Turning in my bed, I close my eyes and try to bring peace and calm to my mind. It is quiet here and the night feels empty, void. My mind wanders and Midway memories emerge. Whinnying Laysan Albatross, muttering White Terns, grumbling Bonin Petrels, and moaning Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Turquoise blue waters wash over me and I can almost feel the coral sand between my toes. Over 1,300 miles away now, Midway feels more like a dream.
Spending nearly 8 months as a wildlife biology volunteer on Midway Atoll NWR is no small commitment but it seems to have sped by faster than I could have ever imagined. I cannot begin to count the things I have learned, the ways in which I have changed, and the passion that I have developed for conservation.
They say that there is a “magic” to Midway. And while I am by no means a believer in the supernatural, the mysterious, or the unexplainable, there is something about Midway that is impossible to describe, something that has to be felt and experienced through all the senses. How can I start to explain watching Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) sway quietly, slowly, methodically, as they lay their precious egg, perhaps their first? How can I relate the child-like joy of watching Laysan ducklings paddle alongside their ever-watchful mother just a few meters from me as I crouch behind Bunchgrass (Eragrostis variabilis)? How can I illustrate the beauty of Red-tailed Tropicbirds (Phaethon rubricauda) gliding overhead, swishing their scarlet tail feathers like streamers? And how can I express the many smells and tales of receiving seabird bodily fluids all over myself?
To share the story of Midway is perhaps the most challenging of tasks. To live among such beauty, such life, is a deep and profound experience. Each day leaves you feeling intensely inspired and curious beyond belief. With so much to see, learn, and do, there’s no end to discovery. But to be inspired is perhaps not the most accurate feeling invoked by this place; Midway makes one (or me in any case) compelled to do something, anything. And what I have done in return as a volunteer? I can only hope that I have contributed in some small way; but, for the same token, I hope that my presence on Midway was one that was transient and harmless, like footprints in the sand. All giving, no taking.
Midway has many stories, all strikingly different yet all part of the epic that is this place. There are cultural tales, historical accounts, and scientific articles. And then there are the stories that are not told- they are shown. One of the most moving is that of the Laysan Duck (Anas laysanensis).
From afar, these dabbling ducks may not seem that special. They are relatively small ducks, about the size of a Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), and mottled brown in color, with a noticeable white-eye ring. Older ducks sometimes accumulate more white feathers on their head and neck as they age. But up close, these ducks are surprisingly beautiful, a humble feature that only adds to their quirky, curious attitude. Their mottled brown color suddenly appears as a frenzy of alternating dark brown and tan chevron patterning, accented by their bright green or greenish purple speculum (the bright, iridescent feathers seen on the secondary wing feathers of duck species). Males have a dark brown face and their head has an iridescent green wash over it, especially prevalent during the breeding season. And, as an extra fancy flair, the males have upturned, curved central tail feathers. The bill of male ducks is usually green or greenish blue in color with variable black blotching, often forming the shape of a saddle. The females, by contrast, have pinkish bills with a freckle-like pattern at the base (and no fancy upturned tail feathers- sorry ladies). Both the males and females sport orange legs and feet.
With their brown body coloring, these ducks hide well in vegetation. When they do come out to explore (and they are indeed curious), they a spectacle to watch. Not only are they inquisitive little ducks, they are quite social and gregarious. Large groups of these ducks can be heard from afar, their raehb-raehb-raehb calls rising above the whistles, moos, and bill claps of the albatross colony. Gathered around seeps (wetlands), the ducks paddle around, foraging for invertebrates, or nap on the banks, uttering soft calls to one another; sometimes seemingly large discussions break out among the ducks in a crescendo of calls (called palavers, e.g. “The Laysan Ducks are palavering away again”) when an especially intriguing (or worrying) phenomenon is sighted. If something occurs that causes alarm, the ducks tend to evade the situation by walking or running, rather than flying. In fact, their pelvic girdle is specifically adapted to terrestrial foraging and their leg skeleton has a disproportionately long femur and short middle toe. While their locomotive behavior has evolved for terrestrial habits, it still remains, for some unexplainable reason, very comical to watch Laysan Ducks sprint full speed towards a seep, galumphing along. As the seasons change, there are changes in the ducks’ personalities and behaviors as well. Preceding the breeding season, males will start to split off and defend their mate. Kerfuffles develop, feathers fly, and the innocent, polite palavers of the non-breeding season turn into heated arguments and challenges among warring males. These little ducks have a lot of attitude. And perhaps it is this trait (along with the help and dedication of numerous scientists, researchers, refuge staff, and volunteers), that has been crucial to this species’ survival.
Once found throughout the Hawaiian Islands prior to Polynesian contact, the Laysan Duck is now arguably the world’s most endangered species due to its restricted range and small population size. DNA sequencing has, in fact, identified late Holocence subfossils, including bones of non-flying juveniles, collected from numerous habitats varying from sea level (Molokai, Oahu, and Kaua’i) to formerly forested areas at high elevations (60-1,800m) far from water (Maui and Hawai’i) as fossils of Laysan Ducks (Cooper et al. 1996). That is to say, breeding populations of Laysan Ducks were once found all through the Main Hawaiian Islands. In addition, the Hawaiian Islands were home to a wide variety of other duck species, one more startling than the other. Fossils found in the Makauwahi Cave on the south coast of Kaua’i describe nearly a dozen (12!) unique duck species in total, including a flightless duck as large as a goose that grazed on grasses similar to a cow; a nocturnal, mole-like duck; and a duck with a wide, deep bill like that of a tortoise’s jaw (James and Burney 1997). Just another striking example of adaptive radiation- in that ducks filled niches held by a wide variety of mammalian grazers (like pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, horses, elk, deer, and bison).
However, with the initial arrival of humans and a slew of non-native species (including pigs, dogs, and rats to name a few), the Laysan Duck was unfortunately wiped out from the Main Hawaiian Islands, as recently as 800-1,000 years ago. Despite all these new biological invasions as well as later human-related activities (deforestation, overgrazing, and soil erosion), the Laysan Duck fortunately found refugia further up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, surviving at Laysan Island and Lisianski Island.
To illustrate the major human-induced biotic transformation that has occurred through the Main Hawaiian Islands, consider that out of the >1,029 species of flowering plants indigenous to the Hawaiian archipelago, there are now at least 1,060 (and counting) naturalized species. The Holocene avifauna alone experienced extinction of >50% of the resident species since initial human occupation (Burney et al. 2001). Interesting enough, amidst the massive biotic changes, the only duck to have survived in the Main Hawaiian Islands through initial settlement as well as late prehistoric and historic impacts is the secretive Koloa Maoli (Anas wyvilliana). Although the Koloa Maoli’s population has struggled and continues to face challenges (in particular, loss of genetic diversity due to hybridization with Mallards [Anas platyrhynchos]), biologists estimate populations of this species close to 2,000 on Kaua‘i-Ni‘ihau, 300 on O‘ahu, 25 on Maui, and 200 on the Big Island.
The Laysan Duck, though, has had multiple close brushes with extinction. Although population estimates of the Laysan Duck population on Laysan Island were unknown before the 1800s, it’s estimated that 500-700 of these little ducks populated the 1,015-acre island (Reynolds and Citta 2007). The Laysan Duck’s other refugia, Lisianski Island, was a short-lived safe haven. Ducks persisted on Lisianski Island from 1828-1859 until the reduction of habitat by introduced rodents and perhaps over-harvest by ship-wrecked mariners likely caused of this species’ extirpation on the tiny island. A similar, devastating fate nearly occurred on Laysan Island. From 1891 onwards, Laysan Ducks and other endemic species on Laysan Island would be subjected to an array of threats and changing conditions, ranging from extensive guano mining operations to plume hunting to native habitat destruction by introduced European Hares (Lepus europaeus).
The hares (yes, those pesky wabbits) and guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) were introduced by Max Schlemmer, who arrived in 1894 on Laysan Island, hoping to prepare for a future meat canning business. However, the hares arguably decimated the vegetation on Laysan Island; they ate everything in sight. By 1918, Laysan Island could only sustain around 100 hares. But, in the meantime, over 26 plant species had been eradicated, along with several avian species, including the Laysan Rail (Porzana palmeri), Laysan Millerbird (Acrocephalus familiaris), and Laysan ‘Apapane (Himatione fraithii). To illustrate the drastic changes to the island’s ecosystem, consider that in 1903 there were about 10 million seabirds on Laysan Island; only eight years later, this number had dwindled to just over 1 million. To combat destructive human activities (such as plume hunting, egg collecting, and guano mining) and protect these unique atolls, islands and reefs, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a bird sanctuary in 1909. This would later become the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge covers a massive area encompassing almost all of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands (except Midway Atoll NWR and Kure Atolls). Consisting of an 800-mile chain of islands, reefs, and atolls, it includes Nihoa, Necker, French Frigate Shoals, Gardner Pinnacles, Maro Reef, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, and Pearl and Hermes Reef. Through protection and conservation efforts, these seemingly small islands and atolls provide habitat for over 30 species and 14 million breeding sea birds, wintering shorebirds, and endangered endemic songbirds and waterfowl.
But, back to the ducks.
Due to the loss of habitat by hares on Laysan Island, Laysan Ducks almost went extinct; the population plummeted to only 7-20 individuals between 1911-1936 (Pyle and Pyle 2009). One account even estimates that the Laysan Duck population dropped to just one gravid female in 1930 (Zimmerman 1974). Just one.
The situation certainly seemed dire. Moreover, it’s rare to hear of recovery when a species is limited to only a handful of individuals, especially when largely unaided by human help. Thankfully, conservation efforts were put in place and by 1923 European Hares were removed from Laysan Island. As needed habitat began to develop, ducks showed signs of recovery and population growth, eventually reaching a peak of 688-746 individuals in 1961 despite occasional die-offs and reproductive failures (Warner 1963, Morin 1992, Moulton and Marshall 1996, Reynolds et al 2007). The road to recovery was not without struggle though. For example, from August-December 1993, Laysan Ducks suffered a large die-off due to drought and a nematode infestation on Laysan Island, resulting in a population decline of an estimated 75%. Once again, the ducks rebounded and their population reached near carrying capacity of 400-600 individuals through most of the 2000’s, reaching another high by 2004 (Reynolds and Citta 2007).
2004 also marked another notable moment in the recovery of the Laysan Duck. From 2004-2005, 42 ducks were translocated to Midway Atoll NWR, a little less than 400 miles northwest from Laysan Island. Other translocations had occurred in the past, without much success. However, the 2004-2005 experimental reintroductions were incredibly successful. 100% of the translocated ducks survived; 100% of the ducks survived upon arrival at Midway Atoll NWR and after a brief transition period in an aviary; 100% of the ducks survived 2 months post-release. And, to this day, there are still a handful of ducks dabbling around Midway Atoll NWR that were part of the original “founding” population. Within the first year of the translocation, the ducks bred very successfully, with the founder population increasing to a total of 104 in 2006, and then 200 by the end of 2007 (Reynolds and Klaviter 2006; Jarrett 2006; USGS unpublished data, Reynolds et al. 2008). And, the population is predicted to grow to a total of 380 birds (Reynolds et al. 2008).
Only ten years after the translocation to Midway Atoll NWR, another translocation took place—to Kure Atoll. Back in September 2004, 28 Laysan Ducks from Midway Atoll NWR were carefully selected and brought over to Kure Atoll, a little more than 50 miles away. Once again, success. Once again, 100% survival. And once again, even within the first year of reintroduction, the ducks successfully bred—with 19 new, downy ducklings spotted already in May of this year!
The story of the Laysan Duck’s recovery is one of hope. From even the brink of extinction (or rather, multiple slips to the edge of extinction), ducks have recovered time and again. Through two recent translocations, the Laysan Duck population probably hovers near 1,000 individuals, possibly more. But, work remains to be done and key habitat management is crucial to the survival of this species.
The road to recovery is real. But there are threats: avian disease, severe storms, sea-level rise. Some of these issues are localized and can be managed for (such as avian disease) but other problems are long-term and occur on a global scale (climate change and sea-level rise). In the case of Midway Atoll NWR’s Laysan Duck population, avian botulism is a serious risk. In 2007, the first case of an avian botulism-related death of a Laysan Duck was recorded. The following year, a massive outbreak of avian botulism killed over 160 ducks, equivalent to a decline of up to 40-50% of the total Midway Atoll NWR Laysan Duck population at the time. Severe storms, natural catastrophes (i.e. tsunamis), and sea-level rise are also major concerns, especially in regards to the low elevation of many of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Sometimes, these stochastic environmental events do not even need to occur near the Laysan Ducks to cause harm. That is to say, effects can be felt far from the cause. During the devastating earthquake that rumbled through Japan in March of 2011, waves shot out from the earthquake’s epicenter in all directions—eventually hitting the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the form of a tsunami. Following the tsunami, the Laysan Island duck population was reduced by an estimated 50%, while on Midway Atoll NWR, approximately 20-30% of the banded adult birds observed before the tsunami were not observed afterwards, resulting in a loss of at least 40% of the total Laysan Duck population.
With such a small population restricted to few low-lying atolls and islands, Laysan Ducks seem to face an uncertain future. But, these small, spunky ducks have surprised us time and time again. At times they seemed to be following a similar, sad fate of extinction as many other endemic Pacific Island species. Somehow, some way, the ducks seemed determined. And now, with the help of dedicated scientists, researchers, refuge staff, and volunteers, the Laysan Duck’s future looks brighter than ever. And perhaps that is the most important part of the Laysan Duck’s story: hope. A story of hope.
Conservation biology and ecology can be seemingly bleak fields to delve into. As you read and learn about the Main Hawaiian Islands as well as their northwestern cousins, like Midway Atoll NWR, you become inundated with endless articles on how these are some of the most disturbed and altered ecosystems. A friend once asked me, why do we even try? Why do we interfere with species’ populations and habitat management after having disrupted these natural systems for so long? Shouldn’t we let these systems return to their natural state on their own?
It’s easy to be overcome with challenges, and there are certainly no limit to them. But, the Laysan Duck gives us hope. From a biological standpoint, the ability of the ducks to survive translocations to native (yet novel) environments and to moreover successfully breed is quite notable. But from another perspective, that of conservation biology, ethics, and our place in the world, it shows that we can have a positive impact on our surroundings. Rather than wipe out species, we can bring them back from the brink of extinction. Some may ask, why do we spend so much time, energy, and resources on a… duck? But, who are we to say what species are and are not worth protecting or saving? All of the species around us are part of the long, ever-ongoing, evolutionary epic that we all are a part of. Who is to say that we can and should chose the parts of the story that we like and expect a happy ending (or at least, an ending that is preferable to us)? These aren’t easy questions to answer but these are the questions that we have to consider, now more than ever. In a world of changing climatic conditions, issues of conservation will crop up more and more. But, again, to see them as challenges is defeating. In the case of the Laysan Ducks, this is a time of opportunity, an era ripe for change.
Midway is one of the only places in that I felt that I was truly a visitor. They say that Midway is for the birds, playing up on a pun; but there is depth and truth to that statement. Midway is for the birds. Walking through the atoll, amongst the albatross, you undoubtedly see, feel, smell, and hear that you are in a seabird colony. This is their home.
There are too many memories on Midway to describe as the most meaningful, but one of the most profound moments was one that seemed to be quite ordinary. As part of botulism monitoring efforts for Laysan Ducks, refuge staff and volunteers would visit wetland areas/seeps twice a week to search for dead duck caracasses that could be host to maggots containing botulism bacteria (which could be transferred to healthy ducks via consumption) or sick ducks. During one of these “seep checks,” I went out to Brackish Seep, one of the larger wetland habitats. I could hardly believe how many Laysan Ducks I saw—over 120! Some were dabbling around in the water, some up on the banks dozing off, others scuttling around after one another. This was a regular scene at Brackish. But for some reason, that morning, it felt especially amazing. Less than 100 years ago, the entire Laysan Duck population had dwindled down to less than 20 individuals; now, as I poked around Bunchgrass and other recently-outplanted native species, I walked among more than 100 of these ducks. These messengers of hope.
Midway Atoll NWR (along with hundreds of other refuges across the nation) is a beautiful example of the National Wildlife Refuge System, a lasting legacy of the conservation efforts spearheaded by powerful political figures and passionate advocates for all things wild (for a great story about this early biological conservation movement, read “No Woman Tenderfoot: Florence Merriam Bailey” by Harriet Kofalk).
To be part of this place, to play a role in continuing crucial conservation efforts, was life-changing. I cannot say thank you enough to all of the USFWS staff and volunteers on Midway Atoll NWR that gave me the rare opportunity to live and work in one of the world’s most beautiful places. And although Midway is remarkable on its own, the folks that work there day-in-day-out are equally impressive and amazing. Their dedication, passion, and enthusiasm is inspiring and invigorating. They rejoiced in and shared the beauty of this place, they took me under their wing (excuse the bird pun), and they treated me as one of their own—we became family. Thank you, again and again.
For me, it is not enough to simply be grateful for my time on Midway Atoll NWR. It is not enough. Midway impacted me in deep and profound ways; it was (and continues to be) a place of discovery in all senses of the word. I carry the memories of Midway with me wherever I go; and those memories, those stories of hope, are the experiences that will continue to guide and influence me wherever I go in life. When I left Midway, I only wanted to return. That is to say, to return hard work, energy, any part of myself to protect this isle of refuge; to carry on conservation wherever I go; to spread the message of hope and beauty of this world.
Wieteke Holthuijzen: budding environmental scientist, passionate birder.