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.
Back in November of 2014, I was lucky enough to have been selected and brought on board to the Refuge’s Wildlife Biology volunteer crew, an experience that (to use an over-used cliché) truly changed the course of my life and exposed me to new ecological systems, a slew of captivating species, and monumental conservation efforts that I never would have otherwise encountered. Indeed, only a handful of volunteers are carefully selected from a highly competitive pool to live and work on one of the world’s most remote and isolated places. Despite the distance from land (Midway Atoll NWR is located essentially halfway between the west coast of the United States and Japan—hence the name), life is far from quiet and isolated. Each day is new, rich, and full; each day also holds unknown adventures and novel experiences. I never would have thought I would be catching resights on the world’s most endangered duck (the Laysan Duck--Anas laysanensis) for individual survival and population estimates; I never thought that I would help to propagate and outplant endemic plant species, some pushed nearly to the edge of extinction, in order to restore native plant communities and seabird habitat; I never thought I would meet a family away from home, creating new friendships with a small community thrown together by a love for Midway and all the hard work needed to keep this small atoll going; I never thought that I would learn how to play the ukulele and electric bass, and spend nights jamming with my Thai brothers, singing Thai songs, and drinking Thai beer.
After passing a few days in Hawaiʻi in training for my new position on Midway Atoll NWR (I am working through a non-profit organization based in Hawaiʻi named Kupu), it was time to fly to Midway Atoll NWR. This time, rather than fly at night, I would fly in during the daytime since it is the “off season” on Midway Atoll NWR—in other words, the albatross so iconic of the atoll are currently absent and will not return until later this month. With nearly 2 million albatross gone, the landing and takeoff on Midway Atoll NWR is far less risky (in terms of plane-bird collisions) so day flights are the norm currently. Taking off from Oʻahu in a small jet, the busy bustle of Honolulu quickly fell away and opened up to a quiet, wide open ocean filled with clouds already building up from the moisture-rich air. We passed over Lehua, a great, curved, stone hook emerging from the seemingly impenetrable ocean, and Niʻihau nearby. And then for the next few hours, it was all ocean, stretching on and on for hundreds of miles. At this elevation, around 40,000 feet and cruising around 600 mph, you start to gain an appreciation and idea (or maybe just an inkling) for how substantial, how massive the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is. This Monument encompasses and protects all the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, atolls (like Midway Atoll NWR), reefs, seamounts, deep ocean, and other marine habitats, covering 373,120,000 million acres (more than twice the size of Texas) from Nihoa to Kure Atoll, more than 1,300 miles northwest from Honolulu. And while from the surface it seems like it is only water, life abounds here. Indeed, more than 7,000 different species call this Monument home, ranging from tiny phytoplankton to huge Koholā / Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), from small wintering shorebirds like the Hawaiʻi favorite, the Kolea / Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) to the royalty of the sky: the albatross.
As I was daydreaming, I noticed something very small and white, just above the ocean thousands of feet down. It could not be a bird, as we were too high up still… but maybe it was? I looked up to check the monitor and noticed that we are dropping elevation, the engines becoming quieter, and we started to delve into clouds. Out of the clouds again, I could see several more seabirds, perhaps 'Ā / Red-footed Boobies (Sula sula) or Koa'e 'ula / Red-tailed Tropicbirds (Phaethon rubricauda)—key signals that land is near. Then, from afar, we catch the iconic turquoise blue waters of Midway Atoll’s lagoon, reflected upwards to the underbellies of the clouds that roll along above. All the plane’s passengers start to grab their cameras to capture the sights as we fly into the atoll. We came in from the east, passing over the spiky, emergent reef, going directly over Eastern and Spit Islands, then coming in low at the east end of the runway of Henderson Field on the southeastern end of Sand Island. Coming in, just before landing, we could see the Harbor as well as a recently cleared swath of Ironwood trees (Casuarina equisetifolia and C. glauca) as part of a Federal Aviation Association project for safety aspects related to the runway. Seconds later, we were on the ground, passing by bright, bushy, green Naupaka (Scaevola taccada) lined up along the southern part of the runway. On the other side, we see the runway leading towards the NAF Hangar with (nearly) the entire island’s population there and ready to guide the plane and meet the newest additions to the Midway Atoll family.
Like last time, stepping off the plane was an explosion for the senses. This time too, a wave of humidity meets me as I stepped down from the plane, bright sunlight pouring down, and the greeting cacophony of various seabirds. It felt like coming home in a sense, but biking around Sand Island, seeing buildings, landmarks, and plants felt like a dream—and seeing folks that I thought I would never see again was even more surreal. Around every corner, every bend in the road, there was another smiling face, another hug. Memories came back quickly, and we would reminisce about the past and laugh. Yet, as I biked around, I found that I had forgotten some of the characteristics of this place, like the heavily pock-marked roads that you bump along on bike or in a golf cart (that can barely beat a walking pace sometimes) and the sound of the breeze passing through the leaves of sweeping Ironwood trees.
After the exchange of hugs, smiles, and a huge wave of happiness to be back among the Midway Atoll family, I get the chance to look around the atoll a bit. What I cannot believe is how incredibly lush it looks, so verdant and alive. The outplanted native Kāwelu / Bunchgrass (Eragrostis variabilis) seems to have exploded out of the ground, now looking filled out and impressive, standing tall over the low-growing herbaceous cover. After a drought during the winter, the spring and summer were times of warmth and wetness, leading to an unsurpassed explosion of plant life. Of course, this has also led to an explosion of weeds. Once-small grasses have grown into a waving sea, choking out native plants below—but native plants have put up a good fight, and this year’s unique environmental conditions have helped species, like Alena (Boerhavia repens) establish itself as a robust, sprawling, green carpet all around the atoll. Places where I had helped to outplant native plants only a little more than a year ago are nearly unrecognizable now; these tiny plants have matured into bushes and sprawling ground covers (such as Brackish Seep). ʻĀweoweo (Chenopoidum oahuense) now forms formidable shrubs and even Pōpolo (Solanum nelsonii--proposed listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act) that was once a very rare plant is now a common species part of most restoration efforts. Pōhuehue (Ipomoea pes-caprae), found somewhat locally, is found now found near Naupaka all around the perimeter of Sand and Eastern Islands, even spilling into the beach with its beautiful, bright flowers and iconic hoof-shaped leaf. Over on Eastern Island, the trend is the same. There is hardly any bare sand or ground, other than the old runways that crisscross the island; slowly, vegetation is taking back the island bit by bit, acre by acre. Nohu (Tribulus cistoides) is now not only the most common ground cover on Eastern Island, but has created a deep, lush (albeit spiky—due to its spiny seed heads) cover all over, sometimes growing as high as to your hips. It has been a little more than a year since I last stood on Midway Atoll NWR, but I can hardly believe how much the islands have changed and how far restoration efforts have come, a testament to all the time, effort, and passion put into this place by staff, volunteers, and contractors.
Then, November 2015: Brackish Seep was still largely empty and sparsely vegetated. More than a year later, after hundreds of hours worth of volunteer time of native plant propagation and invasive weed removal, Brackish Seep is a lush environment filled with native plants. Photo credit: Wieteke Holthuijzen / USFWS
Beyond the change in plants, there is also a distinct difference in the soundscape. Without the albatross, there is a certain peace and quiet. The atoll feels open and calm. It is neither a sad stillness nor a time of anxious waiting—perhaps the calm before the storm! Despite their absence, wildlife is in full swing out on midway. Even more so, the seasonality on the atoll is strongly reflected through song and sound. As I bike around, there is a constant chattering of Manu-o-Kū / White Terns (Gygis alba), a unique, comical sound that makes me imagine old witches laughing at a tidbit of juicy gossip—only to be interrupted by the high-pitched, raspy, wailing call of their chicks, high above in the Ironwood canopy. Then, the deep guttural sound of the Noio Kōhā / Brown Noddies (Anous stolidus), so low that it is hard to believe that it is emitted from such an innocent, mousy brown bird. Then, there are the high speed chases, a Manu-o-Kū / White Tern with one or two smelt or other small fish in its bill (food for the wailing chick), only to be chased relentlessly and harassed by a group of Noio Kōhā / Brown Noddies, sometimes as many as 5 or 7! As they tumble, twist, and turn through the air, you start to understand and appreciate the dexterity needed for a life at sea—the seabird’s life. Kolea / Pacific Golden Plovers forage and wander along the streets, sporting their golden mottled plumage and long, stilt-like legs, letting out a piercing, paranoid shriek as you bike by (although they are not as alarmed as pedestrians on foot). All along the open fields, large flocks of Canaries (Serinus canaria domestica) spring up from the ground; groups of 100 or more took to the sky, fluttering away and singing their rich, warbled songs. Released as part of “study” in the early twentieth century to determine if domesticated birds could become wild, the Canaries found on Midway now are the descendants of these survivors! ‘Akekeke / Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) are found nearly everywhere, both in town and near shore, often jumping out of a clump of vegetation among trails as well as deep in the Ironwood forests. Still, they are flighty and will take off with a tatter-tatter call. Also, in the Ironwoods and among the transitions between the Ironwood forest and open fields of low-growing grasses and herbaceous cover are the Kioea / Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis). Often found perched on old stumps, they scan the horizon and sound their signature whistle, wheeo-wheep, Wheeo-Wheep! Small groups of these curlews band together in and around the Ironwoods, letting out atonal whistles back and forth all throughout the forest, like a mysterious flute.
The sound on Eastern Island is different, where mostly 'Ewa'ewa / Sooty Terns (Onychoprion fuscatus) are found, parents squatting on the ground by their awkward, coffee brown feathered offspring that have yet to gain the sleek black-and-white plumage and swallow-like tail feathers (rectrices) of adults. As you approach the 'Ewa'ewa / Sooty Terns, the adults reluctantly take off, scolding you harshly (a quick, animated all right, ALL RIGHT and stern, high-pitched growls), white the gawky offspring straggle away frantically into the knee-high Nohu. Noio Kōhā / Brown Noddies sit stoically and regally on coral rubble and old Ironwood stumps, gazing out over the low landscape, and occasionally emitting a warning crook if you approach too closely. 'Ā / Red-footed Boobies and their chicks, along with 'Iwa / Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor) sit in isolated Sea Grape (Coccoloba uvifera) and Tree Heliotrope (Tournefortia argentea); but as the 'Iwa / Great Frigatebird chicks call out and beg for food, you could easily believe you are walking through Jurassic Park. 'Ā / Red-footed Boobies often sound a low guttural growl among interactions with one another, but are mostly silent if you approach, sometimes snapping their bills defensively. Adult and fledgling 'Iwa / Great Frigatebirds share a similar disposition, although their long, hooked bill have a more sinister and menacing appearance than the conical (and comical) bill of the 'Ā. 'Iwa are beautiful in their own way, but they have a haunting spirit to them, the way they hang in the air, as if suspended, with long, slightly bent wings, like dark butterflies in the bright sky.
In the evening, after swimming in the warm, clear waters and wandering along the lagoon’s edge, Noio Kōhā / Brown Noddies flutter by above, checking out a new visitor on the atoll. And I gaze back, with unabashed enthusiasm and curiosity for all life out here.
And so passes the first week! Now it’s time to get to work! As the dust settles, I will share more details about my new position, current projects around the atoll, and updates about the wildlife (and plants of course!) so central to the heart of this special place. And be sure to check out my photo album on Flickr, where I will try to add photos periodically (https://www.flickr.com/photos/wieteke-holthuijzen). See you later (แล้วพบกันใหม่)!
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.