Midway’s beloved birds, albatross (or, more colloquially known as “gooney birds”), are the signature wildlife of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
One of the wonders of the wide Pacific Ocean is that of a Laysan Albatross / Mōlī (Phoebastria immutabilis) gliding across the waves and wind, seemingly without effort. They are made for a life at sea—and indeed, they spend the majority of their lives soaring throughout the North Pacific, upwards of 90% of their entire lifetime in the sky and at sea. They cover extensive tracts, sometimes hundreds of miles a day, way out west to Japan, north to the Aleutian Islands, or even eastwards to California in search of food (typically squid, fish eggs, and occasionally crustaceans).
Mention of Midway brings to mind myriads of birds. But, there's more to Midway...
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?
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.
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?
Midway. It seems like a dream.
A flat atoll surrounded by hundreds of miles of sea, home to (seemingly) no one. And yet, it is one of the most prolific and important breeding sites for a variety of seabirds.
According to BirdLife International, more than 70% of the world's Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and almost 40% of the Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) populations breed on Midway each year. In fact, almost 3 million birds from 23 different species (some more rare than others) flock to this atoll during the breeding season. That's equal to about the entire population of the state of Mississippi-- all crammed into the tiny 2.4 square miles (or 6.2 square kilometers) that comprise Midway Atoll.
And, in just a few days, I will be travelling over 3,000 miles (about 10 times the distance that I used to drive from my home in Boise, Idaho to the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho) to this speck of an atoll. You can't get much further from anywhere else on Earth than on Midway. As you can see below, this atoll truly is "mid-way" in the Pacific Ocean between North America and Asia.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.