Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Day Seven (Jan. 24) – Midway is for the birds
by -- January 24th, 2011

After a morning of sleeping in and snorkeling, we set off to explore Eastern Island–home to many unique species of birds.

After a week of predawn wake-up calls and walking to breakfast in the dark, we had a rare treat today: we got to sleep in! With nothing on the agenda until afternoon, we were left to our own devices for the morning. Some opted to stock up on their sleep while they could. Others awoke with the sun and went for a run around the island, escorted by a trail of Fairy Terns. Some just took a few minutes to sit with the albatross—encapsulated in the comings and goings of nature.

We saw this big, male turtle from atop the cargo pier. We also saw a few others resting and sunning themselves on the beach.

We saw this big, male turtle from atop the cargo pier. We also saw a few others resting and sunning themselves on the beach.

On Sundays, the dining hall serves brunch from 9-12:30, so after a late breakfast, a group of us went to snorkel at the cargo pier.  We had been told we could see some of the larger animals there we hadn’t found on our previous trip. Braving the eerie, cloudy water we found a world of marine life hiding under the old pier—including a young green turtle that was very interested in the large creatures with the funny masks. Due to the low visibility we probably only saw a fraction of what hid under the pier. This was made even more apparent by the fact that the rest of the group standing atop the pier saw a green turtle that was easily 4-5ft in length, yet we snorkelers didn’t see him at all!  After a few brave souls took a jump off the pier into the cool water, we packed up our gear and headed to brunch—round 2.

For our afternoon we headed out to Eastern Island, the second island in the atoll, with Pete Leary from the USFWS (who kindly gave us his Sunday to help us and we greatly appreciated it!). Not even two minutes out of the harbor, our boat was surrounded by a group of Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins. Since we had already planned an afternoon of observing spinner dolphins later in the week we gave them a few quick passes then waved goodbye and continued on to Eastern Island.

US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, Pete Leary, shares with us photographs of Eastern Island in the 1940s.

US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, Pete Leary, shares with us photographs of Eastern Island in the 1940s.

At first glance, Eastern Island looks like a pretty flat piece of sand completely overrun with albatross. However, this was the island that actually served as the main airfield in 1941. Pete informed us that you can still see the outlines of the runways from an aerial shot but the only way to tell from the land is to look for lines of albatross nesting where the plants broke through the cracks in the cement. He continued to share the history of the island with us, including taking us to a memorial dedicated to the men and officers that served in the US Marine Corps in the war. It might seem weird to have a memorial on such an isolated island, but it reminded us that there were men and boys who stood right where we were and fought with every fiber of their beings to protect the island and our country. Having family members in the armed forces myself, it means a lot to see that not only are the natural aspects of this area preserved, but the historical significance is not lost either.

The smallest bird for their wing-size, great frigatebirds can have a wingspan of 7ft while only weighing 3lbs!!

The smallest bird for their wing-size, great frigatebirds can have a wingspan of 7ft while only weighing 3lbs!!

It was quickly apparent that the main reason for visiting Eastern Island is the numerous species of birds that nest there. Like the rest of Midway, albatross have completely taken over the island, though today they were mostly sleeping (in the high winds they would expend too much energy just trying to stay upright!) It was amazing to see the highly endangered Laysan Ducks swimming in a seep pond that had been dug by volunteers in 2004. The fact that their numbers went from 42 to 500 in just a few years is indication of the hard work and dedication of the people on these islands and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Finally, we got to see some new seabirds such as the Great Frigatebird (Picture to the right) and the Red Footed Booby.

The first successful nesting pair outside of Japan had their first chick this year! The other two (on the sides) are decoys.

The first successful nesting pair outside of Japan had their first chick this year! The other two (on the sides) are decoys.

The pièce de résistance was saved for last: the short-tailed albatross and its newly hatched chick. This is the first-ever documented short-tail chick hatched outside of Japan! It took ten years, 42 decoys and an iPod playing calls day and night but at long last a male and female found each other and successfully hatched a chick. Since the only other known habitat for this species consists of a small volcanic island, you can see how having someplace like Eastern Island, which is less likely to explode, could come in handy.  We were careful to keep our distance but even from far away the magnitude of the situation was apparent.

Bidding the ‘shorty’ goodbye, we headed back to boat. It was then the inevitable happened. You’d think living on an island with literally hundreds of thousands of birds we would have had a casualty earlier, but it was only this afternoon that an albatross aerial bombing occurred—with Isabel as the main casualty (however a few others were within the ‘splash zone’). On the bright side, this little ‘present’ is said to be good luck.

Strike! Who knew there was a bowling alley in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Strike! Who knew there was a bowling alley in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

With a few of us sporting some fun tan-lines, sore legs and bodies, and mental exhaustion, we finished the day by learning that even in the middle of the pacific, with the weight of the world on our shoulders, there is still a time to relax and enjoy life—and to go bowling!

It was a great end to the day and I cannot wait to see what tomorrow brings.

3 Comments

  1. Dave Johnston
    Jan 25, 2011

    Thanks for the pictures of the Shorty – you guys really lucked out to see the chick – totally amazing.

    Were there any other sightings of Short-tailed albatross on Sand Island? There was one over by the runway for the past few years as well – maybe that one was the hook-up for the Eastern Island bird?

    Cheers

    Dj

    • Andy Read
      Jan 26, 2011

      Hey Dj:

      There is a juvenile male shortie on Eastern (by the runway) – the same one that Josh was looking for last year (see the picture in the photo blog). It has been sitting on a black-footed’s nest!

      Andy

  2. Amanda Bishop
    Jan 26, 2011

    Hey Dave,
    Yup there is still a shorty near the runway on Sand Island. We saw him/her on our first day bike tour. They also said that another shorty has been seen on Eastern aside from the nesting pair so hopefully between those two there is one boy and one girl!

    Wish you were here!
    Cheers
    Amy

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