Where is Midway Any Way?

Midway is at the western end of the Hawaiian archipelago with Kure Atoll being the last in the chain and almost touching the international date line. We will be among the last people to ring in the new year.

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Map of Hawaiian Archipelago

The Polynesians were the first to occupy these islands and lived off of the land and sea for thousands of years before others discovered  the islands. On July 5, 1859, Captain N.C. Brooks made the first recorded landing on Midway. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt charged the Navy with safeguarding native birds from Japanese feather poachers. Midway became an “unorganized, unincorporated insular area” of the United States. To this day, you must have a valid passport to reenter Hawaii. Midway is not considered part of the state of Hawaii.

In 1902 the Commercial Pacific Cable Company began installing telegraph cables to connect San Francisco, Midway, Honolulu, Guam, Manila, China and Japan. There is only one of the 4 original cable houses still in existence. The other 3 were torn down this past year. The remaining Cable house has been re-roofed and the exterior repainted.

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Last Cable House on Midway with new roof and paint.

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Midway Atoll with its reef barrier.

The larger of the 2 islands is Sand. It has the airstrip that is used for all arrivals and the occasional emergency landing. A Delta 747 landed here in 2011 because of a cracked windshield. Two planes had to come out, one to pick up the passengers and the other with a new windshield and a repair crew. Midway is a crucial point for such emergencies. It is also used to MedEvac people who get injured or gravely ill on ships. All the runways you see on the island to the right were the runways used during WWII.

 

 

 

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Midway 1941

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Present day Midway

At the time that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Sand Island was much smaller and without a protected harbor. After WWII was over, Sand Island was enlarged so that a new airstrip could be built and a protected harbor was created. All of the added land was created by dreading the harbor and ship channels. You can see the extra depth indicated by the darker blue water. In the 1941 photo above, the red lines indicate the added land mass and the green lines show where the current airstrip is.

 

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Eastern Birds

Another beautiful day at Eastern Island today. My team went in and knocked out sector 4 in half a day even while we were running out of paint. No paint is a very bad thing. Without paint, you have no idea where you have been and what you have counted. We scrounged up enough to get our job done. It was a good counting day. 

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Real Short Tailed Albatross center right of the decoys.

After lunch at the beach, we went down to sector 6 to sneak a peek at the nesting Short Tailed Albatross. Another team had counted around her earlier in the morning and she was a little stressed. When we got down there, she had her head up just long enough for us to find her and then she tucked her bill back into her wing and disappeared into a sea of albatrosses. At least she was a little more relaxed while we were there.

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Juvenile Frigatebird

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Female Frigatebird in snag.

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Laysan Ducks

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Mystery duck. Looks like a mallard, but not quite. Might be a hybrid. I’ll let you know if the mystery gets solved.

 

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Moving Right Along

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Verbesina on Midway in the past. Photo taken by Forest and Kim Starr

After 4.5 days of counting, we have completed 19 of 50 sectors on Sand Island and the largest 6 of 10 sectors on Eastern. We are doing super well and a big part of that is the removal of the invasive plant verbesina. Verbesina is in the daisy family. On Midway, it grew to 4+ feet tall. When it dies back, it becomes woody and is very hard for counters to get through and can be a death trap to the birds. We counted sectors today that in the past might have taken 2 teams to count in one day. It only took us hours today. Our team counted 3 different sectors today. We counted the sectors know as Where’s Waldo and the Parade Field.

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Bonin petrel

Many years ago the rats were eradicated from Midway. As a result, the Bonin petrel population has exploded. They are really cool little birds that come in from sea at dusk and tend to fly into your head lamps because they are attracted to the light. It’s always a wonderful sight to see them coming in because they fill the sky. With the explosion of the population comes the increased number of burrows. They make the nest under ground. When we step into a burrow, we have to repair it. We clean the sand out and make sure that there are no birds buried in the sand. Some times we have to build a ramp so a bird can climb out. In any case, it mean getting down on your hands and knees and digging with your hand. This does not make counting easier. We now employ a method of counting called “air counting.” We do not mark each nest. Instead, the people on the end of the lines paint lines along the edge of where they are counting and look towards the next team member and count the nest between each other. It’s a good method for avoiding burrows.

 

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My Christmas Day Birding

After the great party last night, I thought I would sleep in. And I did until 6:30. Woke up and it was breakfast time so I decided to go eat. We do a lot of that around here. The grand Christmas feast started at 11:30 and we all eat until we are stuffed and then make plates for dinner. I haven’t eaten this much in months. Thank goodness we go back to a little bit more normal eating schedule tomorrow. The Clipper House starts to have this Pavlovian effect on you. I started walking over for Christmas dinner thinking I wasn’t hungry and then as I started to step up to the porch, I’m suddenly starved.

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Short Tailed Albatross 12/25/2013

After breakfast, I went to Rusty Bucket. It’s the western end of North Beach. It’s one of the prettiest places on the island to me. Of course I saw lots of albatross and I saw Midway Canaries, Bristle Thighed Curlew, and Black Noddies. After the feast, I rode down to the airstrip and saw the young Short Tailed Albatross. He’s probably around 20 years old now. Almost all of his dark neck juvenal plumage is gone. In the photo to the right, the black footed albie and the Laysan albie in the fore ground are in the same plane. The black foot by the short tailed gives you and idea of how much bigger the short tails are. You can see just a touch of darkness still at the base of his neck. That will probably be gone next year. And yes that is a pink bill with a blue tip.

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Short Tailed Albatross 12/25/2010

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Location, location, location

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Incubation exchange. It can take a while for the incoming bird to convince the incubating bird that it is time to switch. There always seems to be a bit of a conversation over the job.

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This little canary may soon be considered a subspecies of the canary family. They were released on the island by someone who was here during the Navy era.

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Bristled Thighed Curlew

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Laysan Albatross at Rusty Bucket

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Take off

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2013 Christmas Stocking

It has become a tradition to decorate our doors for Christmas. This year, we got here so late that I didn’t have time to go beach combing for marine debris until today. And look what I found, a Christmas stocking. It’s always fun to do these kinds of things.

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Christmas Eve

We went back to Eastern Island today. That is sort of unusual and this whole count is a little different from the ones I’ve been on before. Usually on Christmas Eve we only count for half a day. This year we have only been counting for 3.5 days so it really did make sense to go to Eastern while the weather was good. It was a perfect day for it. It stayed overcast and cool the whole day. The most interesting sighting today was a leucistic (lighter to white feathered) Laysan Albatross. Laysan are beautiful to begin with and this bird is just all the more striking.

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Tonight, the island was visited by Santa. We are one of the last stops on his route and he was slightly lit when he showed up. He was pretty funny. Mrs. Claus and 3 of the elves came too. Everyone had a great time with lots of laughs. The Grinch even tried to steal Christmas but just couldn’t stop us from having fun. After stealing and being stolen from during the Christmas gift exchange, I did manage to come home with a small glass ball.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

 

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Eastern for the Day

We made our first journey to Eastern Island today. Eastern is a magical place. The island is totally owned by the birds. People only go over to remove invasive plants and occasionally do bird surveys. We will go 3 times if all goes right. During World War II, Eastern had the three main airstrips. Now those runways are used as boundary lines for the counting sectors. Our 3 teams completed sectors 1,2, and 3 today. A very good start for Eastern. Tomorrow, we will go back and do sectors 8 and 9. They are big areas and we will have our hands full to get it done.

Saw my first brown booby nest today. Both the male and female were there making an incubation shift switch. Beautiful birds. When they fly over the water, their white bellies look blue from the reflection of the water.

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Also saw my first double egg Black Footed Albatross nest. This is a female/female pair. It doesn’t mean that the egg is infertile, there are plenty of other Black Foots around. Hopefully, they will continue to push that extra egg out of the nest. They can not successfully raise both chick if they both hatch.

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It’s about a 10 minute boat ride to Eastern Island. On our way back to Sand Island and home, I realize how much I enjoy being on the water. Just about that time, a pod of spinner dolphins joined our boat to play for a bit in the lagoon. Richard kindly obliged them and circled around a couple of times so we could all get a good look at them. That is such a special treat. Twenty minutes later, when the second group came back, the dolphins weren’t there. They are free spirits of the sea.

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First Full Day

On Sundays, brunch and dinner are the only meals served. So we got to sleep in and didn’t start work until 9:30. What a luxury. The food here is so good. Ours chefs are Thai and they do all kinds of American and Thai dishes. I don’t know how, but I lost 10 pounds the first time I came here. I hope I lose this time too but I’m eating more sweets than usual. Well it’s the holidays.

Today we counted the sector around the abandoned fuel tanks. I think I have counted this sector every time. There are huge fuel pipes that the birds nest under and that we have to limb over. It’s kinda fun and can be pretty confusing. Then we went over and practiced “air counting.” This is a newer method that has be developed to minimize the collapsing of burrows. When ever you collapse a burrow, you have to stop and dig it out. You never know when you have buried a bird in the sand or you have trapped it by closing off its entrance. If you happen to find a bird, they are not appreciative of your work at all. I don’t really blame them.
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Martha and Jill at work on their creations.

Last night was ornament making night at Captain Brooks pub. Lots of people came and some good laughs were had. We make the ornaments out of marine debris and found objects. I repeated a theme from past years and used albatross skulls to make an ornament. It’s always fun to see what people come up with.

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The crowd got a little suggestive with Jill ornament and suggested the addition of balls. She went with it.

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Albatross skull ornament. Just couldn’t resist trying a different design.

 

 

 

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What Is on the Beach?

We started with orientation today. Pretty much the same as last time with a little more Hawaiian culture added in. I learned today that Pihemanu is the new Hawaiian name for Midway Atoll. It means “a loud den of birds.” Nuff said.

After lunch and before we started the official count, I went for a walk on the beach looking for marine debris that I could use for ornament making tonight. No luck but here is what I found.

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One blue boot. 

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One helmet 

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And one monk seal returning to sea. This one looked very healthy. Always a good sight.

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On Our Way

Thursday morning, Jillian, the Americorp Volunteer at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Complex, and I went to Albatross Hill to do a survey of the nesting Laysan Albatross. I hadn’t been up there in several weeks due to illness and poor timing. The last time I was there, we had a total of 22 nests on the entire refuge. Thursday, we added 3 more nest for a total of 112 nests on the refuge. Sounds like a lot and it is nothing compared to the nesting going on at Midway.

So as I’m checking nest and hoping not to count twice, I find a nesting bird that we had not yet noted for the nest it was on. I wrote in her band number and moved on to the next nest.  There Imagewasn’t a bird on the next nest, but the band number of the bird last seen on the nest seemed really familiar. So I start to study the situation and discovery that this same bird has now been seen sitting on each nest at different times. This is NOT like albatross at all. They don’t incubate other birds nest for them. As Jillian and I are pondering the situation, the bird calmly gets up and moves to the other nest to incubate. Well, she showed us. We now believe that these nest and this bird are from a female/female pair. Neither egg is likely to hatch and I hope we see the other bird incubating in the future. You can’t underestimate what these birds will do. Fun way to start my Christmas on Kauai day.

Today, Friday, December 20, I joined 14 other counters for our flight to Midway. We had a great flight. It took just about 3 hours. We arrive in the dark to limit bird hazard. The albatross are all tucked in for the night but the Bonin Petrels are dive bombing the lights on the golf carts as we head to Charlie Barracks. The work starts tomorrow. Time for a good night’s sleep.

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Jet to Midway

 

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Rainbow on O’ahu as we depart

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T – 168 hours and counting

This time next week, I will be boarding a flight to Midway Atoll for the third time. I can’t wait for that sweet fishy smell to hit me in the face as we disembark  in the darkness of Midway. You know you are in a seabird colony. Within 30 minutes, you become numb to the smell and just enjoy the sounds of clacking and mooing birds. They do this 24/7. You would think some of them were night owls instead of albatross.

I’ll be there with a team of 17 others for 3 weeks. We count everyday rain or shine (please let it shine). Christmas and New Year’s day we will sleep late and feast at midday. Can’t ask for much more from a working holiday.

Of the team members, I know about half of them from past counts. It will be good to see them all again. I especially hope to be counting with my counting partner of my last 2 trips, David Dow. David is a kind, gentle man with whom I have bonded. We seem to understand each other and that always helps on a team.

David and I coming back from Eastern Island during Nest Count 2009/2010

David and I coming back from Eastern Island during Nest Count 2009/2010

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