Heading out of the volunteer house around sunrise, I bike towards the USFWS Midway Atoll NWR Office. The weather looks promising today, with a clear sky overhead, already filled full with our feathered friends, the albatross. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands of them are taking to the sky, aided by the warm breeze this morning. Up and up into the air they glide, crisscrossing each other. Meanwhile, back on the ground, thousands more albatross sit quietly, some with eyelids half closed, as they patiently incubate their precious, single egg. I stop by Parade Field and get off of my bike, savoring the moment and one of the best views of the hundreds of thousands of nesting albatross (both Laysan and Black-footed) at Midway. A few minutes later, I’m in the office, greeted warmly by the USFWS staff. We exchange weekend stories and the latest updates about the upcoming ukulele concert (believe it or not, Midway Atoll boasts quite a rockin’ ukulele band). Then we focus on today’s agenda. No day is quite the same out here at Midway Atoll NWR.
I’m starting to realize that the word “unique” is quickly becoming obsolete in trying to describe the experience and world that is Midway. The wildlife, habitat, and general marine ecology here are certainly unmatched in terms of biodiversity as well as quantity, with 2-3 million seabirds breeding on the atoll annually. While you might think of Laysan Albatross affectionately preening each other and White Terns fluttering overhead like oversized white butterflies, there’s more than meets the eye at Midway. In particular, Midway Atoll has quite a few notable titles to its name. First off, Midway Atoll is a national wildlife refuge located within the nation's largest conservation area, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It is also home to the Battle of Midway Memorial. Plus, it is the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site in the United States. But what do all of these titles, designations, and inscriptions mean? And what do they entail exactly?
Walking out the front door of the volunteer wildlife biologist house on Midway Atoll NWR is like stepping into an alternate universe. Whereas most places where I’ve lived and worked, humans and all that follows tend dominate the landscape, with a smattering of other biota. Most of us have grown in up in “developed” areas, usually surrounded by more asphalt and concrete than trees and rivers. At Midway Atoll NWR, we are the visitors. We are in the minority. With a town of about 40 folks, we are easily outnumbered by the 2-3 million seabirds that cover the entire atoll (and sometimes below the atoll, as in the case of the Bonin Petrels that dig extensive burrows under every patch of sand and excavatable substrate). It is a refreshing contrast to the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life but also a needed reminder of our humble place in the web of life.
Surprise surprise! I am still in Hawai'i! Due to mechanical issues with the plane, the Midway Atoll NWR crew has been unable to leave so we are unfortunately stranded on Hawai'i. Lucky for us, Waikiki Beach and the surrounding area are full of things to see, do, and explore! So far, I've managed to check out the Honolulu Zoo (which houses literally hundreds of birds from around the world!), spend time at the beach swimming and exploring the fish biodiversity, and eat lots of delicious food, including a visit to the famous Leonard's Bakery. Everywhere we go, we're greeted by coo's from Zebra Doves and chattering from Common Mynas all around. The vegetation is so green and vibrant here and as we were out swimming this morning, it hardly seemed plausible that it was November! Hawai'i is a true gem and even though Waikiki Beach seems to be overrun by exotic birds, we did have the luck to catch a glimpse of some fairy terns fluttering overhead.
Enjoy the pictures of my adventures below!
Be sure to check back here soon! Hopefully I'll have a chance to put up some pictures and stories about albatross by the end of the week!
In about 3 hours, I'll be flying out to Midway! I'll be travelling 1,500 miles to the tiny atoll of Midway and spending the next four months there helping with research and conservation efforts, with a special emphasis on the albatross nesting on Midway (Laysan, Black-footed, and sometimes the Short-tailed) as well as invasive vegetation removal. Fingers crossed, the internet will be fast enough that I can continue to update this blog (somewhat...!) regularly and post some small pictures.
I arrived in Hawai'i yesterday and it seemed incredibly surreal. It had just snowed in the foothills around Boise and all of a sudden I was in +70 degree sunshiney weather! Folks were out surfing en masse, the water was surprisingly warm (I'm used to the cold waters off of the Oregon and Washington coast), and the vegetation and trees were so incredibly green, verdant, and tropical. But the most surprisingly of all was (of course!) the birds! Walking along the beach by the hotel I was staying in seemed like a stroll through a tropical rainforest- the trees were full of singing and chattering birds, although they were hard to pick out. Today I spent the morning trying to identify all the species around me and definitely saw and heard numerous lifers, including Pacific Golden Plovers, Common Mynas, Red-crested Cardinal, Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Red-vented Bulbuls, Zebra Doves, Spotted Doves, Common Fairy Terns, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Cattle Egrets, White-rumped Shamas, and Java Sparrows. As excited as I was to see these exotic birds, most of them indeed were exotic- that is to say, introduced to Hawai'i. So, unfortunately I have not seen many truly endemic species of Hawai'i but soon (very soon!) I'll be on an island with 2-3 million seabirds!
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.