed in the area prior to the arrival of white people it was considered native and if it wasn’t it was exotic (the exact word used changed over time as folks struggled to find something politically acceptable and included “non-native”, “alien”, and “invasive”). It wasn’t that the indigenous peoples of North America didn’t move plants around (for example, bringing corn from Mexico to the Mississippi basin), but the changes that ensued after Columbus’ “discovery” were so profound in comparison that dividing things into “pre-“ and “post-Columbus” has typically proven very useful (check out this book by Charles C. Mann for more on that topic). Ecosystems that still retained their native species were judged to be more pristine while those dominated by exotics were thought of as degraded.

So my original plan was to do a little research into the dozen or so plants I had been told were native to Midway and write about them. Early on I had noticed a few things that seemed really cool. Even though there weren’t many native species, they seemed diverse in terms of their growth forms – which included bunchgrasses, sedges, sprawling vines with showy flowers, big shrubs that enable the formation of dunes, and delicate wildflowers – as well as in their life histories – a mix of opportunistic short-lived plants that produced a lot of seed and long-lived plants with more complicated ecological relationships. One thing most of them had in common was the ability to grow from cuttings or to produce large, durable, seeds worthy of sea voyages – traits essential for establishing themselves remote islands far from their source populations.

As I was putting together that post though I also took on the task – as part of my work responsibilities – of compiling a list of plant species for the atoll. In doing so I relied heavily on the work of Forest and Kim Starr, botanists based out of Maui who have for decades catalogued and researched Midway’s flora. They listed not a dozen but 39 native species encountered here over the years. Digging deeper, I found that while the term native could be applied to species discovered here during the very first botanical surveys, it might also include those found on nearby islands or even on one of the main Hawaiian islands (Oahu, the Big Island, Maui, etc.) but encountered here at a later date. And what about species that might have been missed on those earlier surveys or those that were native to the region but only showed up once the island had extensively modified during “military occupation” or where purposefully introduced? What did it really mean to be a native plant species on Midway? This was a question without a simple answer and required that I examine each species individually using whatever evidence I could acquire which included research into published journal articles and unpublished works (the “gray literature”) as well as herbarium records and online databases.

In the end I reckoned 22 of the 39 species to be truly native to Midway atoll, meaning, they were had a very good chance of being here before the Pacific Commercial Cable Company set up operations here in 1903.  The remaining 17 species were those that were native to somewhere in Hawaiian archipelago but probably had made it to Midway with the help of people – either by them acting as their couriers or by the changes wrought by them as a consequence of their presence here. My research also revealed what had been lost. Of the 22 native species, about half had their entire populations eliminated from Midway as a consequence of the environmental perturbations that resulted from the island’s occupation (one of these was subsequently reintroduced and still struggles to survive). Three are now extinct – that is, vanished entirely from the planet.  The 12 survivors are clearly a hardy bunch and play important roles in the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to restore the islands ecosystems.

The first botanical surveys of Midway Atoll were conducted by ornithologist William A. Bryan who visited these remote islands for just a few hours in 1902 (a side trip taken while en route from Marcus Island back to Honolulu). Until that time, Midway had been visited primarily by bird hunters and a few unfortunates who found themselves shipwrecked here.  Little had been done to modify the environment at the time and Bryan described Sand Island as a “barren, blinding, heap of sand” noting also that nearby Eastern Island was much greener, covered in low shrubs, and more hospitable despite its smaller size and simpler topography. In his very short time at Midway, Bryan recorded a mere 13 species of plants consisting of three shrubs, four wildflowers, four grasses, and two vines but admitted that that he would likely have encountered more species if he’d been there longer. Eight of these plants are still present on the atoll and are critical players in restoration efforts here, including alena (Boerhavia repens), emaloa (Eragrostis variabilis), koali awa (Ipomoea indica), and popolo (Solanum nelsonii). Unlike some of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, there are no plant species endemic to Midway (that is species that occur here but nowhere else in the world). Of the 13 true natives, five no longer occur on Midway and of these, two are extinct. One of these is the grass Kamanomano (Cenchrus agrimonioides var. laysanensis) which was once abundant on several of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands but was last seen in 1961 on nearby Kure Island.  The other, ʻahinahina (Achyranthes atollensis) was a shrub in the amaranth family with hairy leaves that grew up to four feet high on sand mounds and was never seen again on Midway after 1902!

Undisputed natives. Boerhavia repens (top) and Lepturus repens (bottom) were
noted during the very first botanical explorations of Midway. Both of these species have widespread distributions across the tropics and subtropics.
Erling Christophersen and Edward Caum, travelling with the Tanager Expedition in 1923-4, were the next to document the flora of Midway and turned up four additional native plant species. These included the beautiful morning-glory vine Pohuehue (Ipomoea pes-caprae ssp. brasiliensis), and the spectacular yellow-flowered ilima (Sida fallax). Ilima, which also occurs on the main Hawaiian Islands has great cultural significance and is the most desired flower when creating the traditional lei or flower wreath. Two of the four species are, however, now gone from Midway. Phyllostegia variabilis, appears to have disappeared from the planet so quickly that there is no common name for it and virtually no information about it (try finding anything about this species using Google and you will surely be disappointed!). Moa (Psilotum nudum), is a rootless fernlike plant that no longer occurs on the atoll but persists across a wide swath of sub-tropical and tropical areas of the globe and was used by native Hawaiian people to prevent chafing incurred in the wearing of loincloths!

Botanists travelling with the Tanager Expedition (1923-4) were able to make a more complete list of Midway's flora adding Sida fallax (top)  and Ipomoea pes-caprae ssp. brasiliensis (bottom) to the list of native species.
The 1930s and ‘40s were periods of profound change at Midway as the islands became a tourist destination with the establishment of a Pan American Airways Clipper station (which included a hotel and restaurant) and then, shortly after, drew the attention of the US military as global tensions rose and the atoll was recognized as a place of strategic significance. Buildings were erected, roads constructed, and runways paved. Occasional visits by botanists documented the effects that these changes had on Midway’s flora. Johnson Neff and Philip Du Mont spent a month on the atoll in 1954 to “study bird problems” but also found time to document the plant life as it existed at that time. Two native species, mau'u 'aki'aki (Fimbristylis cymosa) and ena'ena (Pseudognaphalium sandwicensium var. sandwicensium) were recorded for the first time. These are species that, though native to the Hawaiian islands, had never before had a place to grow on Midway but were now found to be growing along paved surfaces. Ena’ena, interestingly, mostly finds its home on lava flows on the Big Island but was thriving in this novel ecosystem. In 1980 Derryl Herbst added kaʻa, puʻukaʻa (Cyperus polystachyos) to the list of sort-of-native Midway plants. This widespread and hardy sedge found a niche at the end of a runway where water pooled during the wet-season and decades later became a foundational species in creating wetland habitat for the endangered Laysan duck. The discovery of the succulent akulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum) in 1995 by Marie Bruegmann is a bit of a mystery as habitat for this plant – areas close to the beach that receive salt spray and are occasionally washed over by storm-driven waves – would seem to have been some of the least disturbed areas on the atoll.

Extensive modification of Midway's environment created suitable habitat for "new native species"
such as Fimbristylis cymosa (top) which grows in cracks in the runways; Although it is likely that the hardy,
salt-tolerant mat-forming Sesuvium portulacastrum (bottom) existed on Midway for many centuries it was not discovered until the 1990s.
When management of Midway was turned over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996 (see Trading Guns for Goonies) restoration of native plants became a priority. Ten species of plants native to the Hawaiian islands were either introduced or just showed up in the years that followed. These included species that were in trouble elsewhere and needed new homes. Aweoweo (Chenopodium oahuense), a robust shrub in the goosefoot family, and and Bryan’s flatsedge (Cyperus pennatiformis var. bryanii) were brought to Midway from Laysan Island, the former becoming an important species used for restoration while the latter failed to establish. Efforts to secure the critically endangered loulu lelo (Pritchardia remota) compelled Fish and Wildlife Service staff to collect several hundred seeds from their source population on Nihoa island and grow them out in the nursery on Midway. Today, five of these plants survive adding a some security to the original population.

Though not native to Midway, the Nihoa fan palm (Pritchardia remota), originall found only on the
island of Nihoa in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is currently being grown on the atoll as
part of efforts to secure its global population.
Efforts to re-establish the native plants of Midway Atoll and to provide habitat for endangered plants native to other parts of the Hawaiian archipelago are more concerted now than ever. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has stepped up its efforts to restore degraded habitat on Midway atoll which now includes a native seed library, a greenhouse, and a brand-new, 6,600 sq ft shadehouse. Through its native plant propagation program Midway has become an important site for conservation of the popolo at a time when populations elsewhere continue to decline. Exact definitions of what is native or not no longer seem so important in a world of changing climate and rising seas. What seems imperative now is to do the most we can with this 2 square miles of sand and coral out here in the Pacific Ocean with respect to both the wildlife and the plant life. This will require boldness, creativity, but also humility. Of the 22 “original” native species, half had their entire populations eliminated from Midway as a consequence of the environmental changes wrought upon the island during the early part of the 20th century and only one of these, akiaki (Sporobolus virginicus) has been successfully reestablished. We need to do better than that in the future and doing so will require utilizing sound science in guiding future actions. That and maybe a little luck!

Currently, 20 species of "native" plants are being propagated by the
US Fish and Wildlife Service at Midway Atoll.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

POTUS @ Midway

If the title of this post leaves you a little confused, don’t worry, I didn’t know what POTUS meant until a week or so ago. Before I left the atoll in late July rumors of a possible visit by the President of the United States (acronym = POTUS) were pretty thick among the residents of Midway, triggered perhaps by a group of 30 or so White House staff and interns under somewhat mysterious circumstances the week before.  At least I think they were staff and interns, no one really seemed to know who exactly they were and all they did for their day here was walk around, eat, and go out on to the reef to snorkel.

But shortly after I returned to the atoll in late August, it became official: POTUS was planning a visit on his way from the World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, where he would announce the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, to an economic summit in China. In fact, flying with me on the plane were some key staff of the Fish and Wildlife Service who would be representing the agency during the White House visit and leading preparations.  This would be only the second time POTUS visited Midway, the first being Richard Nixon when he held a secret meeting here President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam.  Evidence that preparations had already begun were everywhere upon my re-entry. Not a single albatross carcass did I see on my first day back and the musty smell of dead birds had been supplanted with the fragrant aroma of flowering trees. New park benches sat alongside the roads as Chugach staff, redeployed from their normal duties, were busy cleaning nearly everything that could possibly be cleaned and grooming the normally disheveled vegetation. The island’s only pub, Captain Brooks Tavern, was renovated in anticipation of a swarm of thirsty visitors.

A week of intense preparation preceded President Obama's visit to Midway. Clockwise from upper left: Chugach staff mow the "lawn" at the historic Midway House; Yuki Takahashi helps hang new materials in the Visitors Center; Ann Humphrey works on the landscaping at the Midway Harbor Memorial; Savanna Jade and Nai Degracia take a short break after working on new visitor displays.

Within a couple of days more personnel from a variety of agencies and equipment started arriving.  [Redacted] teams, [Redacted][Redacted], and a [Redacted] occupied the officer’s quarters that formerly housed our volunteers. The Midway House, which was in the midst of a substantial renovation, was readied for visiting White House Staff. The population on the island doubled during the week prior to the POTUS visit and was expected continue swelling up until September 1st, the day of the expected visit, when 150 people or so people would occupy this little island. Large cargo aircraft, C-17s, landed at the normally sleepy Henderson Field regularly carrying both people and supplies. Meal hours at the Clipper House were extended to accommodate the extra visitors and Chef Pong and his crew worked long hours to meet the demands.

With exception of the refuge manager, the roles that I and the Fish and Wildlife Service staff and volunteers that I work with were to play on the big day were vague and uncertain, although we all hoped that we’d have at least some contact with the POTUS. What was clear was that we would be asked to help out with the preparations in a big way and each day we met with the organizers to get the latest news on how many planes might be arriving that day and what things we could do to help. We were tasked with a variety of menial duties which included everything from landscaping to cleaning to creating signs for educating visitors on proper wildlife etiquette. After a day of shoveling sand and rearranging large paving stones at the Midway Harbor Memorial with co-worker Ann Humphrey, I worried that I had done some damage to my lower back. The tone of the island had changed from being relaxed and lighthearted to somewhat tense and very serious. Maybe it was learning that everyone was being investigated by the Secret Service and that our phones might be tapped? Or having our usual Friday afternoon social in the community garden shut down? Or perhaps it was announcement of the curfew? It probably didn’t help that during the three days preceding the visit, Midway was hit by a series of sky-darkening storms producing torrential rainfall and flooding roads and low-lying areas. Word spread that if Hurricane Madeline took a turn towards Honolulu or if storms continued to batter Midway, the POTUS visit might even be cancelled. What humor there was on the island was mostly of the dark variety. While helping to hang new posters in the Visitors Center, I stretched to hold the two ends of a poster as high as I could against the wall, a posture which prompted a flashback to the fall of 2015 when I was being frisked by Border Patrol agents during a difficult crossing back into the states from Mexico.

Severe storms flooded the islands in the days before the President's visit.
The day before the big event, during an “all island meeting” it was confirmed that everyone on island, including the incredibly hardworking Thai guys that keep this place running, would have the chance to greet the POTUS as he stepped off of Air Force One to begin his tour.  Exciting news for sure, although we also learned that preliminary plans to involve the volunteers in the president’s tour (feeding white terns and planting a native shrub) had been nixed after White House review. Not being a “big wig” and not an employee of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (I work for the partner group National Wildlife Refuge Association), I don’t know what I'd expected but I will admit to being a little surprised and disappointed when I learned that, once the meet and greet was over, I would have to return to my house and stay there the whole day until Air Force One departed (something akin to "house arrest"). Why does my president need to be protected from me? Hell, I even voted for the guy (twice) and helped clean up the island so he’d have a pleasant visit!  I briefly considered not even going to the meet and greet as a sort of protest.

A National Geographic Team, which included marine conservationist Sylvia Earl, were invited by the White House to be part of the event. Earl announced to Obama that a deep ocean fish would be named after him.

The night before the big day the storms began to clear and I went out with oceanographer and marine conservationist Sylvia Earl and a couple of National Geographic photographers to get some footage of Bonin Petrels at what turned out to be one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve witnessed here. Clearly, things were looking up for the POTUS’ visit and by next morning skies were blue again and the island looked and smelled about as fresh as it probably has since Captain Brooks landed his ship here over a hundred years ago. All of the islands residents gathered shortly before Air Force One was scheduled to arrive. Seeing the excitement of my co-workers – and especially the Thai guys – during these moments made me realize how stupid I would have been to boycott this event.

Storms exited the area the evening before the big day producing an extraordinary sunset. 
Anticipation continued to build as we were led to the greeting area, a small patch of pavement enclosed by sawhorses and dozens of photos were taken before Air Force One even began its decent to Henderson Field.  When the plane finally landed, a few dozen members of the press exited the rear door and took up strategic positions. After not too much delay the front door opened, a staircase was extended and, after a half dozen or so guards of some sort walked off, down came Barack Obama, looking casual, relaxed, and decidedly cool. No need to wear a suit at Midway, some high level wonk had clearly decided! Within moments he was shaking hands and greeting folks. He even made it a point to ask people their names, something that seemed pretty down to earth for the POTUS, and then graciously posed for a photo with all of us. And then he was off in a motorcade of golf carts flanked by black SUVs (he was in a golf cart) to begin his tour which included a stop at the Midway Harbor Memorial, the Cargo Pier, Turtle Beach, and then a trip by boat to go snorkeling at the reef. I went home to read, sew, clean the house and drink beer. On the way I walked alongside Kidjarom Wongwei, one of the cooks at the Clipper House, and he was so incredibly jazzed by the event (he also met First Lady Laura Bush when she visited here in 2007) that whatever residual bad feelings that I may have still had vanished.

Arrival at Midway. From top to bottom: Air Force One just after landing; Obama heads to meet the crowd; POTUS heads off to tour the island in a golf course motorcade.

By all accounts the trip was a success.  Fish and Wildlife staff felt like they got a positive message across, the White House was rewarded by positive depictions of the president in the media, and Chugach succeeded in having run what could be considered a “preparation marathon” in record time. When the POTUS departed, the mood on the island immediately relaxed and folks began taking down all the things that went up.  Last night Chugach generously hosted an “appreciation party” for the residents and the few remaining visitors and it was a real celebration as guys I’d never seen there before joined in singing Thai songs and dancing to the karaoke machine. Today, the last C17 took off and with it the last of the crew stationed here for the visit and things are finally back to normal.  Midway normal that is!

President Obama with US Fish and Wildlife staff and the residents of Midway (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Links to a few news stories about POTUS’ visit:

Monday, August 29, 2016


A few days ago President Barak Obama did something pretty extraordinary when he signed Presidential Proclamation 8112 expanding the area encompassed within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to 582,578 square miles (that’s twice the size of Texas), making it the largest conservation area on earth. Everyone loves a good superlative and having worked for in the field of conservation for a few years I’ve heard my share, some more contrived than others. But this is one is so hard to comprehend it bears repeating: THE LARGEST CONSERVATION AREA ON EARTH.

Before my conservative friends click “close” let me relate a couple of important facts about the pre-Obama history of this thing. Back in the days when wearing bird feathers on one’s hat was a sign of status and the harvest of wild eggs for food was commonplace, ships plied remote corners of the Pacific Ocean looking for seabird colonies to exploit. Reports of large numbers of seabirds being slaughtered in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands prompted President Teddy Roosevelt to establish the first protections for wildlife there in 1909. Incremental steps were made in subsequent years but it wasn’t until 2006 that significant progress was made when President George W Bush signed Presidential Proclamation 8031 establishing the Monument  although at the time it had a somewhat more bureaucratic name at the time.

In these times when those who might be labelled “red” or “blue” rarely have much in common, what is it about this place, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, that creates such consensus regarding its importance for conservation? I think it boils down to three things. First, this is a remote area of the globe that, aside from a fairly limited commercial fishery, has little economic importance. In a world where habitat for seabirds, marine mammals, turtles, and coral reefs has experienced sharp declines, these uninhabited islands provide critical habitat and are the last strongholds for two species of albatross (Laysan and Black-footed), Hawaiian monk seals, and green sea-turtle). Moreover, recent scientific explorations have revealed that the area harbors an extraordinary diversity of marine species – over 7,000 of which about one-quarter are found nowhere else on earth – which include the longest living coral species in the world, black coral, which inhabits the deep waters of this region and provides habitat for various fishes. But of course, the significance of this area has long been known to the native people of Hawaii who have long considered these islands and the seas that surround them the source of all life and which is reflected in the name given to the monument: Papahānaumokuākea.

Finally, if you have had your head in the sand (or some other dark place) you may have missed the fact that our earth is changing and that low-lying islands and the seas that surround them are especially vulnerable to some of these changes which include  not only warming but, perhaps more importantly, acidification and other impacts. In expanding the area protected by the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, President Obama has taken an important step towards ensuring that this area will be able to adapt to these changes and, hopefully, retain the biological riches that have evolved here over the past 100 million or so years. Of course this will not be enough as the ocean is fluid and the new boundary, however large, is rigid.  When the President visits Midway this week, I am hoping that it will inspire him to undertake even greater steps towards protecting our oceans.  We’ll see I guess!

If you have any doubt as to the extraordinary significance of this area, take a look at this video which provides some fantastic footage from a scientific exploration made in 2016 by the NOAA research vessel Deep Discover within what is now part of the marine national monument.  Enjoy!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Go By Bike!

When I was weighing the pros and cons of taking on this job there were lots of factors to consider but one of the real attractions was that I’d be living on an island where bicycles were the primary mode of transportation. What I wasn’t aware of was the reasoning behind it. Sand Island – the largest of Midway’s three islands and the only one where people live – is certainly small enough (about 2 ½ miles long and half a mile wide) that one might argue that automobiles just aren’t necessary. But there are lots of places even less expansive where cars rule the roads. Here, it turns out that the sheer number of ground-nesting birds is what makes bicycles and other more nimble modes of transportation more practical. Even if one had a car, it would take forever to get anywhere as during the nesting season it would need to stop every few feet to move birds out of harm’s way.

Use of bicycles on Midway dates back at least to the early days when the island was a Naval base, I wasn’t able to find any references to their use during the very early days of settlement (records indicate though that in 1904, a certain Dr. Martin Crook, who’s mobility was hampered by having one wooden leg, had two donkeys shipped in to help him get around the island). 

Bikes have been a popular way to get around on Midway since the "Navy Days" (photo courtesy Roy Warren).

The only “good pavement” on Midway is the main runway of Henderson Field which is kept immaculately paved according to strict Federal Aviation Administration standards. All the other roads and paths on Midway are much more rustic but serve their purpose well, getting people from their homes to workplaces to the Clipper House and to the (few) recreational facilities that the island provides. From my house it takes less than five minutes to get to the office, the Clipper House, the Ship’s Store, or the beach.  More extensive touring can also be had by circumnavigating the island, a total distance of just under 9 miles. I like to do this on Sunday mornings and it’s a great way to re-acquaint myself with parts of the island I don’t typically visit from day to day. Nearly all the bikes on the island are single-speed "cruiser types" with old school "coaster brakes" which took a while to get used to. Visitors are strongly encouraged to rent bikes while long-term residents, such as myself, are given one to use for the length of their stay.

At just around two square miles in area and with a fairly extensive network of narrow roads, Sand Island is easy to explore by bike. Crossing the runway is the only tricky part as the airport must be contacted.

It would be misleading to suggest that bicycles are the only way folks get around out here as golf carts and four wheel UTVs (“utility task vehicles”) are also commonly utilized, most often for work purposes that require the hauling of cargo or tools. A golf cart “limousine” that seats eight is used to ferry passengers back and forth from the airport to “town”. Several very small motorcycle/scooter things are also used by some of the Thai workers. I’ve asked where they came from and how it is just a couple of guys have them but have never gotten a straight answer. In addition there are a couple of trucks and some heavy equipment on the island that you see once in a while. It is quite a spectacle to move a front end loader on one of the small roads as it must go very slowly while an escort vehicle moves ahead to clear its path. The most impressive (and most expensive) vehicle on the island is a super fancy fire truck that is dedicated for airport use and probably worthy of its own blog post someday!

When a bicycle isn't practical, golf carts are commonly used for transportation. Clockwise from upper left: "Congestion" at the community garden; golf carts are "albatross friendly"; it's important, however, to check under the cart before driving off as albatross chicks often crawl under them for shade; the "limo" takes a group of passengers to the airport.
The lack of motor vehicles at Midway definitely adds to the peaceful and quiet nature of the place. It also makes you realize how much space automobiles require both in terms of roads, garages, and parking spaces. Lacking the need for extensive paved areas, our little community here on Midway  has a whole different character, the narrow lanes and footpaths lending it a much more intimate feeling. Getting around by bike also puts you into contact with your neighbors on a regular basis and makes it easy to stop and have a quick conversation. And , of course, getting around by bike is a great way to get exercise as part of your daily routine.

Bicycles are a great way to get around on Midway and are the primary mode of transport. Clockwise from upper left: the biology crew cycling from one restoration site to the next; a Sunday morning circumnavigation of the island; Refuge manager Bob Peyton (right) stops for a quick chat with Eric Moore who heads up the Chugach operations; bike valet service is provided by a Laysan albatross chick at Charlie Hotel.
I’m pretty sure I couldn’t live on Midway forever as the isolation of this faraway place would almost certainly prove too much. But my experience here has me thinking that I would definitely consider sacrificing some of the conveniences that car-centric communities provide if I could live in a place where, like here, people and wildlife take priority over roads and automobiles.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day

I really did not want to write two consecutive posts about albatrosses, but the situation just plain demands it. Let me explain. As I discussed in my previous post, the process of raising a young albatross is very time-consuming and complicated and demands incredible endurance on the part of its parents. I didn't say too much though about how arduous the process is from the point of view of the young chick but given what’s going on around here on Midway right now, I feel compelled to share some of my thoughts and observations about it.

As is the case for all birds, the life of a chick begins while it’s in the egg.  For a Laysan albatross, this lasts about two months while parents take turns incubating it. After spending a couple of days pecking its way through the shell, the newborn hatchling is wide-eyed but small (less than half a pound) and very vulnerable and is thus brooded and guarded by its parents who ensure that a frigatebird or other avian predator doesn’t fly off with it in its beak. Next is a prolonged period of rapid growth with occasional feedings by the parents who travel far into the ocean to procure food for the ravenous chick. This goes on for about five months until the chick is ready to move on to its next stage of life for which it must learn to how fly and forage on its own, completely independent of  its parents. As Laysan albatross begin nesting around the first of the year, early July is an especially important and exciting time and Independence Day (the rarely invoked but official name of the Fourth of July holiday) takes on real significance.

When I arrived on Midway back in mid-April, the chicks were about two months old, downy and plump. Over time, I began to see signs that some were growing adult feathers, usually just a stripe of white visible on the wing from deep below the down. Eventually smooth wing feathers began to develop and the down gradually began to disappear. I remember one day a few weeks back riding my bike to work and doing a double take after I saw a chick wearing a suit of feathers that looked almost exactly like that of an adult.  

Various stages in the life of a Laysan albatross chick (clockwise from upper left): Downy chick; Chick showing some adult feathers on wing, Nearly complete molt with only "wig" remaining; Complete suit of adult feathers.

Then something really startling happened. Chicks began flapping their wings!  Rainstorms seemed to really stimulate this behavior, perhaps because it helped them keep their feathers dry. It wasn’t long before some of the older birds began catching air on days when the wind gusts provided them with sufficient lift (the design of an albatross’ wing makes it difficult for even adult birds to take off using just the power of their muscles). Once a young bird feels the thrill of flight, it figures out that it can accomplish even more with a running start. And so it’s been for the past month or so with birds making incremental progress day by day with some leaps and bounds on the windier days.

A young Laysan albatross catches some air during a squall on Sand Island, Midway Atoll. 

In the past week though, something even more remarkable has been taking place. Some young birds are feeling confident (or desperate) enough to leave their nest sites and making their way towards the shore. This is a sure sign that their parents are no longer delivering food for them as parents recognize their young not by who they are but by where they are and once a chick wanders more than a dozen feet from its original nest location, adults can't find them. Many chicks seem curious about the water and venture out to swim. Some have been seen making short flights across the open ocean but many more though have washed up dead on the beach or in the harbor.

Many Laysan and a few Black-footed albatross have left their nest sites and converged on Turtle Beach, Midway Atoll.

It’s a very tense time here on the atoll as young albatross strive to make it on their own. While it seems like just yesterday the island was busy with dancing young “single” albatross and parents were frequently seen coming and going to feed their offspring, now the chicks outnumber adults about fifty to one, and it is rare to see a chick being fed. When an adult does show up there’s usually a period of five minutes or more of confusion as it is surrounded by hungry peeping chicks and it must figure out which mouth among the many is its actual offspring. Some chicks still look so downy and small that it’s hard to imagine it will be able to make it and one broiler of a day could put a lot of them over the thermodynamic edge.

The tension rubs off on me too and I find myself feeling anxious about the fate of all of these birds and can’t help but feel some despair when I find yet another one dead on the road, on the beach, or in my backyard. The best way I've found to keep it from getting me down is to simply try to keep my focus on the birds that seem to be doing well and encouraging them on in my own way. (I also have been known to try to rescue drowning albatross and have a bite mark on my left arm as a result!).

One fledgling Laysan albatross takes a short flight while another dries its wings in the inner harbor of Sand Island, Midway Atoll.

It's been an intense and interesting weekend and I've spent a lot of it watching the albatross and thinking about the amazing lives they lead and how for many animals the chances of making it from newborn to independent adulthood are pretty slim. In a weird way it's made me appreciate my own life even more and made this Independence Day an especially meaningful one.