Sometimes a little “Wisdom” is all it takes to make a difference…
“Hanau ka Hualua he makua”
“Puka kana keiki he Manu, lele”
—Born was the egg, a Parent out came its child a Bird, and it flew
“Hanau man ke kai”
—Seabirds were born—-from the Kumulipo, the Source of Deep Darkness, an ancient Hawaiian creation chant that speaks of how all life emerged on the earth
A small atoll of approximately 25 square miles, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is part of the United States National Wildlife Refuge system located in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Papahanaumokuakea derives its name from two beings, Papahanaumoku, the mother figure, Earth and Wakea, the father figure personifying Sky. In Hawaiian culture their union created the entire Hawaiian archipelago, including the 1200 mile long expanse of the Papahanamokuakea Marine National Monument that is dotted with tiny atolls, shoals, and small islands in the middle of the vast North Pacific Ocean. To give some sense of scale to the vastness of this area, if placed on the map of the United States this marine monument would stretch from Dallas to Las Vegas. This is a sacred place to native Hawaiians for it is where life is believed to have originated plus it is where spirits return after death. Located 1200 miles and five hours by air northwest of Honolulu in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Midway Atoll is a protected paradise for nesting seabirds as well as highly endangered monk seals and sea turtles. Site of the pivotal June 1942 WWII air battle that proved the turning point of war in the Pacific, Midway Atoll also bears the designation Battle of Midway National Monument.
Satellite image of Midway Atoll; Sand Island is the large island on the lower left, Eastern Island is on the lower right and Spit Island is the very tiny islet in between the two larger islands
Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Laysan albatross chicks sitting by a monument to the WWII Battle of Midway, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
A long history of use by the Commerical Pacific Cable Company a century ago, devastation of seabird colonies at the hand of egg and feather poachers, the coming and going of Pan Am Clipper seaplanes, World War II and finally the presence of the United States Military created long-term changes on Midway Atoll. Whether one sees WWII gun or concrete pillbox emplacements or introduced trees and invasive plants and animals, Midway’s landscape has been altered dramatically from a low lying, windswept, treeless sandy atoll populated by only grasses and bird colonies to a landscape sporting ironwood trees, undulating coco palms and other non-native species of vegetation and wildlife. Yet, the birds remain, making a comeback from huge downturns in population caused by mankind.
WWII gun emplacement on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll
A mere five miles in diameter, tiny subtropical Midway Atoll is comprised of three small islands within the protective boundaries of the atoll’s coral reef. The largest island, Sand Island is 1.8 miles long by 1.2 miles wide (1200 acres total) while Eastern Island spans only 334 acres. Spit Island is the smallest of the three islands, its landmass a miniscule 6 acres. Sand Island is the only island inhabited by humans, with US Fish and Wildlife employees and support staff numbering near 70 individuals. Other than for a handful of volunteers who, among other tasks weed out invasive species, replant native grasses, remove marine debris from reefs and beaches and count birds only a few visitors are allowed onto Midway Atoll each year via a permit system. The environment is fragile; steps are now being taken to repair the damage of the past.
Midway Atoll is often likened to the Galapagos of the North for its abundant avian and marine wildlife. Seabirds on Midway are free of fear of humans, allowing one to approach very closely. In fact, while photographing albatrosses at close range, often I’d feel a nibble or a couple of pecks from a curious adult albatross on my arms, legs, or feet. They particularly enjoyed inspecting my rubbery slip on sandals.
Albatross colony, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Transportation on Midway Atoll is via foot, bicycle or a rented golf cart. One doesn’t worry about traffic other than for the obstacle course one encounters on roadways courtesy of albatross chicks and adults that decide to sit or sleep in the middle of the narrow sandy lanes and pathways. Adult birds always moved at our approach but albatross chicks would generally just sit tight. Most of the time one could weave a circuitous route around the chicks in the road but on occasion one has to physically pick one of the little critters up. The chicks love the shelter golf carts provide, crawling underneath them to enjoy the shade the carts afford when the hot sun blazes. Before driving, one always has to check underneath the carts to ensure no errant albatross chicks are hiding underneath wheels.
Scolding a Laysan albatross chick not to sit underneath a golf cart, in front of Charlie Barracks, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Numerous species of seabirds including the North Pacific group of albatrosses (the Laysan, black footed and short tailed albatross that are sometimes affectionately referred to as gooney birds) return to Midway Atoll to mate, lay their eggs and raise their chicks. Laysan albatross are the most numerous albatrosses on Midway Atoll with 428,090 nesting pairs recorded during the 2010 nesting season (that’s right, every single nesting pair was counted!). In addition to these 856,180 nesting birds it’s estimated that there another 1 million non-breeding Laysan adults and chicks on Midway alone. A whopping 70% of all Laysan albatrosses nest at Midway Island while other significant nesting colonies are established at other Northwestern Hawaiian Island atolls. Additionally, there are some small breeding colonies on the main Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai.
Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Black footed albatrosses are also very visible on Midway Atoll with 23,722 nesting pairs recorded for the 2009/2010 breeding season.
A non-breeding black footed albatross pair relaxing
In the past, immense golden-headed short tailed albatrosses nested on Midway but the last successful short tailed albatross nesting was in 1960 on Sand Island. A short tailed pair appeared in 1999 but no successful nesting occurred. Today most of the remaining members of the critically endangered short tailed albatross population breed on Japan’s volcanic Toroshima Island. During the last years of the 19th Century, Japanese poachers collected albatross eggs by the millions on various island breeding grounds—-the eggs were collected for albumin, a crucial element in the development of film—-plus killed the birds for their exquisite plumage to be used on lady’s hats or as stuffing for pillows. North Pacific albatrosses were nearly exterminated, the short tailed albatross being particularly devastated.
Poaching albatross eggs at the turn of the 19th Century. (W.A. Bryan, courtesy of the University of Hawaii)
In his book Eye of the Albatross author Carl Safina estimates there were only 40 short tailed albatrosses left after the poachers were done with them. Driven to the very brink of extinction from an estimated population of 7 million birds there is hope that today’s fragile population of fabulous short tailed albatrosses or “golden goonies” is on the way to a slow recovery with a current worldwide population estimated at 2500-3000 birds. Short tailed decoys along with broadcast recorded mating calls appear to have been successful in attracting “golden goonies” to certain nesting sites on Torshima. This has also been tried on Midway’s Eastern Island with 16 short tailed albatross decoys donated by Dr. Hiroshi Hasegawa, the prime champion of Japan’s golden goonies. Another 25 or so Laysan decoys were repainted in the spectacular colors of short tailed albatrosses in an effort to lure golden goonies to mate and raise chicks at Midway Atoll. Some short tailed albatrosses have indeed been observed visiting Eastern Island with courtship dancing ensuing yet no successful nesting has been recorded to date. Hope springs eternal.
Short tailed albatrosses or golden gooney decoys on Eastern Island, Midway Atoll
Different tern species nesting at Midway number in the millions. During an excursion to Eastern Island’s nesting colonies, terns scared up by our presence caused the sky to darken with clouds of birds. Red footed boobies, frigatebirds, brown and black noddies, red tailed tropic birds, petrels, several species of the aforementioned terns, shearwaters plus other birds raise their young at Midway Atoll. Altogether there are a reported 16 species of seabirds that call Midway home at one time or another during the year. Despite being creatures of the wind and waves, seabirds must return to land to breed and raise their young. In addition to seabirds, other birds live on or migrate through Midway including bristle-thighed curlews, Pacific golden plovers, and ruddy turnstones. Introduced common mynas and wild canaries descended from escaped pets are resident birds at Midway.
Birds flying, Eastern Island, Midway Atoll
Nesting red footed booby in native naupaka tree, Eastern Island, Midway Atoll
Red footed booby landing, Eastern Island, Midway Atoll
Great frigatebird, Eastern Island, Midway Atoll
Brown noddys, Eastern Island, Midway Atoll
Red tailed tropicbird and its chick, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Sooty terns copulating, Eastern Island, Midway Atoll
Fairy or white tern hovering at Eastern Island, Midway Atoll
Diminutive Laysan ducks, their current numbers estimated at 900 individuals in the entire world, make their home on Midway. Originally endemic to Midway Atoll, the critically endangered (IUCN Red List) Laysan duck was reintroduced to Midway Atoll in 2004 and 2005 with approximately 42 pairs comprising the original reintroduction. Currently, the Laysan duck is undergoing a program to increase their numbers on Midway. In 2008 an outbreak of avian botulism killed 30% of the Laysan ducks hatched on Midway from the original introduced pairs but the tiny ducks are now breeding with a vengeance. Laysan ducks have recently been recorded producing two clutches of eggs per season on Midway, another reason for hope.
Female Laysan duck, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Male and female Laysan ducks, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Superb gliding seabirds that spend 95% of their entire lives ranging over the North Pacific Ocean, albatrosses are at home over the ocean’s waves, effortlessly soaring over thousands of miles of open sea, the wind buoying the birds’ great wingspans. Using a locking mechanism in their wings, albatrosses minimize their use of energy to travel immense distances over waves. Yet each year around October 16 through the 20th, black footed albatrosses begin to trickle back to Midway Atoll in order to breed. Black footed albatrosses precede the arrival of Laysan albatrosses by about two weeks, each day bringing increasing numbers of birds that quickly swell to hundreds of thousands. In early November the skies of Midway are filled with the great birds.
Soaring Laysan albatross, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Young albatrosses spend the first five years of their lives at sea. Returning to Midway Atoll around the end of February into early March, young adults begin the selection of a mate through intricate courtship dances, sometimes taking up to two years to finally select the perfect mate for life. Courting dances of albatrosses are intricate and carefully choreographed, designed for albatrosses to demonstrate how virile, physically fit and what good choices they would be as a lifetime bond. Day and night the atoll’s air is filled with the cries, brays, whinnies, bill clacking and moans of albatrosses performing their dances.
Dancing Laysan albatrosses, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Dancing Laysan albatross video by Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)
Breeding albatross pairs generally do not spend a great deal of time dancing, preferring to get down to the business of producing a chick. Adult Laysan albatrosses mate for life, raising a single chick on average every two years although it is not uncommon for the great birds to mate on a yearly basis. Eggs are laid during a several week period from mid-November through late December. Incubation requires 59-60 days, with hatching occurring c. early January through the end of February. Since albatrosses mate for life, long established pairs exhibit site fidelity, arriving in late Fall at the same nesting site they have used for years. Often dispensing with courtship dances, long-standing albatross pairs mate before leaving on a two-week “honeymoon” at sea before returning in time for the female to lay an egg.
Both parents share incubating duties as well as feeding the chick once it has hatched. Growing chicks are voracious eaters so parents fly thousands of miles to reach rich feeding grounds, primarily near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands (Laysan albatrosses) or the Gulf of Alaska (black footed albatrosses) in search of plentiful supplies of their favorite foods, squid and flying fish eggs. It can be dangerous for an albatross searching for food; many albatross are drowned every year when their bills become impaled by hooks trailing from long line fishing boats. Sadly, one drowned albatross parent equates with a doomed chick for it takes two parents busily foraging for months to raise one chick to adulthood. With only one parent to tend a chick, the chick will starve.
Other threats to albatrosses include the ingestion of plastic. Plastic floats and there is plenty of it found in the North Pacific Ocean gyre. Flying fish deposit their eggs on floating debris such as pumice or naturally occurring grass mats, etc. Flying fish also deposit their eggs on floating plastic toys, fishing line, bottle caps, syringes, toothbrushes, pill bottles and plastic cigarette lighters among a myriad of other items. The eggs along with the plastic are ingested by adult albatrosses which they then regurgitate into their hungry chicks’ mouths.
A sampling of cigarette lighters and bottle caps regurgitated by albatross chicks. These were collected within a matter of a few days at Midway Atoll
Video documentation of plastic found in albatross chicks at Midway Atoll by Wayne Sentman
450 # of marine debris (plastic, fishing nets, fishing line, boat ropes, fishing floats, shoes, glass and plastic bottles, crates, dead birds, hogfish traps, sake bottles, etc) cleaned up from a small corner of Midway Atoll’s Inner Harbor in May 2010
Problems can and do ensue. Ingested plastic can perforate a chick’s intestines, cause intestinal blockage, or leach toxins from decaying plastic into chicks’ systems, causing immunodeficiencies or poisoning. Indeed, plastic may also help dehydrate albatross youngsters or induce a sense of feeling full in developing chicks, causing them to ingest less calorie-rich food from their parents, ultimately starving them. Each year it is estimated that adult albatrosses “landfill,” ie, feed their hungry chicks, over 5 tons of plastic garbage! That’s 10,000 pounds.
Plastic is not the only problem facing wildlife at Midway Atoll. Providing some sense of the impact of marine debris in the Pacific Ocean, a short table follows listing the total weight of “ghost nets,” discarded floating and life threatening fishing nets that were collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a four year period at Midway Atoll:
Abandoned ghost nets float in the ocean’s currents, entangling and killing marine creatures such as sea turtles, seals, sharks, dolphins, and whales. Compounding this situation are tons of the aforementioned plastic debris that either wash ashore or are fed to growing chicks by their parents every year. The problem is overwhelming as well as deadly.
Dead Laysan Albatross chick with plastic including a purple plastic cigarette lighter in its abdomen, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
As albatross chicks grow, their caloric demands increase. Gaining weight and taking on the appearance of a gigantic fuzzy brown bowling pin young Laysan albatross chicks quickly grow, rapidly becoming able to subsist on stored fat while their parents venture forth on thousands-of-mile journeys in search of food. Often gone for up to two weeks at a time during this period, chicks wait patiently for their parents to return with meals of squid and rich stored oil.
Laysan albatross chick sitting amidst invasive verbesina plant, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Since albatrosses forage for food over immense distances for long periods of time the birds have developed a unique way of extracting oil from their prey and storing it to later feed to their waiting chicks. The caloric value of stored oil is measured at c. 9600 calories per gram, interestingly slightly lower than that of diesel oil which has a very high caloric content. This is comparable to wolfing down the caloric count of nearly 18 Big Macs per gram! In other words, the oil these chicks is ingesting packs a wallop in the high calorie category.
Upon returning to Midway Atoll, parents zero in on their chicks, somehow determining which one belongs to that particular parent in the midst of hundreds of thousands of other identical chicks. A few calls between parent and chick establishes their imprinted bond. Relentlessly pecking at the parent’s bill, the ravenous chick induces the parent to regurgitate a nutritious meal to its baby. Soon squid, the high calorie oil and sometimes plastic are streaming into the hungry chick’s mouth.
Laysan albatross feeding its chick squid and stored oil, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Video of Laysan albatross regurgitating a meal to its growing chick by Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)
Fledging takes place from late May into early June. This is both a happy time as well as one of sadness. Albatross chicks not only have to learn how to take off and fly from land but also must master water landings and take offs. For the albatross chicks that take to the air and water with success, they will embark upon a five year journey over the North Pacific Ocean, never touching land during those first five years before returning to the NW Hawaiian Island of their birth. However, fledging brings sadness as well for many young albatrosses do not survive, some of them falling into Midway Atoll’s lagoon to be preyed upon by tiger sharks or to become waterlogged and drown. It is a difficult life in the wild.
The exact age albatrosses can attain is not firmly established since they have only been studied for a few decades. Yet there is one Laysan albatross nesting on Midway that attained at least 59 years of age in 2010. Sporting a red leg band with the identifying number Z333 this venerable elder bird is called Wisdom. She has been returning to Midway to breed and nest since first being banded in 1956. Following is a brief account of Wisdom’s story…
Wisdom – World’s Oldest Laysan Albatross
January 5, 2010
On January 3rd, the world’s oldest Laysan albatross, a female named “Wisdom”, was sighted for the first time this breeding season. She was observed in her normal location behind the Bravo Barracks and was proudly incubating an egg. Wisdom is at least 59 years old. She was banded as a nesting adult in the same location by Chan Robbins in December 1956. Robbins estimated that the bird was a minimum of 5 years old at the time. Last year Wisdom and her mate successfully fledged a chick. The oldest albatross in the world appears to be a northern royal albatross which was located on the South Island of New Zealand and was named “Grandma.” She reached a banded age of 51.5 years and probable actual age of 61+ years.
(Information supplied by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge website <http://www.fws.gov/midway/whatsnew.html>)
Birds are not the only attraction at Midway Atoll. Sea turtles inhabit the waters of the atoll. Attaining sizes of up to 4 feet in length while weighing in up to 440 pounds, it is a rare day one does not spy these immense turtles cruising about in the crystalline turquoise waters near the cargo pier and white sand beaches or basking in great numbers on protected, off-limits-to-humans Turtle Beach. Seventy-five percent of Midway’s beaches are restricted to humans in favor of wildlife so sea turtles and monk seals can enjoy well deserved rests. Still, this tropical scene is not all it seems for from a distance picture postcard perfect Turtle Beach’s stretch of pure white sand appears paradisiacal but upon closer inspection through binoculars one sees a myriad of plastic flotsam and jetsam littering the beach around the turtles and the seals.
Green sea turtle in the turquoise lagoon, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Turtle Beach with basking sea turtles and marine debris, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Green sea turtles basking on Turtle Beach, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
Hawaiian monk seals are critically endangered (International Union for Conservation of Nature—-IUCN Red List) with approximately 1100 individuals remaining in the Hawaiian island archipelago. Endemic to the Hawaiian island chain (ie, the animal is found only in the Hawaiian and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands), monk seals are protected. Growing to an average of 7- to 8-feet in length monk seals can weigh in up to 600 pounds. When hauled out on beaches, one is warned to stay a minimum of 300’ away from the animals so as not to disturb them. It’s more than just being polite to the seals. For instance, when a mother seal gives birth to a pup she will not eat anything for the next six weeks while she nurses the pup on land. Dropping up to 300# during this time of fasting, it could be disastrous to disturb the mama and her pup. She needs to conserve her energy. Her pup needs to eat in order to gain weight, girth and blubber for it will be completely on its own when weaned at six weeks of age. The approach of a human is enough to upset a mom and her pup, interrupting the pup’s feeding or causing mother and pup to flee into the water where the pup could be swept away by waves and current or predated by a hungry shark.
A monk seal hauled up on the old Pan Am Clipper seaplane ramp, not the most attractive setting for photographs but it at least allowed me to get pretty good looks at those seals. In early May monk seals’ pelts take on a greenish hue due to algae growing in their fur during warmer months. Each Hawaiian monk seal will experience seven to eight days of molting from September to November, giving the seals a sleek light brown appearance once again. Sand Island, Midway Atoll
“Green” monk seal on old seaplane dock, Sand island, Midway Atoll
Snorkeling the outer reef offers an undersea wonderland of beauty. Situated close to the Darwin Line, 29-degrees North, where ocean water becomes too cold to support growth of coral Midway Atoll sustains several species of slow growing coral; a mere five species comprise 80% of all coral species encountered. Contrastingly, compare this tiny number to the estimated 50 species of coral in the Caribbean and the 800+ numbers of corals in the Coral Sea! Since they grow at such a minimal rate, the corals at Midway are not immense in size but they include healthy, colorful groupings. Brilliantly hued reef fish, sea cucumbers and eels make their homes amidst this coral kingdom. Protected from fishing, this reef system supports species of fish that attain great size, reaching terminal stages in bulk and girth.
Unexpectedly, the best place to snorkel on Midway is underneath the huge cargo pier. Intimidating at first with rusty pilings surrounding one on all sides the cargo pier provides sanctuary for resting sea turtles and reef sharks as well as habitat for many other fish. Encrustations built up on the pier supports sport lavender, tangerine, crimson, black and ochre hues, their patterns creating exquisite abstracts from nature. On a calm day the water is crystal clear beneath the pier. It’s not uncommon to find many colorful nudibranchs and lobsters hiding in crevices.
Underneath Midway Atoll’s cargo pier, Sand Island
Parrot fish in Midway Atoll’s lagoon
Marine encrustation on cargo pier, Sand Island, Midway Atoll
One of the most delightful creatures to call Midway’s lagoon home, spinner dolphins spend daylight hours in the clear lagoon water inside the reef sleeping and resting before venturing out to the deep ocean at night to prey on fish. Estimated counts of the spinner dolphins living at Midway number 200+ individuals.
Midway Atoll’s crystalline lagoon
Spinner dolphins riding a bow wave at Midway Atoll’s lagoon
Entrusted with managing Midway Atoll, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is engaged in an invasive species plant eradication program, much of it involving weed pulling and transplantation of native species. Among other invasive plant species, Verbesina, a fast spreading plant imported onto Midway Atoll most likely in the 1950’s has spread like wildfire. Verbesina is a terrible scourge for the bird chicks since it is dense and shuts out breezes that are critical to cooling the little birds. Additionally, verbesina takes over potential nesting sites for albatross and ground burrowing Bonin petrels. Verbesina grows tall, crowding or closing off bird runways necessary for young chicks learning to fly, dooming the chicks. A comprehensive multi-year program to control and hopefully eradicate the verbesina involves applying herbicides that are effective at desiccating and thus destroying invasive growth (these do not harm the wildlife) or doing it the good old fashioned way by pulling out the offensive plants to clear areas in order to replant bushgrass. Bushgrass is a beautiful native tussock grass that provides great erosion control as well as being the perfect plant to shelter young chicks from the hot sun. This plant grows quickly; a stand of bushgrass planted two years ago is thriving today with countless albatross chicks sheltering underneath the grassy hillocks.
One morning on Midway our little group weeded verbesina before planting four-hundred-forty-one containers of bushgrass into sandy well drained soil, each container holding three transplants. A Laysan albatross chick supervises!
Invasive trees are a problem on the Midway Atoll. Some trees have been cut down but others are allowed to remain as they provide shade for the staff’s barracks and dining room areas on Sand Island. Yet there are problems associated with some of these trees. Albatross can become tangled up in them, breaking wings when they collide with branches. Additionally, some trees introduced to the atoll—-ironwood, for example—-sport branches that break easily during windstorms that pummel the atoll. For birds that lay their eggs on tree branches (fairy terns) or build nests in ironwood trees (brown and black noddys, for instance), a big windstorm breaking weak invasive species’ branches spells disaster by destroying nests and young chicks.
Wildlife evokes emotions in us from awe to joy to longing. Perhaps one of the reasons I harbor so much admiration for albatrosses and the wild creatures calling Midway home is that they spend much of their lives seeking whatever lies beyond the next crest of a wave yet always return to the terra firma of their birth to continue their own Circle of Life, something that speaks to the depths of my soul. So much in life is interconnected yet we seldom consider what we do and how it affects other beings and ecosystems. Yet after years of misuse and exploitation of Nature progress is being made on Midway Atoll. ‘Wisdom’ in the form of a wise old albatross as well as in enlightened attitudes toward wild beings has indeed returned to Midway.
I’ll leave you with the memory of two black footed albatrosses dancing in the sunset.
Video by Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)
A video tribute to Midway Atoll and its wildlife by Gina Ruttle (Whalegeek)
Still photography by Gina and Mark Ruttle
Wayne Sentman, naturalist. For excellent essays, photographs and video on Midway Atoll, please link to Wayne’s blog Naturefinder
Eye of the Albatross, by Carl Safina
Midway volunteer, Barb Mayer is an educator who is penning a superb educational blog (it is aimed toward children aged 8-12 years of age but is fascinating for adults as well), FOAM—Friends Of Albatross On Midway
For excellent photos of Midway atoll and its wildlife, please visit Keoki & Yuko Stender’s website MarinelifePhotography.com
The Midway Journey offers an excellent video documenting the effects of marine debris on Laysan albatrosses on Midway Atoll.
Midway Journey: Plastic Beach video by journeytomidway
A necropsy is performed on a Laysan albatross chick on Kure Atoll, located near Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean. WARNING: This is a graphic video! The video demonstrates how much plastic can be ingested by an albatross plus the damage and suffering it causes.
Sometimes a little “Wisdom” is all it takes to make a difference…