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.
Walk off of the trails and roads here and you immediately enter dense neighborhoods of seabirds… or fall into one. The land beyond the path on Midway is a field of avian landmines; you never know when or where you’ll fall 3 feet down into a Bonin Petrel burrow and then feverishly dig out the rest of the burrow to save the bird trapped down under (as an aside, Bonin Petrels leave their burrows at dusk to forage). As you shovel the sand away, Laysan Albatross seated nearby calmly watch and clap their bills like polite applause at golf tournaments. A few wander and wobble past with big clown-like steps, wump wump wump, giving you a quizzical look. A few might even stop, just a few feet or so from your face, and let out a high-pitched, doleful whinny.
Black-footed Albatross, a bit less widespread than their Laysan cousin, slink in the background, walking with a thug-like strut. These albatross have a dark brown wash to their bodies, with a highlight of white at the base of their bill. They are simply gorgeous and indeed have jet black feet. Whereas Laysan Albatross have an innocent, sometimes poignant (and sometimes just plain silly) look, the Black-footed have a stoic, regal expression. They also sound quite different. Approach a field of Laysan Albatross, and you’ll enter a cacophony of the most random sounds. If you had your eyes closed, you might think you hear the sounds of children squealing with joy as they run around a play-ground. Keep on listening, and you’ll suddenly hear the moo’s from dairy cattle far off. Add in some horse whinnies, polite golf claps, and several goose-like calls to complete the soundscape. If you’re lucky enough you also might hear the sound of a small jet plane and rush of air over your head- that’s a Laysan Albatross zooming in to land. As graceful as they are in the sky, they are extremely awkward when landing. You can almost feel their anxiety as they come in to land, sticking their big clown feet in front of them, but then over- or under-shooting their trajectory and instead thudding onto the ground chest first, sometimes flipping over completely. They quickly bounce back up again, fluffing up their feathers and glancing quickly around, hoping that no one saw and walk away nonchalantly, as if to say, “Nothing to see here, folks.”
Black-footed Albatross share many of the same sounds with Laysan Albatross but they do have a few notable vocalizations. When I first happened upon a group of Black-footed Albatross, I kept on hearing a blaring, nasally, goose-like call, uh-uh, Uh-Uh, UH-UH. I scanned all around me, half expecting to find some sort of an exotic goose or duck. Instead, I traced the sound to a series of Black-footed Albatross. One had apparently wandered into the territories of a few other Black-footed Albatross, only to be greeted with some precautionary warnings, as if to say, “NUH-UH! Don’t you come here!” Bill claps then spread out among the group members; Black-footed Albatross seem to have some sort of reverb built in to their bill claps and snaps, giving it a more bowp, bowp, bowp sound than that of Laysan Albatross. They are also more aggressive than Laysan Albatross, often found in a fierce battle, bills of opponents locked around each other, tugging fiercely. While scenes of albatross tenderly preening their mates comes to mind, this the minority of the interactions between albatross during the breeding season. Albatross fall into and out of kerfuffles constantly and many often leave with bloody wounds. Love is indeed a battlefield out here.
Back on the road again, White Terns, Black Noddies, and Brown Noddies flutter about your head like huge, curious butterflies. The White Terns are especially beautiful; they are pure white from head to tail with the only deviation from an otherwise spotless appearance of black eyes and a blue-black bill. They follow you along a trail for some distance, dancing around like snowflakes. Black and Brown Noddies are also lovely birds, a near complete contrast from White Terns. Like their name implies, they are either completely black or brown with a small white cap that blends into the darker hue of their plumage and a small streak of white eyeliner around their lower eyelid. One Brown Noddy was very curious and followed me for some time as I biked around the atoll (the main form of transportation here). Once I got off my bike, it fluttered to a branch nearby, studying me with keen curiosity, cocking its head slightly. I stared back likewise; sharing a moment of intense, mutual curiosity with a bird is moving. In these extraordinary moments, we wonder at the spectacle of the other. What is it? Where did it come from?
Biking around the island, there are other feathered treasures to marvel at. White- and Red-tailed Tropicbirds are high in the sky. Magnificent Frigatebirds slowly flow up thermals in the hundreds. Red-footed and Masked Boobies can sometimes be spotted catching a nap in treetops in the afternoons. Canaries offer entertainment and music on the deck of the Clipper House. Canaries, though, are not native to the island but have naturalized quite well. More than a hundred years ago, workers came to Midway to set up the transpacific cable. Brought as pets, the original 12 canaries on Midway were eventually released by their owners and since then went forth and multiplied most successfully- there are literally hundreds of these little yellow birds all over the atoll. And while it may seem that the avifauna at Midway Atoll NWR are certainly curious, they are by no means tame. Midway is not a petting zoo; extend your hand to a Laysan Albatross and you might experience a quick snap instead of a friendly exchange. Walking down the street or through a field, any animal has the right of way. It is this freedom that makes Midway Atoll NWR truly astounding.
The sounds, sights, and unique species of Midway are without a doubt overwhelming. Overwhelming in terms of beauty, ecology, and discovery. But perhaps the most difficult part of Midway to communicate is its immensity, scale, and quantity. Midway is indeed tiny (2.4 square miles) but the bird life here is huge. To imagine seeing (let alone walking alongside) one albatross is a moment you’ll remember for the rest of your life. These birds are captains of the sea, flying thousands of miles each year in search of food. They spend more of their lives in the air than on the ground so to come face-to-face with one of these feathered wonders, aerial wanderers is truly a wonder in of itself. Walking through a field of a thousand of these feathered wonders is a sensory overload. It feels unreal, surreal.
At the end of the day, when I am beyond awe of the avian world that is Midway Atoll, I find yet another mind-blowing spectacle. At dusk, a mass exodus of Bonin Petrels unfolds. Just around sunset, these small black-and-white birds emerge from their burrows and take to the sky in the thousands. Like mosquitoes during hot summer months, these petrels fill the sky. Black streaks cross through the air above, zooming and threading in between one another. Tens of thousands are in the sky now; it’s hard to imagine that a few hours ago, all of these birds were below your feet, snug and safe in their burrows. It just goes to show… when you think you’ve seen it all at Midway, the Bonin Petrels come out.
As I lay in bed, I think back through my day about some of my favorite sights, some moments of plain beauty and happiness. I think of albatross deep asleep. Sometimes I would come across them, by the side of the road, head tucked snugly into the warm, downy feathers of their back, breathing deeply and slowly. Albatross, for as big as they are and for the distances they have crossed to come to this tiny atoll, are very real, humble, and fragile in that moment of deep and well-deserved rest. Another moment comes to mind. The winter rains and storms are starting to come through Midway, which relieve the albatross as they bake away in open fields, bills open and panting to cool off. When it rains, you can see almost feel the albatross rejoice. They flap their wings and take a quick shower in the rain. But, perhaps the most fascinating activity during rainfall is when albatross try to catch raindrops. Like kids sticking out their tongues to catch the first snowflake of winter, albatross point their bills up to the sky, slightly open, to catch a few raindrops, a few precious sips of fresh water.
***This is my last sappy post about birds for a while! Check back soon for a post all about Midway and the mission and work of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service out here, as well as an outline of my job and all of the great work and research projects that I have the opportunity to assist with and ecological insights into the avian world at Midway Atoll NWR.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.