Monday, May 30, 2016

Close Encounters

Why wildlife at Midway Atoll aren’t afraid of people and what that does to you

One of the great mysteries of modern biology is how it is that Charles Darwin knew so damn much. Not only did he correctly explain the mechanism by which the diversity of life on earth was created (i.e., the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection) but as if this was not enough Darwin applied his genius to a variety of other subjects including the domestication of pigeons, earthworm biology, and the geology of islands. One of the first stops made by the HMS Beagle made on its voyage to explore South America was the Galapagos Islands where Darwin noticed something very strange about the wildlife there. They weren’t afraid of people. Darwin had an explanation for this, of course. On remote islands where mammalian predators were absent for thousands of years, there was no advantage for an animal to flee when approached by one. And if there was no advantage, maintaining that behavior would be a liability over evolutionary time. It all comes down to this: maintaining any unnecessary feature – anatomical or otherwise – constitutes a cost to an individual which over time results in lower fitness compared to an individual possessing only the things it needs to survive in its environment.

Had the Beagle sailed for the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands instead of the Galapagos, Darwin probably would have still come to the same conclusion. Like the Galapagos, these remote islands were never inhabited by people until very recent times and the native wildlife – predominantly birds – evolved with no predators. The lack of fear that the birds of Midway have for people explains why shipwrecked sailors in the 18th and 19th century and early feather hunters had such devastating effects on them. When approached the birds did not flee so anyone wishing to capture them for either the stewpot or the cargo hold could do so with little effort. Tens of thousands of birds were taken as a result and the populations of albatrosses, terns, shearwaters, and other species plummeted until regulations were affected by US President Teddy Roosevelt during the first decade of the twentieth century.

A Laysan Albatross hangs out on the sidewalk in front of the Midway Gymnasium.

As populations began to recover, people began finding reasons to inhabit these remote islands. The first were personnel hired by the Pacific Commercial Cable Company to build and operate a  telegraph station established on Sand Island of Midway Atoll in 1904. Employees – mostly from the mainland US – found themselves living among millions of seabirds that seemed to take little notice of them which certainly must have been perplexing. Despite decades of persecution, the birds still did not fear people. (Darwin would likely have an explanation for that too!) Laysan albatrosses, the most numerous birds on the island, built nests out in the open making little effort to conceal them, left their young unattended on the front porches of houses, and conducted their elaborate courtship rituals in close proximity to anyone who happened to pass by. Other species – terns, noddies, tropicbirds, etc. – behaved in similar fashion. Maybe, by living in such close proximity to such magnificent creatures, it was inevitable that these early residents of Midway developed a genuine respect and deep appreciation for their avian neighbors. Early records attest to this in various ways: from the decision to ban cats and dogs from the island to the formation of the Goofy Gooney’s Club which honored "the silent cooperation given them by the curious residents of the Midway atoll to the new strangers and the hazards they brought”.

It wasn't long before the Midway and other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were recognized for their potential strategic military importance. But even as Midway was transformed from a sleepy telegraph station to a prominent Naval Air Facility, amicable relations between the seabirds and the human inhabitants persisted. This is not to say that there wasn't an impact on the birds; habitat was destroyed, antennas, seawalls, and other hazards to birds were erected, and many seabirds were undoubtedly killed through collisions with aircraft and other causes. Some species, such as the Laysan Rail, were not able to cope with the change and went extinct but most were able to adapt. Through it all, the people of Midway seemed to take a certain pride and interest in the birds. The official insignia of Midway – an image of two Laysan albatross “sky mooing” – eventually embellished everything from a the island newspaper to the movie theater.

Early residents of Midway identified strongly with their avian neighbors and recognized them in a variety of ways. A symbol representing courting Laysan Albatrosses adorned everything from the newspaper to the theatre on Sand Island.

Today, the folks living on Midway continue the tradition of tolerance and respect for their avian neighbors. People dodge albatrosses every day while travelling to and from work and pick up chicks off the road when necessary. When the sun sets, windows covered with curtains or blinds in religious fashion lest Bonin petrels, nocturnal seabirds attracted to light, fly into them. In the morning White Terns perch on the windowsill and stare at you through the window. Tropicbirds brood their chicks in the front yard in full view and emit a harsh bark only if you get so close as to risk stepping on them. Laysan’s ducks forage on the patio and parade their chicks through the yard. And people still pay homage.  The electrician’s golf cart has an image of an albatross painted on its side and at a recent evening of karaoke seabirds were displayed along with the lyrics to the songs.
Because the native fauna of Midway don't have any innate fear of people, close encounters with wildlife is common. Clockwise from upper left: A Laysan Duck outside forages outside my house; this newly hatched white tern stared at me intently while I took its portrait; Sooty Terns on Eastern Island lay their eggs directly on the ground in plain sight of no one; a Red-Footed Booby on Eastern Island sits tight on its nest as I walk by.

After being here for about a month and a half, I still can’t fully wrap my brain around how living so closely to all of these birds affects me. Certainly, I feel a connection to them and affection for them. But it goes beyond that as well. There's something about living in a place where the hustle and bustle isn't about selling something or taking care of people's needs. to be in a place where birds are truly at center stage has a strange effect on a person. I'm not sure I can say much more that that for now, maybe I will elaborate in a future post. In the meantime, I’ll continue to say “good morning” to the albatrosses outside my front door, beg forgiveness when I pass too close to a tropicbird’s nest, and continue to learn more about these fascinating animals through these close encounters. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Floral Inflation

Why Midway violates ecological laws and what it means for conservation in the long-term

E.O. Wilson, the avuncular, silver-haired ant biologist, conservationist, and ambassador for biodiversity is probably the most famous ecologist the world has ever known, which maybe isn’t saying much. But if you are or were a student of biology you might remember what put him on the ecology top hits charts back in the 1960s: a manuscript titled The Theory of Island Biogeography in which he and Robert MacArthur argued that that the number of species found on any given island was the result of two simple things: the rate if colonization (new species arriving on the island) and extinction (the rate at which species wink out due to random population fluctuations, disease, etc.). The closer an island is to the mainland, the higher the rate of colonization. The bigger the island, the larger the populations and therefore the lower the extinction rates. So large islands close to continents should have way more species than small islands far from continents. It all makes sense and the empirical evidence support the theory pretty well. For example, Cuba, a large island (over 100,000 square kilometers or 42,000 square miles) is a just 160 km (100 miles) or so from the shores of North America and has a whopping 8,000 species of flowering plants while the much smaller St. John, Virgin Islands (50 square kilometers or 19 square miles) sitting far out in the Caribbean far from any continent has just 1,000 species.

So what does this have to do with Midway?

The three islands of Midway Atoll total just under 6 square km (about 2.25 square miles) and are at least 3,500 km (2,800 miles) from either Asia or North America and over 1,900 km (1200 miles) from Honolulu. These are some of the smallest and most isolated islands in the world and according MacArthur and Wilson's theory, one would expect that the number of plant species found here would be very small. And indeed, this is what ornithologist William Alanson Bryan found when he arrived on Midway Atoll in 1902. Bryan reported finding just eight species of plants on Sand Island and ten on nearby Eastern Island. Today, a visitor to Midway could expect to find nearly 200 species of plants! What happened?

Native plants of Midway Atoll. Clockwise from upper left: Nohu (Tribulus cistoides), Emoloa (Eragrostis variabilis), Naupaka (Scaevola taccada), Ilima (Sida fallax).

It all started around the turn of the 20th century when the Commecial Pacific Cable Company decided that Midway was a critical link in their efforts to establish a telegraph line across the Pacific Ocean. Once the decision was made to route the cable through this remote atoll, a station had to to be established and along with it a small settlement to accommodate the personnel needed to maintain it. Prior to this the only visitors to Midway were native Polynesians who occasionally traveled through, shipwrecked sailors, and feather hunters. Never before had people actually intentionally settled the islands of Midway Atoll!

When the cable company began construction of their outpost, Sand Island was “an uninhabited shimmering white pile of sand” but it didn’t take long for the newly arrived inhabitants to begin to reshape the island to meet their expectations. The ships that the cable station with food and other provisions also brought with them soil and plants to establish vegetation more to the inhabitant's liking. In October 1903 the ship Whalen brought 400 tons of soil to Midway from Honolulu as well as plants and grass seeds. Plants included coconut, milo, banana, passion fruit, and banana. Ironwood trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) were also imported with the intention of providing the new residents shade from the sub-tropical sun as well as species such as beach morning glory (Pohuehue or Ipomea pes-caprae ssp. brasiliensis) which were hoped would stabilize the shifting sands.

Top: Establishment of the Commercial Pacific Cable Station resulted in the introduction of many introduced species including ironwood (Casuarina equisetifolia) and Cook Pines (Araucaria columnaris); Bottom: Exotic grasses such as Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) were introduced to hold down the sandy soils of Midway Atoll and continue to dominate in many areas.

Over the years, many tons of soil and hundreds of plants were intentionally transported to Midway, including an assortment of vegetables and fruits grown to enhance the diets of the residents. In addition to desirable plants, some weedy species were brought in inadvertently, some of which proved to be a real nuisance later on. Midway’s rich history as cable station, air transport stopover, military outpost, and cold war surveillance outpost, also made it a hotspot for non-native plant introduction as each new cohort of occupants brought with them plant species they found interesting or useful. This has included turfgrasses for golf courses, palm trees for tropical ambiance, food plants such as papaya, and ornamental flowers for their beauty.

Exotic plants have satisfied appetites, both aesthetic and culinary for residents of Midway Atoll in the past and present.  Upper left: Spider lily (Crinum asiaticum) though unattended continue to thrive outside the "Midway Mall". Lower right: Well-tended papaya trees (Carica papaya) at the Aree House provide for an occasional Thai green papaya salad.

By importing so many species of plants to Midway over the past 100 years, residents have “short-circuited” MacArthur and Wilson’s Theory of Island Biogeograhy. Despite the fact that Midway is about as far from any continent as it could be, immigration rates (i.e., the rate at which new species arrive) have been relatively high. The end result is that Midway Atoll has much higher plant species diversity than would be expected based on purely “natural” factors. Today, Midway has about ten times the number of plant species as there were a little more than 100 years ago when the first inhabitants arrived.

The inflated plant species richness of Midway Atoll has its pros and cons. Many of the plant species that have been introduced here have proved to be invasive. That is, they do so well as to dominate areas to the point of causing problems for native species. A good example of this is golden crownbeard (Verbesina encelioides), a sunflower-like plant which grew so well here that it covered 70% of the islands soils and degraded habitat for both Laysan’s and Black-footed albatross. The US Fish and Wildlife Service worked hard to reduce the amount of this weed and now it covers less than 1% of the islands. Ironwood has also proven to be problematic as it dominates areas so completely that nothing can grow in its shade.

Some introduced species such as ironwood (Casuarina equisetifolia; upper left) prove to be invasive requiring management while others, for example, sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera; lower right))  appear to be benign or even beneficial.

Prior to the habitat restoration efforts undertaken by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, vegetation on Midway was nearly exclusively non-native and provided sub-optimal conditions for seabirds and other wildlife. Over the past 15 years much progress has been made in bring back the natives. Restoring native plant species is important not only for wildlife but for the plant species themselves, as many have seen their populations drastically reduced on other islands through the introduction of non-native animals such as rabbits and goats. In this new era, Midway Atoll, despite the fact that it has been intensively utilized for a variety of uses for over 100 years, has the potential to contribute significantly not only in the conservation of seabirds but also for native plants of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The work to be done here at Midway does not fit neatly into what might be regarded as “restoration” as the islands have been modified so extensively over the past century that going back to what once was is simply not possible. Instead, we are challenged to managing these islands to their highest purpose, something that requires a solid understanding of the past, an acute awareness of the current needs of both plants and wildlife, and a creative vision for the future.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to William Alanson Bryan for having the forethought to visit and document Midway Atoll way back in the early 1900s. Much appreciation to Forest and Kim Starr who have returned to Midway three times in the past two decades to document the vascular flora of Sand, Eastern, and Spit Islands. Meticulous documentation of the plant species growing on Midway is certainly not an easy or glamorous job but were essential in the writing this blog post. Thank you all!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Baby’s First Bolus

Miscellaneous notes on the ontogeny of Laysan Albatross

Prior to my arrival on Midway Atoll, a Laysan Albatross decided to lay an egg on the welcome mat outside of the front door of the house that I’m currently living in. The egg hatched sometime in late January or early February and the chick is now fairly large (6 or 7 lbs) but still not very mobile and still spends a lot of its time either on the doormat or within a few feet it. If I were the naming kind of guy and knew that said chick was a male, I might bestow the name “Matthew” (long form of “Mat”) to this chick but since I’m not and I don’t, let’s just stick with calling it “the chick” for now.

A Laysan's Albatross chick lives just outside my front door

The growth and development of an albatross chick is a very long process; it takes on average 165 days for a chick to fledge after hatching. During that time, the parents – both male and female – fly long distances out into the open ocean to forage for food for the youngster returning once every few days or so with a belly full of partially-digested food that it then regurgitates to provision its offspring. Squid, fish eggs, fish, and crustaceans comprise the bulk of the Laysan Albatross diet and, unfortunately, plastic debris ends up being eaten as well as fish and crabs sometimes lay their eggs on these floating objects. All of this ends up being fed to the chick as well which lead to a problem. Some of this material – including the squid’s beaks, lenses of fish eyeballs, pumice, and plastic – is indigestible and builds up in the chick’s stomach.

The amount of effort required by Laysan Albatross parents to raise a chick is extraordinary. For nearly six months, both parents travel far into the ocean to gather food for their chicks.

The other morning as I was leaving my house to go to work, I found an interesting mess on the welcome mat outside the front door.  The chick that lives there apparently had regurgitated its very first bolus! An essential part of chick development is the regurgitation of a bolus of undigested material. Although it was messy and somewhat gross (though many of the boli I've seen are fairly compact, my neighbor seemed to take more of a "shotgun approach"). I realized that this was a good thing!  Why? Because the buildup of all of this stuff in the chick’s gut inhibits its ability to take in new food and also adds to its weight making it more difficult for it to lift off during its critical first flight. So as you can imagine I was pretty stoked for the chick because even though I refuse to name it, I still admit to having developed some affection for her/him and I like to think that the feelings might even be mutual (the chick no longer snaps its bill at me when I enter or exit the house and we seem to have a friendly relationship of sorts).

Regurgitation of the chick's first bolus is a critical event in its development. Clockwise from upper left (a) Bolus found on my doorstep 13 May 2016; (b) the bolus was comprised mainly of squid beaks and fish eyeballs; (c) fish lay their eggs on plastic fragments which are eaten by adults and then fed to chicks; (d) excessive amounts of plastic can make it difficult for chicks to feed and may prevent regurgitation of the bolus, injury, or even death. 

The accumulation of plastic in a chick’s stomach is, of course, a worrisome phenomenon. In fact, some chicks get so filled with plastic that they are unable to feed or suffer internal injuries from sharp fragments. Sometimes this even results in them dying from complications. Plastic and other debris that accumulate in the ocean is an hugely important topic and one that I plan on addressing in a future post but if should you want learn more about this very important issue now, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations webpage here.

At about four or five months out, the albatross chicks are at an interesting stage of development. It seems like a lot of chicks are “throwing” their first bolus as new ones appear every day on the roads and paths that I travel.  Nearly all chicks are also showing some signs of molting into their adult feathers with most seeming to be stuck in an “awkward stage” though some have pretty impressive suits of feathers. Although still very attached to their nest sites, many chicks are now able to stand tall on their legs and even stroll around a bit. They also seem anxious to flap their ever growing wings, especially during strong winds or bouts of rain.

At four to five months of age, Laysan Albatross chicks exhibit a variety of stages of development and behavior. Upper left: Chick at advanced stage of molting showing an impressive suit of feathers; Middle: Many chicks now have the strength in their leg muscles to stand and even walk short distances; Lower right: It is common to see chicks excercising their wing muscles. especially during gusts of wind or periods of rain.

Given how many albatross chicks are around here (literally hundreds of thousands), it’s hard not to pay attention to them and to appreciate the progress they show in their continued growth and development. Besides, what else are you going to do on the weekends here at Midway Atoll?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sharks, Turtles, and Seals

While the bulk of the work I and the local Fish and Wildlife staff are involved with here at Midway Atoll pertains to restoring degraded lands to better support wildlife, the place that these small islands hold within the larger seascape is something that everyone here thinks about daily.  In fact, Midway Atoll National Wildlife refuge is just a small part of the vast Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument which encompasses 139,797 square miles.  (If you want to know how the name “Papahānaumokuākea”, was chosen, what it means, and how to pronounce it, click here.)

The problem with large numbers is that they can be hard to comprehend, but 139,797 square miles is a really big area, so big you could fit all the US national parks within it. Stretching from the island of Nihoa just west of Kaua’I to Kure Atoll (a distance equal to that of New York City to Omaha), the monument is mostly deep ocean but it encompasses 11 islands and atolls and hundreds of miles of coral reef.

Sharks, Turtles, and Seals are constant reminders of the fact that Midway Atoll is surrounded by a big, wild ocean and testimony to the conservation importance of this place. Of these, I will admit to only seeing the latter two so far, but since I like to swim and snorkel, sharks are on my mind a lot and even though I will admit to having some fear about encountering a shark, I also look forward to seeing some while I’m here. Like many top predators, sharks are declining worldwide. Highly sought after as food, trophies, and other uses, and also vulnerable to marine pollution and industrial fishing practices, nearly half of shark species are at risk of extinction though recently sharks have received more protection in both the United States and abroad. At Midway four shark species are seen regularly: Galapagos Shark, Blacktip Reef Shark, Whitetip Reef Shark, and Tiger Shark.  Of these the Tiger Shark has the worst reputation and I am told that if I see one while swimming, I should exit the water quickly. Some sharks, including Whitetip Reef Sharks, distinguish themselves from other fishes by seemingly resting on the bottom of the ocean for long periods of time. Although I'm keen to see sharks here at Midway I'd be perfectly content if I got to see them while standing on the pier!

Sharks are frequent visitors to the deep water harbor on Sand Island. Swimming is not allowed there!
Like the albatrosses, petrels, and terns, sea turtles and seals lead a dual life, spending time both in the ocean and on land. Although six species of sea turtle occur in the Pacific, only two regularly occur in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: Green Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles. Hawaiian green sea turtles, a genetically distinct race of the much more widespread Green Sea Turtle are a common sight at Midway Atoll. For decades they have frequented a certain beach – aptly called Turtle Beach – on Sand Island which is just a five minute bike ride from my house. I don’t actually ever go to turtle beach to check them out as they are sensitive to disturbance and thus it’s not permitted. But because they spend a bit of time foraging on algae at the nearby Cargo Pier where I go snorkeling, I see them pretty regularly.  Green Sea Turtles throughout the world have had a hard road for some time. Hunted for their meat, their eggs taken from their nests to be consumed as delicacies, and entangled in both fishing nets and marine debris populations are in pretty bad shape. Because of this many green sea turtle populations, including those found throughout the Hawaian Islands, are listed as Threatened by the US Endangered Species Act. The protection seems to be working as populations haveincreased by about 50% in the past 25 years.  Hawaiian green turtles are large (up to 400 lbs), very long lived (at least 60-70 years), and nest exclusively at a place called French Frigate Shoals, more than 500 miles from Midway!  Watching turtles swim is something I really appreciate about living here at Midway.  They show an amazing combination of grace, power, and determination in their movements.

Upper left: Turtles frequently bask on “Turtle Beach” on Sand Island. Basking allows turtles to conserve energy and regulate their body temperature. Lower right: Turtles often are seen swimming and diving from the Cargo Pier just to the west of Turtle Beach. 

The HawaiianMonk Seal is one of just three monk seal species worldwide, all of which occur in tropical climates. All monk seal species have been exploited extensively by human hunters and are either endangered (Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals) or extinct (Caribbean Monk Seal).  Hawaiian monk seals live only in the Hawaiian Islands and despite the protection afforded them by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection act, still number only around 1000 individuals today of which the vast majority live in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument. These seals face myriad threats which range from entanglement in marine debris to harassment by people (seals have even been found dead with gunshot wounds on the Main Islands!).  The latter isn’t a big deal here in the Northwestern Islands because there are only 50 or so people and they areas frequented by seals are strictly off limits. Out here though, competitionfor food with fish and predation by sharks are major factors limiting thepopulations

 Upper left: Visitors to Kaena Point (look for blue umbrella in the rocks) on the island of Oahu ignore the Do Not Disturb signs meant to protect Hawaiian Monk Seals; Lower right: A mother and pup rest, undisturbed on a beach on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll.

Living with seals is a real privilege though we must always be careful as to not to accidentally disturb them. Earlier this week while walking on the beach, my friend Ann Humphrey and I accidentally came upon a mother with a young pup hauled out on the sand and had to quickly turnaround and take a very long and inconvenient route behind the dunes to avoid them. Seals are a top priority here on Midway and, in fact, two entire sides of the island (including the former “Officer’s Beach”) are off limits because of their popularity with the Hawaiian Monk Seal!

Learning about the lives of far ranging, ocean inhabitants like sharks, turtles, and seals makes me wonder about all the amazing places within across the vast area that makes up the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument. If, like me, you are interested in seeing these places you can take a "virtual visit" at NOAA's website

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Trading Guns for Goonies

The recent evolution from Naval Air Station to Wildlife Refuge is just one of many changes Midway Atoll has experienced in the past 150 years. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were for thousands of years an profoundly important place for the native people inhabiting the archipelago even if they were never permanently inhabited. In Hawaiian cosmology, Papahänaumokuäkea (pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah), as this remote area is known, is believed to be the source of all life, all building up from the humble coral polyp. 

Fast forward to the 19th century. Many European nations as well as the United States were discovering a variety of uses for the remote islands of the Pacific, from whaling to sugar plantations, and the harvesting of bird guano to be used for fertilizer. The first known landing of a Euro-American at Midway Atoll was merchant Captain N.C. Brooks In 1859; in short-order the US “took possession” of the islands.

At the turn of the 20th century the telegraph was the primary mode of long-distance communication and although a cable system spanning the Atlantic was completed in 1866, crossing the Pacific was a more difficult endeavor. The Commercial Pacific Cable Company, founded in 1901, took on the challenge and established a series of cable stations (basically hubs) spanning 6,912 miles across the Pacific with stations at Honolulu, Midway, Guam, and Manila in the Philippines. The station on Sand Island at Midway was established in 1903 and only one of the original buildings still stands. It is a beautiful and elegant building that quickly engages my imagination, making me wonder what it must have been like to be here during those times. 

Office of the Commercial Cable Company on Sand Island, Midway Atoll (photo taken 2016)
It wasn’t long before the worth of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for wildlife was recognized. In 1909, US President Teddy Roosevelt designated the islands as a bird sanctuary as a response to hunters who were decimating populations of the docile birds that bred there to be sold in a lucrative market that supplied feathers for everything from ladies hats to pillows. My grandmother once pulled a box of feathers out of her closet that she said belonged to her mother. Maybe there was a tail feather from a red-tailed tropicbird in there that was taken at Midway?

With tensions building in the 1930s and the prospect of a second world war looming, the US Military turned its attention to Midway Atoll due to its strategic location “midway” between California and Japan. Building of a runway on Eastern Island began in 1940 and the next year U.S. Naval Air Station Midway was commissioned. The base was bombed by Japanese ships on their way to Pearl Harbor and in late 1942 they mounted an air attack on the islands. E.H. Van Blaricom, a gentleman who lives in Wallowa County (the place I call home), was sent to Midway as a young Marine to help fend off the Japanese attack. I had the good fortune of visiting Van shortly before leaving for Midway and hearing his accounts of that harrowing time (including having to hop over barbed wire to swim in the ocean) and it is something I think about often during my time here.

Midway Atoll has played an important role in US miltary history.  Clockwise: World War II era gun on Eastern Island; Veteran E.H. VanBlaricom at his home in Joseph, Oregon (standing to the right of  his friend, Ralph Swinehart); Naval Air Station greeting area at Henderson Field on Sand Island).
The Battle of Midway, an epic naval battle between the better equipped Japanese Fleet and the US Navy took place soon after and was considered both an important turning point in the war and also one of the most important naval battles in US History. There is even a Hollywood movie about it, Midway,  starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda,  and John Coburn, and Toshiro Mifune that is worth watching.

The Naval Air Station at Midway not only persisted but thrived through the 1950s and 1960s thanks to the Korean War and the Cold War with, at times, up to 4,000 personnel stationed there. But with the falling of the Berlin wall and Perestroika in the mid-1980s the need for such a facility became to be questioned. At the same time, the public’s awareness regarding environmental issues was building and the new science of Conservation Biology provided the needed justification for protecting Midway as refuge for wildlife. In 1988, the federal government took the first step towards making Midway a National Wildlife refuge and in 1997 the Navy finally exited the stage. During the ceremony marking the transition from the Department of Defense to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Department of Interior), Secretary of the Navy Dalton remarked that the nation was “Trading Guns for Goonies” ("gooney bird" being the colloquial term for albatross). Since that time, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge has been managed solely for the benefit of wildlife.

Laysan and black-footed albatross inhabit an abandoned runway on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll

One of the most interesting things about living here at Midway is the rich history of the place. Evidence of its complicated past is everywhere, from the lone standing cable station building to the harbor, the old barracks, the war relics, etc. It’s kind of like a ghost town but not really as many of the buildings have been re-purposed here to suit the needs of the refuge. The Naval Commander’s house now serves as the residence of the Refuge Manager, our office is in what was once a ceramics manufacturing shop, and contractors (mostly men from Thailand) share houses that were once reserved for Navy officers.

Buildings once erected to serve the Naval Station are now used to run the wildlife refuge. Clockwise from upper left; Refuge Headquarters occupies what was formerly a ceramics manufacturing shop; Charlie Barracks now houses visiting researchers, houses that once were reserved for Naval Officers now house contractors (mostly men from Thailand) and volunteers; The "Midway House" was formerly the residence of the Naval Commander but now houses the Refuge Manager.
Yesterday, while poking around by the piers I decided to take a look inside the old Harbor Masters Office and found that it was now a Buddhist Temple.
From Harbor Office to Buddhist Temple!

The myriad ways that Midway continues to re-invent itself is simply fascinating and I can look forward to discovering something new nearly every day!

Postscript: Many of the facts and figures included here were gleaned from the US Fish and Wildlife Services “Visitor Binder”, an excellent resource whose authors I extend my sincere appreciation.