|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.|
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|
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|
|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!