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.
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.
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.
As the breeding season unfolds on Midway Atoll NWR, hundreds of thousands of Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) flock from the sea to the small sandy atoll to raise their young. Among the returning albatrosses is Wisdom, the world’s oldest known wild bird.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.