A couple of weeks ago now, I biked hurriedly along the road. Heart pounding, I could hardly contain my excitement—seeing the first albatross of the season! Perhaps it was a slightly silly and whimsical journey, whizzing across the bumpy roads to see the first of more than a million albatross that will start pour in over the following weeks—but it is a sight that I will never tire of seeing. Alone in the field, sits a large, Ka'upu / Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes); resting on a bed of native Alena (Boerhavia repens), its chocolate brown plumage blending into the landscape of green, tan, and gray hues, the albatross has a strong yet stoic aura. What is so beautiful and inspiring about these seafaring species? Their regal majesty, on the ground and in the air? Or their life of extremes, spending months roaming at sea only to return to a jam-packed, non-stop dancing, rowdy and rambunctious colony?
Every day now, more albatross slip in, almost fluid-like, the soft drizzle before a downpour. They sit calm, nestled among the low green vegetation, as if they had never left, had always been there, and were part of the landscape—but somehow forgotten. They are the heart of this place; together, in the millions, they are the beat that keeps life flowing. Eyes slightly squinting in the bright light, they gaze out over the open herbland, swaying with the wind, like the tall, proud Kāwelu / Bunchgrass (Eragrostis variabilis). They have a look of knowing, a kind of patient waiting but also one of prudence; it is no wonder how or why the most famous albatross (Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross) earned her profound name.
A resident of the North Pacific, Black-footed Albatross wander throughout these cooler waters, from Alaska, down to California and across the entire ocean to Taiwan. In fact, the Black-footed Albatross is the only albatross species seen regularly off of the west coast of North America.
After the breeding season, Black-footed Albatross leave their colony behind and head out for a life at sea. Initially, they make a northward trajectory to the subtropical waters in between the California Current and the Central Pacific Gyre. Then, as summer progresses, the albatross move more north and northeastwards, eventually working their way into the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, where they spend the rest of the summer and early fall following food. Up north, they spend most of their time foraging in subarctic, eutrophic waters, skirting along the continental margin of the Alaskan Exclusive Economic Zone or in the subarctic transition domain, feasting on a variety of prey including neon flying squid (Ommastrephes bartrami), Pacific pomfret (Brama japonica), various squid species (Gonatidae and Cranchiidae), and flying fish (Exocoetidae) eggs. As the season progresses, Black-footed Albatross, like their Laysan cousin (Phoebastria immutabilis), start to make their way back south and become increasingly common throughout the waters around the Hawaiian archipelago.
Along with the return of the albatross, there is also a mechanical migration afoot. Throughout the summer months and into fall, Midway Atoll NWR undergoes a massive transition—from an atoll packed with seabirds, literally stacked on top of one another (Bonin Petrels and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters in burrows; Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Gray-backed Terns, Sooty Terns, and albatross nesting at the surface; and White Terns, Black Terns, Red-footed Boobies, and Great Frigatebirds in the canopy above) to a largely barren, open island with only the wind causing any movement and sound among the grasses and shrubs. In the small window of time where the majority of birds have fledged and left (or remain behind—a harsh but true reminder of the circle of life), the island very briefly grows quieter. But the cackling cacophony of birds is soon replaced by a more mechanical sound. It is the summer: the time of heavy machinery returns.
Roads once graced by albatross takeoffs are now filled with bulky bulldozers and tank-like excavators, traversing all around the atoll to address lead abatement issues and carefully dismantle and remove hazardous structures. Back in 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a study detailing the plan to remove lead-based paint contamination on Midway Atoll NWR. Hundreds of buildings have been built across the atoll, starting in the early twentieth century and peaking around WWII as well as the Cold War years--and unfortunately, many of those structures were coated with lead-based paint, which eventually became brittle, broke off, and fell into soil nearby. Picked up by curious albatross, the lead-contaminated paint chips would invariably be ingested, leading to "droop wing" (a symptom of lead poisoning), which interferes with muscle development and the albatross' ability to mature, fly, and forage to food--ultimately leading to death. In fact, the USFWS estimated that as many as 10,000 chicks (or up to 3%) of albatross hatchlings died from lead poisoning each year. Now in the 5th year of the project, next year is slated to be the grand finale of the lead abatement project where the remainder of the buildings will be treated and Midway Atoll NWR will be lead-free and a safe haven for albatross and all avifauna. Already, a major decrease in lead poisoning among albatross has been observed across the Refuge, another great accomplishment for the Refuge in conserving and restoring (safe) wildlife habitat. But for now, in this brief window of time where the bird life momentarily ebbs, Midway is a metropolis of machines.
Even from afar, the scrape of metal on concrete is heard all around the atoll, booming and rumbling like thunder. Dump trucks blaze along the twisting roads, shaking and rattling the ground, leaving sharp, deep imprints in the soft soil and crumbling concrete. With the flurry of activity comes a change in the personnel. New faces appear in the Clipper House (where the community comes to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), alive with bright stories and experiences that add fresh flavor to the melting pot that is Midway. It leads to new conversations, examinations of lives and lifestyles not commonly examined, and spurts of social life that add of splash of color—and some drama—to the small community and life in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean.
But now, as the albatross start to pop up, the excavators are quieting down. The season of massive, motorized movement is coming to a close. The “beep beep!” of heavy machinery in reverse slowly gives way to the “honk honk!” of Black-footed Albatross, who are warming up to one another’s presence and preparing for a bustling meet-and-greet in the coming weeks.
The air has started to shift and a new, cool wind greets the evenings. Before, at the start of fall, a warm blanket would follow us all day and all night. The sun would blare and bake the day, and even after sunset, the concrete and sand would continue to radiate warmth into the dark hours of the morning. The ocean water too is cooling down, and so, in many ways, along with quieter nights and fewer and fewer fledglings scurrying around, we feel that we are coming to the end of one season and ready to start the next. What will mark this new breeding season? What will winter bring? Peace and calm, a time to reflect? Quiet, like the million incubating albatross? Or chaos, like thousands of birds bobbing, side-stepping, and dancing all at once? My hope is for a beautiful, serene season, a fresh start—and a bright future for those to come.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.