Monday, January 13, 2014

Midway Atoll is steeped in history but we are there for the birds! (part 1 of 2)

Midway has lots of history!

I don't know where to start so I will begin with some basic facts (thanks to U.S. Fish & Wildlife & Wiki for much of the information) (Sorry for the strange formatting- I think it because I cut and pasted information from Wiki)

Midway Atoll is a 2.4-square mile atoll in the North Pacific Ocean. It includes 3 islands: Sand, Eastern & Spit. As its name suggests - Midway is roughly equal distance between North America and Asia. 

Midway Atoll is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the U. S., and the former home of the Midway Naval Air Station. It is grouped as one of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. It is 161 miles east of the International Date Line, 3,200 miles west of San Francisco & 2,500 miles east of Tokyo. The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge includes 590,991 acres of land and water (mostly water) and is administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife. It is larger than all of the U.S. National Parks combined!

In 1903, workers for the Commercial Pacific Cable Company took up residence on the island as part of the effort to lay a trans-Pacific telegraph cable. There is still one building preserved as a historic landmark on Sand Island.

In 1935, operations began for the Pan Am Clipper flying boats (Martin M-130) operated by Pan American Airlines. These flying boats island hopped from San Francisco to China, providing the fastest and most luxurious route to the Orient and bringing tourists to Midway until 1941.Only the very wealthy could afford a trip, which in the 1930s cost more than three time the annual salary of an average American.

All that is left of the sea plane hanger can be seen in the photo below. You can see evidence of shrapnel that hit the steel girders of the building during the war.
(that is my bike in the foreground- the main mode of transportation on the island)

Midway was the focal point of the Battle of Midway, one of the most important battles of the Pacific Campaign in World War II. The battle, fought between June 4 and 6, 1942 near the islands, saw the United States Navy defeat a Japanese attack against the Midway Islands, marking a turning point in the war in the Pacific Theater

At one point there were approximately 5,000 people living on Midway! Currently the population is closer to around 40 people. There are only 3 full-time Fish & Wildlife staff and the remaining folks are DBSI (contractors that keep the infrastructure running).

Midway also has an emergency landing airstrip managed by the  FAA for planes flying trans-pacific that need assistance. 

As you can gather there is much history (man-made or otherwise) on Midway Atoll - however we are there for the birds:-)

A pair of Laysan Albatross

Midway Atoll is a critical habitat in the central Pacific Ocean. A number of native species rely on the island which is now home to 67–70% of the world's Laysan Albatross population, and 34–39% of the global Black-footed Albatross.
While Midway supports nearly three million birds, each seabird species has carved out a specific site on the atoll in which to nest. Seventeen different species of seabird can be found, the rarest of which is the Short-tailed Albatross, otherwise known as the “Golden Gooney.” Fewer than 2,200 are believed to exist in the world due to excessive feather hunting in the late nineteenth century. The Fish and Wildlife Service has recently re-introduced the endangered Laysan Duck (Midway is part of its assumed pre-historic range) to the Atoll.
Over 250 different species of marine life are found in the 300,000 acres of lagoon and surrounding waters. The critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals raise their pups on the beaches. Monk seals are benthicforagers and rely on the Midway Atoll’s reef fish, squid, octopus and crustaceans. Green sea turtles, another threatened species, occasionally nest on the island. The first nest was found in 2006 on Spit Island and another in 2007 on Sand Island. A resident pod of 300 spinner dolphins live in the lagoons and nearshore waters.
The islands of Midway Atoll have been extensively altered as a result of human habitation. Starting in 1869 with the project to blast the reefs and create a port on Sand Island, the ecology of Midway has been changing.
A number of invasive exotics have been introduced. Ironwood trees from Australia were planted to act as windbreaks. Seventy-five percent of the 200 species of plants on Midway were introduced. Recent efforts have focused on removing non-native plant species.
Lead paint on the buildings still poses an environmental hazard (avian lead poisoning) to the albatross population of the island. The cost of stripping the paint is estimated to be $5 million. Paint removal is expected to be finished by 2017.
The link below provides an over site of many of the ongoing research projects taking place on Midway:
A few days after we left the island a Short-tailed Albatross hatched at Midway!! This is history in the making. Once one of the most abundant albatross species in the North Pacific with a population of more than 5 million adults, short-tailed albatross were hunted primarily for feathers and by 1949 the species was thought to be extinct. However, mostly through the efforts of Japanese researchers and international treaties, the short-tailed albatross population is beginning to recover. In 2007, the world population was estimated at 2,350 birds. See the article below:

See Flickr photos by U.S. Fish & Wildlife below:

Female Short-tailed Albatross on her nest surrounded by nesting Laysan & Black-footed Albatross on Eastern Island

Male Short-tailed Albatross looking for a mate on Sand Island- they call him Lonesome George because he has been waiting patiently for a mate for over 10 years!

Bob and I were part of an 18 person group of volunteers brought over by U.S. Fish & Wildlife to count the Laysan & Black-footed Albatross nests. Nests numbers have been tracked for approximately 10 years. These numbers are tracked and used by international fish and wildlife organizations to guide fishing practices such as long-line fishing and pollution prevention organizations figuring out ways to deal with plastic trash in the ocean. The albatross are surface feeders and are competing for fish with man. Unfortunately the albatross will swallow the fishing hooks if care is not taken in how the lines are deployed. Also one of the greatest reasons for chick death is the ingestion of plastics. The adults swallow the plastics at sea along with the fish eggs and squid and then upon their return regurgitate their food to feed the chicks. If the adults have ingested plastics the chick may end up with the same plastics in their bellies.

Chris Jordan is an artist that is trying to bring the world's attention to the issue of plastics being ingested and killing the albatross. I am providing links to both his art work and a short trailer that is very graphic and upsetting (but important that the world knows what is going on in our oceans). This touched me so deeply. I think this was when I realized that all I wanted to do was to try and help the birds and wildlife that need our help to try and reverse and improve some of the human impacts we have brought to bear on our planet.

Warning! Bob has not been able to view the following links.

It is an amazing experience - every square inch of the islands are covered with albatross nests or petrel burrow. (more on petrel burrows in the next blog). The following are photos taken from our experiences from  last year and this year on Midway. Our next blog will provide more detail about what is involved in counting nests and photos from this year's trip.

Laysan Albatross sitting on the nest- The albatross start showing up at Midway in November by the thousands. (last year we counted 480,000 Laysan Albatross & 28,000 Black-footed Albatross nests!! & all of the birds are not nesting). Some birds come to meet their mates & nest (they mate for life for the most part) & younger albatross come to find their mate. 

A pair of teenage Black-footed Albatross

Once the albatross chick fledges they are out at sea for 3-5 years. After that age they begin coming to Midway to find a mate. The photo below is of youngsters looking for their true love. They carry on 24 hours a day. They have a specific courtship dance that is fascinating to observe.

The following is a link to my short video on youtube of the courtship dance:

Once the female lays the egg (or eggs) the male some how knows and comes back from feeding at sea to take over sitting on the nest so that the female can go out to feed at sea. They both travel thousands of miles to the northern Pacific to feed on squid and flying fish eggs. The first feeding period maybe 2-3 weeks since she needs to rebuild the strength lost in laying her egg(s). After that initial period they exchange nesting duties every 10-14 days. They become very attached to the egg and it usually takes considerable coaxing to get the partner off the nest.

They get into a trance while on the nest. Mind you they do not leave the nest while their mate is out feeding so they are there for awhile.

The following is a video of the end of a nest exchange from last year.

They tend to be so sweet and tender to each other it is hard to not fall in love:)
They spend much time talking sweetly to their egg.

Heading off to sea:-)

The following are some of the other birds seen on the islands.

Red-tailed Tropicbird chick on Eastern Island

A Black Noddy that was building a nest in the Ironwood Trees

A Masked Booby Juvenile on Eastern Island

A Masked Booby Adult on Eastern Island

A Red-footed Booby coming in for a landing

A group of Red-footed Boobies- the juvenile is the darker bird in the center

A White Tern (or Fairy Tern)

The endangered Laysan Duck (part of the Teal family)

I know it is a lot of information but the place and experience are so amazing I just wanted to share it with everyone I know:-)

The next blog will have more details on the count and the folks we are working with along with other species.

In Joy~

Turtle and Hawk

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