Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Day Eleven (1/23/08) – Holy Moli: Life and Death on Midway
by -- January 24th, 2008

Although the rain continued on Midway, our day was filled with the emotion and inspiration that can only be found here. Tragedy befalls the albatross, but they endure, and we are inspired as Moli, the Laysan albatross, finally pushes out of his egg, which we have been watching since Day Eight.

Albatross with Hatchling

Albatross with Hatchling

Midway is the kind of place where it can rain from first light to first star so you don’t even want to go outside, yet you can still be moved in unexpected ways. It has been raining since before we woke up this morning, and because we seem to have run out of inside activities and lectures because of the heavy rains all week, we had the whole day off. This was disappointing, as learning in and experiencing this atmosphere is never considered work. However, Midway still held some surprises for us.

Albatrosses

Albatrosses

The long days of rain today and yesterday have flooded the ground and trails in many places, which unfortunately means that many nests are saturated beyond saving. This routinely happens here and the nests are often destroyed or the egg dies while the parent unknowingly continues to care for it. This can be especially heart-wrenching when the parent continues to sit on the egg long after others have hatched, still waiting for it to do the same. Sadly the rain poses other challenges to parents that are nesting on eggs and do not have the privilege of moving away. The non-native palm trees hold many coconuts that will loosen and fall during a heavy rain storm like today. Many albatross are crushed while unknowingly nurturing their eggs, leaving those eggs to die or also be crushed. Albatross were not meant to nest under palm trees, however humans brought them here and now the trees threaten many birds’ lives.

This was depressing since we have become so attached to these birds, however other events today have been inspiring. This morning two students found a tree that had recently fallen on some nests. Working with the albatross volunteers, they removed the branches and were saddened to find a dead bird atop its nest. Persevering to save the unborn chick despite that drawback, they removed the egg. When the tree uprooted, it had destroyed the nest and  egg of another albatross. The students built a new nest and deposited the egg there, hoping a bird would adopt them as its own. Albatross are so stalwart that two actually tried to sit on the abandoned egg, but one finally established itself and continued to build up the nest on its own. The volunteers will watch this albatross and have promised to keep us updated on the egg’s survival. The willingness of albatross to care for an egg not their own is a moving message to many humans.

Albatross Nest Under Fallen Tree

Albatross Nest Under Fallen Tree

Even more uplifting, the egg we have been watching for days finally hatched, and we welcomed Moli to the world! Because the nest is in front of our rooms, we first watched the parent albatross sitting on its egg like all the other birds. After being on the island a few days, however, we noticed that the egg had a small crack in it. For two days the crack has grown wider, and finally this afternoon we saw the hatchling push itself out. It was a touching experience after the death we saw earlier in the morning. Moli isn’t the best-looking chick we have seen so far, but his feathers are matted down and he is still wet from the fluid in the egg. We also noted several other chicks had hatched recently, so it truly was a day filled with life and death.

Hatchling

Hatchling

Because we leave Midway in two days, we are all beginning to consider the many things we will miss. As for me, I know I will miss the constant cacophony of albatross voices the most, like a constant rain shower or keeping the radio on in the background of life. It is shocking how much each of us has been affected by our stay here. The underwater world has always been my primary interest, and I have never really been curious about birds, but that has changed significantly. It is impossible not to be charmed by their grace and antics and it would be difficult not to be inspired by their loyalty and unwavering dedication to their eggs and mates. The fairy- terns have also captivated me, evidenced by the hour I spent watching them outside in the rain today, hoping one would land on my upraised hand (which happens to a lucky few out here). Just last night I had to pick up a petrel that was too close to the door and take it somewhere safer. Even that was a special moment for me. Whether it be by sheer numbers or eliciting emotional responses, at Midway the birds are in charge.

Fairy Terns

Fairy Terns

Thanks to Barry Christenson and everyone on Midway for welcoming us. Special thanks to the albatross for letting us share their world for a little while.

Hatchling

Hatchling

Update from Matt Henschen on Jan. 31:
Hi there,
Here are some pictures of the two altered albatross nests near the fallen tree. The tree was obviously removed with no apparent ill effects. Good news.

Albatross with Hatchling

Albatross with Hatchling

Albatross with Hatchling

Albatross with Hatchling

Pair of Albatrosses with Hatchlings

Pair of Albatrosses with Hatchlings

2 Comments

  1. Albatross Volunteer Matt
    Dec 8, 2009

    Hi there,
    Great news! Both the egg that we moved and the egg that was slightly buried in the dirts have both hatched! Even after all that disturbance of removing the tree. Talk about dedication to reproduction. These guys are incubation superstars. I have pictures if you want to let me know where to send them. They are pretty adorable, but you guys already knew that.

    Later,
    Matt

  2. Matt Henschen (bird volunteer)
    Dec 8, 2009

    Great blog! I’m glad you guys had such a great experience here. Take care!

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