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