Located at the far end of the extensive Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is one of the most remote atolls in the world—more than 1,500 miles north-west from Honolulu, Oʻahu. Home to the world’s largest albatross colony (and more than 20 other migratory and breeding seabirds and shorebirds), Midway Atoll NWR evokes the idea of an isolated, pristine environment. However, after decades of dredging, building, digging, moving, and bulldozing, Midway Atoll NWR is far from it—making wildlife conservation, habitat restoration, and invasive species control both challenging and rewarding.
Working in the field of conservation, habitat restoration, and ecology, the questions of “What do you do exactly?” and “Why?” tend to crop up consistently. Why hike for miles and miles in the wind and rain? Why place metal bands on birds (and the follow-up question: “Why do you always seem to have bird poop on you somewhere?”)? Why pull this plant over here and not that one over there?
Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), alternatively known as Pihemanu (the “loud din of birds”), has entered a relatively still time of the year—or as quiet as it can be on a tiny atoll packed with nearly 2 million seabirds. While the non-breeding albatross continue to whinny, whistle, moo, scream, and boogie all night long, the rest of the albatross have long since hunkered down, patiently incubating their one and precious egg.
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.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.