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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A Stream of Tears and Numbers

 

View from my window.

 

I’ve been home a little while now and I find myself wishing I could go to the atoll at the drop of a hat. Thank goodness that’s not possible because too many people would do that and it would loose its wonderment. It was raining most of the last day. Just as I was about to pack up my camera and go out for some last minute shooting, the bottom fell out of the bucket and it never really stopped. It was pouring rain when we had to go to Captain Brook’s to wait for our departure and it just didn’t stop. It was still pouring when we got on the plane. There were only 6 of us going back to the real world, 3 wives and 3 counters. We all had seats to ourselves. No sharing rows was necessary. This afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my visit to Midway and probably the largest albatross colony in the world.

 

Getting up off the water.

If you have never seen an albatross, you probably could never imagine what it is like to be in a huge colony. Life on Midway, 8 months out of year, is filled with albatross life, their sounds, their dances, their nest building, their curious looks at everyone that passes them. You interact with them whether you want to or not. I do. I talk to them and I sometimes even dance with them. That’ll really get you a curious look. As I feel the wheels of our plane speeding down the runway, I realize that I am leaving the colony that I have been a member of for 2 weeks. The tears stream down my cheeks.

 

The numbers are up this year. And we get to add a new species to our count. The Laysan nest numbered 482,909. This is up 13% from last year. The Black Footed count is 28,581, up 20.5%. The biggest news is that there is a Short Tailed Albatross nest this year. This is the first time in recorded history that the Short Tail has nested outside of Japanese water. The chick hatched out on January 14. May he/she live long and prosper in this colony of the albatrosses.

 

Female Short Tailed Albatross on nest by USFWS volunteer Sarah Gutowsky, Midway, 12/1/10

Male displays the egg. USFWS J Klavitter, Nov 2010, Eastern Island, Midway Atoll NWR

 

 

 

Eastern's colony with what remains of WWII.

The Guys and Doll team. l-r David, Joe, Mike, me, Richard, Gary.

Two monk seals napping.

Laysan Ducks resting at puddle edge on the main road "in town."

 

 

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