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.
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.
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.
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.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.