Albatross Island

by Cliff Beittel
July 15, 2010
Midway Atoll, ALBATROSS ISLAND
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I am on my belly in the warm sand, with the sun setting and the sea breeze now cool. Twenty feet in front of me, and displayed in my camera’s viewfinder, an albatross chick rests in the sand, waiting for a parent to bring back some food from the sea. Behind the chick, the sky is gold. As sunset turns to twilight, the sky turns orange, pink, and finally magenta. Crawling a few feet left or right amid the beach shrubs, I put new birds in front of the changing sky. After the chick comes an adult albatross, black and white, formal as a penguin. Then a displaying pair of chocolate-brown albatrosses, more animated than their black-and- white cousins. Last, a pair of the black-and-white birds sitting bill-to- bill in dim twilight.

When the light dies, I haul myself to my feet, dusting sand from my clothes. The water off the sandy shelf where I stand is dark now, not the familiar turquoise of a coral lagoon.

Wait a minute. Warm sand, turquoise coral lagoons, and albatrosses?

If those three things seem wrong together, blame Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His great poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, has given many people the idea that albatrosses live only on the stormy Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald. . . .
At length did cross an Albatross . . .

In fairness to Coleridge, who never visited the Southern Ocean or saw an albatross, the Southern Ocean is home to most of the world’s albatrosses. Three of the four genera—the great albatrosses, mollymawks, and sooty albatrosses—live there. But there are four other species, the North Pacific albatrosses— the gooney birds—now usually placed in the genus Phoebastria. Most familiar may be the Waved Albatross of the Galápagos Islands. Less known are the three truly North Pacific species. Pick up your Sibley guide, and there they are: the Laysan Albatross, with its white body, black upper wings, and dark eye smudge; the Black-footed Albatross, chocolate brown save for its lighter face; and the larger, rarer Short-tailed Albatross, the “golden gooney,” with a white body, black wingtips, and a golden head and nape. All three can be seen at times off the west coast of North America, but both Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses nest primarily in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where I’ve come to see and photograph them.

I’m at Midway Atoll, one of the most isolated spots on earth, midway between San Francisco and Japan. Even those who know Midway as the site of one of the greatest naval battles in history (June 4-7, 1942) probably don’t know that it is one of the 10 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (or Leeward Islands) stretching 1,300 miles west-northwest of the eight main Hawaiian islands. The chain’s other islets and atolls, such as French Frigate Shoals, Gardner Pinnacles, Laysan Island, and Kure Atoll, are virtually unknown. These mere specks once were the Hawaiian Islands, formed over the same volcanic hotspot that created the big islands of today. Some were as large as the big islands before erosion and subsidence took their toll. They are remnants, too, in terms of wildlife, a reminder that abundant, unwary wildlife characterized not just the Galápagos Islands but the whole Pacific Ocean before the arrival of humans and introduced predators. The Leewards are America’s Galápagos, its great ocean park.

Midway is the largest of the Leewards, the only one with permanent human residents, and the only one that’s open to the public. Like the others, it was once a volcano, perhaps 3,000 feet in elevation. Now just three low, sandy islands—Sand, Eastern, and Spit—remain, surrounded by a coral reef five miles in diameter growing on the shoulders of the submerged peak. Eventually it will sink beneath the waves, as other Hawaiian Ridge seamounts have before it.

Visitors arrive after a four-and-a-half-hour, 1,200-mile flight from Honolulu on a chartered Gulfstream I. This older turboprop model, introduced in 1958, is used in part because propellers are less vulnerable to bird strikes than jet engines. With three million birds residing on just 2.4 square miles of land, potential collisions are also the reason flights arrive and depart at night, when fewer birds are flying.

Even in the dark, Midway’s mix of military history, wildlife, and isolation is palpable. “Naval Air Facility Midway Island” reads the sign on the big, rusty hanger, though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took charge in 1996. Cries of nocturnal seabirds—there are 900,000 Bonin Petrels—fill the subtropical night as we climb into electric golf carts that, along with bicycles and walking shoes, have mostly displaced cars and trucks. Albatrosses don’t nest on pavement, but once we leave the tarmac, birds engulf us—albatross chicks and adults, asleep and awake, crowding the edges of the narrow gravel road, petrels and shearwaters overhead.

The drive to Charlie Barracks, where visitors stay, is a slalom around birds. Albatrosses surround the barracks, as they do every island structure. Only a low fence, the kind used to edge flower gardens, keeps the birds outside.

In addition to staggering bird numbers, Midway’s trees and vegetation are a surprise, even more apparent in the morning. Sand Island, Midway’s inhabited island, was sand in 1903, when the U.S. Marines ejected feather hunters and the Commercial Pacifi c Cable Company came to build a cable station. But between 1906 and 1930, the company imported 8,100 tons of top- soil from Honolulu, beach grasses from San Francisco, evergreen ironwood trees from Australia, as well as various palms and flowering plants, converting Sand Island to a garden.

By bike or golf cart, it’s no more than 15 minutes from the barracks to anyplace on the island. To the south are Midway’s tree-lined residential streets, with handsome officers’ houses from the 1940s; beyond town, the active 7,900-foot runway parallels the south shore. To the north, it’s a short walk through a sea of albatrosses to the elegant, tropical-style Clipper House restaurant in a stand of ironwood trees on a dune overlooking North Beach. The last 50 yards up the dune is on a boardwalk often shared with albatrosses. Named for the Pan Am Clipper seaplanes that made weekly stops at Midway on trans-Pacific flights before World War II, the restaurant is one of the few modern buildings on Midway.

Magnificent Mariners

Looking north from the Clipper House porch, you see albatrosses in constant motion over the green naupaka beach shrubs, white sand, and turquoise water, some coming and going from the blue water beyond the spray that marks the reef. Albatrosses come to isolated spots like Midway not for food, but because they need remote places free of rats and other predators on which to nest. When not breeding, they live entirely at sea, flying up to 90 percent of the time, even sleeping in flight, covering perhaps 3.5 million miles in a lifetime. They are the world’s greatest long-distance flyers. Powered almost entirely by gravity and wind rather than muscle, albatrosses use nearly as little energy flying as they do sitting on the water.

A Laysan Albatross can make foraging flights of up to 7,500 miles—flying north much of the way to the Aleutians, west as much as 1,000 miles—sometimes spending days or even weeks away before returning to feed its single, hungry chick. The birds are remarkable navigators, able to fly directly back to their chicks from anywhere in the North Pacific. Both parents must perform such feats repeatedly if the chick is to survive. Once the chick can maintain its body temperature, both parents forage almost continually, seeing little to nothing of one another. This may explain the need for the extended courtship and bonding albatrosses do before pairing off and mating.

Midway’s Laysan colony is the largest albatross colony in the world, with an estimated 1.5 million birds accounting for 70 percent of the species’ population. Laying begins in mid-November, with chicks hatching from late January to mid-February. Adults feed the young an oil of regurgitated squid and flying fish eggs that can look surprisingly palatable, resembling the Omega-3 fish oil supplements sold in health food stores. Fledging takes place in midsummer, when so many birds attempt first flights that tiger sharks congregate in the lagoon to feed on unlucky birds that land on the water but lack the strength to lift off.

The Black-footed Albatross colony is much smaller, about 72,000 individuals, roughly a third of the world population of the species. They prefer more open nesting sites with less vegetation, nearly always beside beaches, and their colonies are far less dense. Unlike Laysan Albatrosses, which walk erect, Black-footed Albatrosses hunch forward, head down, in what researchers decades ago humorously labeled “the Nixon walk.”

Usually only two or three Short-tailed Albatrosses are present at Midway. Essentially the entire world population breeds on a single volcanic island, Torishima, off Japan. After feather hunters killed five million of them, a 1939 eruption on Torishima reduced the population to just 10 breeding pairs. Hedging the Short-tailed Albatross’s huge bet on Torishima, efforts are underway to encourage breeding on Midway Atoll, using decoys of the birds and recorded calls.

Other Species of Interest

White Terns, sometimes called “Fairy Terns,” have brilliant white plumage and dewy black eyes. Whether flitting through the shady ironwoods or hovering overhead against a blue sky with sunlight streaming through their translucent feathers, they seem like fairy spirits. They build no nest, but balance their egg on a tree limb, rock, windowsill, or roof. Photographing a chick, I saw what appeared to be a stainless steel fishhook embedded in the bark beside the chick’s foot. But it turned out that it was the chick’s foot. White Terns are born with long, sharp claws, which enable them to remain on the precarious perches where they hatch.

In the same ironwood forests where White Terns place their eggs on limbs, Red-tailed Tropicbirds often nest on the ground beside tree trunks. They seem out of place there, scattered silently about the forest floor like giant white mushrooms. They act like real seabirds, however, in their raucous courtship flights, flying up, back, and forward again in vertical circles, with their 22-inch central red retrices on full display.

Before humans arrived in Hawaii, Laysan Ducks were widespread, but by 1860, they survived only on Laysan Island. After rabbits were released on Laysan around 1900 and stripped the island of vegetation, only six ducks remained.

Eventually, after the island gained refuge status, the Laysan Duck population recovered to several hundred, but the species remained endangered because of its tiny range and vulnerability to hurricanes and disease. To reduce the potential impact of those risks, some Laysan Ducks were transplanted to Midway in 2004 and 2005.

We saw Laysan Ducks often, but kept our distance because of their endangered status. Ironically, I took my best photographs of them at the Midway Mall (which was the base store and theater in the 1940s), where the Ship’s Store is open from 5:00 to 5:30 on weekday afternoons. I went there for a bottle of wine, but ended up sitting in the middle of Midway’s main street—completely sober—photographing Laysan Ducks.

Midway’s residential areas are good places to see introduced residents such as Island Canary and Common Myna and for wintering shorebirds such as Pacific Golden-Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones, still present during our early April visit but soon to begin their flight north to Alaska. The shorebirds forage among the albatrosses in front yards. Bristle-thighed Curlews, on the other hand, I saw mostly in flocks of six or eight on shrubby abandoned runways, where you can drive right past them in a golf cart. The curlews leave Midway in early May and fly at least 2,400 miles nonstop to their breeding grounds. Curlews wintering south of the Hawaiian Ridge are said to overfly Hawaii on their way north, making a nonstop flight of at least 3,600 miles, one of the longest of any bird.

Green turtles are easy to see at Turtle Beach, on the northeastern corner of Sand Island, where they haul out. My best view, though, was at Midway’s inner harbor, where a turtle poked along, seemingly investigating the seawall. Leaning out over the corrugated steel, I photographed the turtle and some endemic Hawaiian flagtail fish that were with it.

Highly endangered Hawaiian monk seals (so named because the folds on the animal’s neck resemble a monk’s cowl) are more difficult to see closely. They are wary loners, easily disturbed, and most of Midway’s beaches, except North Beach, are closed to protect them. I had an accidental encounter with one at the west end of North Beach. I was photographing a Black Noddy perched on riprap, when suddenly a dark head surfaced just offshore. Though I backed up to give the seal room to come ashore, it turned and swam away.

The Plasticized Pacific

Although the slaughter of albatrosses at their nesting islands has ended, many threats remain. A tsunami could wipe out a generation of chicks and many adults (a tsunami alert after the February 2010 Chilean earthquake briefly sent everyone on Midway scrambling to the third floor of Charlie Barracks). Long-line commercial fishing, using up to 80 miles of hooks baited with squid—a favorite albatross prey item—may drown tens of thousands of albatrosses each year. On Midway, golden crownbeard, an exotic plant, can grow six feet high, ruining nesting habitat.

But a more insidious threat exists. While I focused on the beauty of the albatrosses, my wife Susan took a picture with possibly far greater impact. It shows a partly decomposed albatross chick, its abdomen full of plastic cigarette lighters, bottle caps, a dental floss holder, and other microtrash. And we saw other dead chicks like that. Midway’s interior is littered with plastic.

Albatrosses capture their prey, mostly squid and flying fish eggs, far from land, in the middle of the North Pacific, where plastic garbage circulates in two huge gyres. Sometimes the birds no doubt mistake the plastic for prey—speed is critical in capturing prey like squid that surface only at night. Other times, plastic might be encrusted with flying-fish eggs. The adults return to their nests and unwittingly regurgitate the plastic to their chicks, some of which die of starvation, their stomachs full of refuse. It takes only two ounces of plastic to kill an albatross chick. Researchers believe that 99 percent of the albatross chicks on Midway have plastic in their stomachs. And plastic may also be a problem for humans. It soaks up chemical pollutants, such as PCBs and DDT, which become concentrated in the plastic. And it does not biodegrade but gets ground into ever smaller pieces, which are consumed by ever smaller species and passed up the food chain, finally reaching your local seafood market.

We had heard about the Pacific garbage patch, of course, but seeing it kill birds at such a remote and wonderful place as Midway Atoll had a huge emotional impact on us. We now want to reduce our use of plastic—not merely to recycle it as we have done for decades. Since returning home from Midway, we have begun taking canvas totebags to the store with us when we shop, and have replaced bottled water with a stainless steel gravity-flow water filter on the kitchen counter from which we fill stainless steel bottles (healthier than plastic anyway) for use when we’re exercising or in the car. And we now use a similar but smaller water filter whenever we travel. Small steps—clearly much more must be done—but it’s a start. We can save our magnificent seabirds, or we can continue to live stupidly, poisoning both the birds and ourselves. As Coleridge wrote near the end of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small.

Cliff Beittel is a freelance photographer and writer based in York, Pennsylvania. For more information on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, he highly recommends two books: Isles of Refuge by Mark J. Rauzon, and Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina.

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