New Hope for North Pacific Wildlife: Redemption for Midway Atoll?

Story and Photographs by Meghan E. Marrero

Midway is a place like no other. First, it is in the middle of the Northern Pacific Ocean. The three islands that comprise the atoll lie approximately 150 miles from the International Date Line, about halfway (“midway”) between San Francisco and Japan. Its location has historically rendered it ideally suited as a hub of telecommunications and a military base. It has cultural significance as part Papahānaumokuākea (or Northwest Hawaiian Islands) Marine National Monument, and great ecological importance as well—as a rookery for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and a crucial nesting spot for many seabird species and sea turtles. In 1988, it was designated a National Wildlife Refuge.

The atoll islands are what remain of an ancient undersea shield volcano, whose fiery magma blasted up from the ocean floor, creating the islands. As the dead volcano sank into the sea, it became inhabited by living coral, which stretched their colonies upward toward the light, producing habitat for many marine animals. The reef today, and the three tiny islands it contains, bear the scars of the atoll’s diverse history, but provide hope for the future.

Our 16-passenger plane from Oahu touches down on the Midway airstrip late at night, avoiding as many swirling seabirds as possible. While the island is dark, it teems with activity. Birds swoop overhead and waddle clumsily along the ground; avoiding them is a task unto itself. We step carefully and only on paths to avoid collapsing the petrel burrows dominating the soft ground. Mice scurry along the ground and lizards scale walls. The air is thick with squawks, coos, and snapping bills, and the smell that can only be described as “eau de bird,” with a tiny hint of ocean salt.

Dawn reveals an unforgettable, raucous panorama of birds everywhere. White terns make acrobatic formations in the air, hovering just out of reach of your outstretched hand, while their fluffy white chicks sit perched on branches. From under the bushes, red-tailed tropic birds offer loud warnings to stay back as they protect their chicks, their eponymous red spikes betraying hiding places. Laysan ducks, one of the most endangered birds in the world, walk purposefully two-by-two. Fluffy albatross chicks sit, many patiently, on their ground-based nests, literally every three feet and in every conceivable spot. There are approximately 400,000 nesting pairs of Laysan albatross and 24,000 of black-footed albatross on Midway—they are everywhere the eye can see.

Figure 1:
Birds everywhere: Albatross chicks dominate the landscape.
Click on the images to view larger versions.
Figure 2: Acrobatic white terns.
Figure 3: Red-tailed tropic bird chick makes his presence known.
Figure 4: Laysan ducks walk two-by-two.

Every human abode has knee-high fences to prevent adult albatross from staking their claims to the doorsteps. In June, the chicks are quite large, just a few weeks away from fledging, yet they have been sitting on the nest for nearly six months. At this point, the Laysan albatross chicks are going through an awkward phase as they lose their juvenile feathers and reveal the beautiful dark gray and white plumage of adults. The resulting “hair dos” are not flattering; something only a grandmother can love—think thick tufts of chest down coupled with uneven Mohawks or sideburns that stir in the wind. Black-footed albatross chicks are a bit ahead in their development, giving them a more sophisticated look with sleek heads and just a collar of fluffy feathers.

Figure 5: Albatross chick on doorstep.

Figure 6a, 6b, 6c: Some stylish Laysan albatross chick hairdos.
Figure 7: Black-footed albatross chick on the beach.

Albatross parents leave chicks behind for longer and longer periods, allowing “adolescents” plenty of time to practice stretching their wings when the wind blows. They wander bravely a few feet away from their nests—sometimes squabbling with their neighbors, or absorbing a pummeling from an aggressive adult. When you walk by, the chicks snap their bills, a little in warning, but also possibly in hopes that you may be their mother or father, as they wait for several days for the next meal. They are unafraid of humans, and in fact often require coaxing to move out of the path of bicycles and golf carts.

 

Sub-adult Laysan albatross are courting, doing the dance that gives these “Gooney Birds,” their nickname. In pairs or sometimes groups, the birds perform an elaborate routine complete with foot stomping, synchronized head bobbing, shimmying, and, at the climax, a drawn-out and well-tuned “HONK” with necks and heads stretched up towards the sky. Caring for an albatross chick is a big commitment; the elaborate courting rituals allow the parents to choose wisely, as these birds mate for life.

Figure 8: “Gooney Birds” dancing.

The adult albatross cruise in, soaring gracefully, circling to return to their own chicks. Not as balletic on land, they often alight with a crash landing, but then dust themselves off and waddle purposefully in search of their offspring. These adults have flown thousands of miles to cold, productive waters (satellite tagging has revealed that many of the Midway albatross fly as far as Alaska) to scoop up squid and fish. From these delicacies they squeeze out calorie-dense oil, which they regurgitate into their chick’s mouth, widening their bill over the chick’s to avoid losing a precious drop. After a brief stay on land, adults rush back to sea. With a running start they lift off like jet planes, revealing their impressive wingspans, and soon they are soaring above the ocean.

Figure 9: Feeding time.
Beneath the waves, the atoll is, by definition, surrounded by reef. The corals are beautiful; huge purple rice corals dominate, followed by yellow lobe corals. Green sea turtles paddle by and supersize nudibranchs and pencil urchins are everywhere in the sand and coral crevices. Most astonishing is the size of the fish. The ulua, wrasses, and even butterflyfish are enormous in this unusual ecosystem dominated by apex predators. Unfortunately, I do not get to meet the most feared of them all—the tiger shark. They are probably resting up for tasty fledgling season.

Figure 10: Rice corals.

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