Looking outside my window on Christmas Day, it looks like any other wintry day on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR): hundreds of thousands of albatross for as far as the eye can see (both Laysan [Mōlī] and Black-footed [Ka’upu] Albatross [Phoebastria immutabilis and P. nigripes respectively]). By now, with winter has settled in on Midway and a hush has fallen over the (previously) riotous albatross colony: it is incubation time. In mid-November, the first eggs were laid and now most of the albatross sit quietly on their nests, often dozing off under the midday sun. All around the houses, throughout town, lined up along roads (sometimes in the middle of the road), the albatross nest on every nest-able substrate (in other words, they are able to create some sort of a small depression on the ground, a shallow cup for their egg). The non-breeding albatross still stick around, traversing across the colony, crossing the streets, and greeting fellow non-breeders (or potential mates) most enthusiastically; strutting, chest puffed up, they bow and whinny as if introducing themselves and—if reciprocated—move onwards to rapid-fire bill claps, moo’s, screams, head bobs, and other dance moves part of their elaborate courtship display. There is never a dull moment out here on Midway, and the birds don’t stop for anyone—or for any holidays. It’s go, go, go every day.
Haven’t heard of Midway before? Located more than 1,500 northwest of Honolulu, this tiny atoll is literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between the west coast of the United States and Japan.
As I double checked my two bags in the morning, one overstuffed (yet weighing in at exactly 50 pounds) duffel bag and backpack filled strategically with books, camera equipment, binoculars, and other field necessities, I still could not believe that I was actually returning to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge / Battle of Midway National Memorial. It felt unreal and even as I passed through the TSA security check at the Boise, Idaho airport, looking back once more and waving “Goodbye!” to my parents, reality still had not settled in. I buckled up in my seat on a tiny, packed jet heading to San Francisco, and looked out the window over the Boise Foothills, now turning various hues of brown and the Boise River, at their base, outlined by groves of still green trees. Little pings of excitement flashed through my mind as the airplane started to prepare for take-off, and I thought back to my feelings the first time I headed out to Midway Atoll NWR.
On Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, change is ever-present. However, to those of us who are fortunate to live (and have lived for some time now) among the species that define this place, these changes are somewhat subtle. Transitions between seasons seem seamless and it is sometimes only in retrospect that we become aware of just how much has transformed over the course of several days, weeks, or even months. What was once overwhelming (Laysan Albatross around each and every corner, Bonin Petrels taking to the sky in the thousands at dusk), now seems normal. And yet, these familiar avian staples of Midway are changing. Spring is afoot, a time of growth and renewal, and we find ourselves at the edge of the breeding season for numerous seabird species. Life is about to explode on Midway.
Only a few weeks ago, Midway Atoll NWR was filled with a carpet of black-and-white Laysan Albatross quietly and patiently incubating. Now, the checkerboard scene of adult albatross has been replaced with downy nestlings and a constant murmur of peeps.
There's a change in the air out at Midway Atoll NWR. The winds have started to pick up, bringing down cool breezes from the north, and -- with the wind-- the once calm, turquoise waters now churn wildly all through the lagoon, accented by white crests and caps. The sky is equally dramatic; clouds bound by, building, swirling, and short showers frequent the atoll. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) has gone into bloom, covering the ground with a blanket of fine white flowers, almost like snow.
Winter is settling in.
Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air, and deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves, the echo of a distant tide, comes willowing across the sand, and everything is green and submarine.
Out here at Midway Atoll, the breeding season for albatross is well underway. Compared to the beginning of the season when the colony was a cacophony of screams, whistles, moo’s, and bill claps (as well as a constant flux between courtship displays and intense kerfuffles), the scene is quite calm now. With nests built and eggs laid, the patient parent albatross sit quietly amongst one another as they incubate, sometimes with eyes half closed, often dozing in the afternoon. For the next two months, the stillness will continue, only interrupted by the far-off squeals of non-breeding albatross as they practice their courtship displays.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.