Farewell to Midway

We got our marching orders Monday, 24 hours prior to departure Tuesday night; an A4 sheet of instructions stuck to our bedroom doors upon our return from dinner!


 A sad reminder that our time on Midway Atoll was up!

After a 3-day weekend, we had hoped to be able, on our last day, to spread rodenticide (in the ongoing mouse battle) but, in keeping with the past 10 days, the weather didn’t cooperate. It needs a 72-hour window of good weather to be effective and, although Tuesday was mostly dry, more rain was forecast for Wednesday. Very frustrating for all concerned, with 7 extra bodies available  on island and keen to help.

So, instead, we spent Tuesday morning clearing marine debris (a heckuva lot of it!) from the south beach area, giving a wide berth to dozing monk seals. After lunch, we sorted everything we’d collected, and more, in the boneyard (but not quite everything in this photo!!)


Even with all the publicity regarding the obscene amounts of trash littering our oceans, it has been a depressing education to see in person the piles of human garbage that wash up daily on these otherwise pristine beaches, and the detrimental effect on the wildlife.

On a happier note, Monday marked the discovery of the first known albatross chick of Hatch Year 2017. We are so fortunate to have experienced this before we left. Laysan hatchings on Midway lag a little behind those on the main Hawaiian islands, but the Blackfoot albatross are typically a couple of weeks ahead of the Laysan, so several of us had been keeping an eye on the Blackfoot nests over the past few days.

This sighting was particularly special for me, since we don’t have nesting Blackfoot albatross on Kaua’i. Until Midway, I’d only ever caught a distant glimpse of a Blackfoot a couple of times on rare fly-bys at Kīlauea Point.

Interestingly, the newborn Blackfoot chicks appear almost white, far paler than Laysan chicks.


After Monday’s ‘first’, several reports of chicks and ‘pippings’ followed quickly on Tuesday. In days, the island will be covered in rapidly growing fluffballs. I envy those who remain to experience the coming months.

Our last evening was rather drawn out as the incoming plane was delayed, but it gave us extra time to enjoy the company of the staff and volunteers who joined us in Charlie Barracks…and to watch Toy recording the precise weight of every one of our bags before loading onto to the small G3 jet.


Farewells were tough, but made easier with the exchange of email/Facebook contacts and the promise of enduring friendships.

With limited internet access on the island, I’ve posted infrequently and been restricted to a very few low resolution photos, so, even though my time there is done,  I’d like to share some more Midway experiences, including videos, in future posts.

I left Midway Atoll NWR with so much gratitude for this unique experience, countless special memories that will last my lifetime, and a burning desire to return.


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Life and Death on Midway

Midway is an incredibly energizing place. Full of life!

Much has been and is being done by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to return this piece of real estate to its native birds, turtles and monk seals, through habitat restoration and removal of debris and decaying buildings.

It’s humbling to be one of just a few dozen humans sharing this tiny space with hundreds of thousands of birds, that blanket the sky on windy days, buzz you on take-offs and landings, and seemingly never stop whistling, honking, and twittering.


Nature at its best!

On the other hand, there are also constant reminders of nature’s unforgiving force.

Over the past couple of days a raging storm front has been passing through. On Friday the downpour brought flooding that devastated many albatross nests. 


Some parents were seen nudging and ‘meeping’ at eggs that had floated away from their nest; others huddled stoically on totally submerged nests with little hope of their offspring’s survival.


Non-nesters are also victims of the weather. 
On Saturday, despite a sunny break from the rain, the winds were so vicious that there were many hard landings, though the ones I witnessed seemed to escape any damage…except to their pride! Worse, several birds were blown off course and slammed fatally into obstacles such as concrete remnants of buildings. At least (for those we were aware of) death was instantaneous.

I came across this gorgeous adult lying beside a concrete wall. Its soft, perfect body was still warm. I held it and cried! 


This is the harsh reality, survival of the fittest. 

Staff and volunteers who are here during summer months have to bear the sad sight of thousands of starving albatross chicks that do not survive…many of them victims of ‘death by plastic’; but they also have the thrill of watching a far larger number fledge successfully, and knowing that their hard work has helped them on their way.

The Leftovers

The count is done! The numbers are in! Another annual Albatross Census is on the books!

We captured a group photo of all 18 counters, having completed our final sector on Sand Island, before the troops disbanded.


Each year, as the G3 jet is too small to take all of us, a few remain on island until the next flight out. They are fondly referred to as ‘The Leftovers’, and this year I am one.

Since there were also some US Fish and Wildlife (FWS) staff who needed to leave, only 11 of the counters departed on Thursday night’s flight, and seven Leftovers remain.

We are now officially assigned to FWS as volunteers, to help on whatever projects need extra bodies, such as habitat restoration or bird surveys.

Our mission the past couple of days has been to help identify new or expanded areas of mouse attacks on nesting albatross.

The attacks were first noticed during last year’s count; once the albatross started nesting again this year the problem recurred and spread rapidly.

The FWS biologist here, Meg, gave us an evening presentation soon after we arrived, so that we could alert them if we saw signs of injuries while counting. The images she showed us, caught on remote infrared cameras, were extremely distressing. 

The tiny field mice climb onto a nesting bird and eat into their back, neck or head. An albatross goes into a kind of trance when incubating its egg, so doesn’t seem to be able to fend off its attacker. The injuries can be extensive and quite a number of birds have died from infection; many have abandoned their nests; many more are still nesting while suffering various degrees of bites.

The mice are by no means new to the island, though numbers have soared since rats were completely eradicated. We don’t exactly know what caused the mice to start attacking the birds last year, though some theories suggest it might have to do with them losing some of their previous food sources.

We would be out in the field right now, but it’s been bucketing down all day with no sign of stopping before nightfall, and work is suspended til tomorrow, so I gained some time to write a post instead.

I suspect that surveying and baiting will be our main tasks for next week; I’m not sure what else we’ll get involved in beyond that. I’m just very grateful to have the extra days to enjoy this spectacular place, even in the pouring rain.

The albatross are taking advantage of today’s weather, to drink the raindrops and build up their nests while the sand is wet!

Rusty Bucket

There’s a magical spot on the north west shoreline of Sand Island (the main island of Midway Atoll), called Rusty Bucket, featuring the remnants of a refuelling pier. 

It’s a perfect place to watch the sunset, and is a magnet for the photographers among us. 

It’s an easy walk along the beach, but often one’s path is blocked by a monk seal or several (which we are not supposed to approach or pass within 150 ft), so an alternative is to bicycle along the trails past Henderson Hill, through a forested area, and out to a disused runaway, before dismounting and walking through a pathway among the naupaka to the shoreline…a longer but very pleasant route, passing acres of albatross by day and buzzed by countless Bonin petrels on the return trip after dusk.

Usually there is a monk seal, sometimes two, hauled out on the sand nearby; always there is a large group of noddies perched on the old iron pilings emerging from the edge of the turquoise ocean.


As we gaze out to sea, there’s the constant background sound of Black-footed albatross, whose display antics are even more raucous and entertaining than the Laysan! (Sadly, bandwidth prevents me from sharing video while still on the island.)


Not much can beat sitting in this one spot for an hour or so at the end of the day, watching and listening to the birds, and seeing the sky turn all kinds of wonderful, as the albatross dip and glide above the ocean.

Message in a Bottle

As many are aware, Midway has become a dumping ground for the depressingly endless piles of garbage floating around in the ocean. 

Volunteers collect interesting (and less interesting) bits of trash whenever they are beachcombing or checking on the birds. A couple of days ago I found a baby pink toothbrush lying half in/half out of an albatross nest, and gave it to a colleague who’s specifically collecting toothbrushes. 

Another is collecting plastic lighters for an artist friend who transforms them into collages. Here’s one piece made for the barracks where we are staying:


Some days ago, when teams were counting albatross on Eastern Island, one counter, Sandra, found a well-corked wine bottle with several sheets of clean dry paper rolled up inside it. There has been some excitement building about the contents, so she decided to make a special event of it and open the bottle at our Christmas lunch.

Firstly, I should say that the feast did not disappoint! Here’s the menu posted on the door:


So, after being well wined and dined, Sandra attempts to extract the message from the bottle. Easier said than done! Seeing the struggle, the head chef (who is Thai) offers to help. He disappears into the kitchen, eventually proudly reappearing with a clean bottle, and no paper.

Seems the original intention got somewhat lost in translation! Turns out he assumed she just wanted the bottle, so he filled it full of water, shook it vigorously, yanked out the sheets which were by then in tiny sodden shreds and chucked them away.


An ambitious and optimistic few were determined to piece together the matted soggy puzzle. They could clearly identify some English words and phrases including ‘ship’ and ‘leak’ and ‘stupid’, so I’m hoping there isn’t someone stranded on a desert island still waiting to be rescued! 😜

I’m not ashamed to say I left them to it,  to enjoy a sunny Christmas Day walk on the beach instead! 

Christmas Eve on Midway

After a full day’s counting (and an excellent dinner as always), Christmas Eve was all about the white elephant gift exchange. 

Santa(!) dropped in for a visit with a few Thai elves! 🎅😆 (yup, the elves got gifts too!)

 

There were far too many hours of hilarity to go into detail here, but the gift that I (admittedly) stole from a fellow team-mate, Liz, was a superb, framed picture of a Bonin petrel.

Sadly, it was subsequently stolen from me (by some b**tard who will remain nameless at least for this post!), but I discovered the gift was donated by the artist himself, Eric, who is a volunteer here.

Having realized just how much I loved it, Eric drew me my very own Bonin on a paper napkin! 

OK, OK, so it’s not quite the quality of the original, which really is a work of art, but I will frame this one myself and treasure it as the perfect memory of a truly special evening of friendship and side-splitting laughter! 🙂

Mele Kalikimaka!

P.S. To Marilou: Yes, we spent an entertaining evening at Captain Brooks this week making tree decorations from ocean trash; I discovered your albatross skull and the bizarre phallic creation in a box, so you’ll be amused to know that both made it onto this year’s tree! 😜

Minefields of a different sort

Sunday was our first full day of counting, and we started to get the system down, though that doesn’t mean it’s a piece of cake. There are plenty of obstacles to weave over and around while still keeping an eye on your colleagues (we wirk in teams of 6), and not losing count…oh, and managing two clickers, to count the black-footed albatross separately from the Laysan!
…and then there are the Bonin petrels! 


These petrels are a success story for Midway! Their numbers had been decimated by the growing rat infestation; but, since the rats have been eradicated from Sand Island, the Bonin numbers have rocketed upwards. Good news for the Bonin’s; not so much for us! Their burrows are so numerous, and have undermined the soft earth and sand, that they can collapse under the weight of even an albatross…so you can imagine the effect when a team of humans comes tromping through their territory!

The burrows are impossible to avoid. Every time one of us collapses a burrow, the rest of the team has to halt and wait for that person to dig out the burrow, to ensure there isn’t a trapped petrel (or two!) in it. So, the counting is very much a stop-start process but, with a strict discipline and good communication along the line of counters, it’s a surprisingly efficient and accurate method.

Later in the day we covered a sector beyond the runway near the shoreline. I was hunting for nests in a thick growth of naupaka when I came across a white tern sitting on a branch. It seemed to have no fear of me and made no attempt to move from its perch. With those huge round black eyes, it’s hard to beat them for cuteness!


** I’ve tried since Sunday to load a couple of very small photos and post this, but no luck. I doubt if I’ll manage to post anything further until mid-Jan when I return to Kaua’i (since Midway posts just aren’t worth much without photos), but I’m keeping notes so then maybe I will post retrospectively.

In the meantime, to all a very good night!