(click on photos)
Midway Atoll, aerial view
Laysan Albatross
Bonin Petrel at night
Midway Atoll sign
Looking toward Eastern Island
Pacific Cable Company bldg
WWII hangar
Battle of Midway Plaque
At the albatross monument
Biking around Sand Island
WWII Naval bldgs
A curious young Laysan Albatross
West Beach, Sand Island
Snorkeling in the warm waters of the atoll
Bristle-thighed Curlew
Walking in the Casuarina forest
Naupaka
Heliotrope
Beach Morning Glory
Invasive Verbesina
Hydroponic facility
Albatross mating ritual
Albatross egg

Albatross feeding young

Black-footed Albatross feeding young
Black-footed Albatross colony
Black-footed Albatross
Black-footed Albatross
Bonin Petrel
Examining a Bonin Petrel nest hole
Wedge-tailed Shearwaer nest hole
Red-tailed Tropicbird on nest
Red-tailed Tropicbird
Black Noddy
Common White-Tern chick
Common White-Tern chick
Common White-Tern chick
Green Sea Turtle
Eastern Island tour
Nesting seabird colonies, Eastern Island
Brown Noddy
Stomach contents from a dead albatross
female Great Frigatebird on nest
Great Frigatebird and chick
Juvenile Great Frigatebird
Monk Seal births
Detritus pulled from the sea
Clipper House Restaurant
Sunset on Sand Island


Midway Atoll
May 27 - June 3, 2000

Latitude 28° 12' N, 177° 22' W

"We'll be circling the atoll so you can see where you'll be spending the next seven days," announced the pilot of the Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 which had just taken us on a 1,250 mile flight from Honolulu. Below us, lying at the northwest end of the Hawaiian archipelago, was our destination--Midway Atoll. Our adventure had begun!

Much to our delight, as the plane touched down, we immediately noticed that the ground adjacent to the runway was populated with both adult and young Laysan Albatrosses. Upon debarking, our ears were greeted with the evening chorus of approximately 1.5 million albatrosses. It was hard to contain our excitement as we were welcomed at the terminal by representatives of Midway Phoenix Corporation, the operators of the guest services on the atoll. After a brief orientation, we were bussed to our quarters which we found to be modern and very comfortable. Even after dark we could not help but notice the ever-present sound of the albatrosses -- a combination of whinnying, mooing and bill-clapping. It was a sight and sound that quickly became an integral part of our stay here. Our excitement didn't abate after dark either, for it was then that we discovered that our quarters were adjacent to the largest Bonin Petrel colony on the island. The petrels were returning from a day at sea, flying in the air all around us, landing on the sand dunes, and ultimately entering their nesting burrows. With our night-vision camcorder, I was able to capture petrels excavating sand from their burrows! Anticipation of the next day would prevent sleep from coming easily this first night.

Background

Midway Atoll is the result of a volcanic island formed some 28 million years ago. Millions of years of weathering eroded the island while reef-building corals created a calcium carbonate wreath around the sinking island. Erosion of this coral and the remnants of other reef creatures along with human intervention on the natural process, produced the Midway we know today. The three small islands lie in the bluest of lagoons, surrounded by an encircling coral reef which is 5 miles in diameter. Sand Island, is the main island (approximately 1200 acres), Eastern Island is a protected wildlife refuge (334 acres), and Spit Island is a tiny six acre sand bar. In their natural state, the small islands were composed of expanses of white sand, bunchgrasses and small shrubs. When the U.S. Navy took control in 1903, the natural topography of the islands was changed dramatically. 117 species of birds have been found on Midway Atoll while 17 species use the islands for nesting.

History

Recognizing its potential military significance, the United States claimed Midway Atoll as a possession in 1859, an action that helped ensure America’s success in the greatest sea battle of the 20th Century. U.S. Navy control of Midway’s islands began in 1903, but the first permanent settlement was by the commercial Pacific Cable Company responsible for installing and maintaining part of the first global cable communication system. A challenge confronting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is finding the resources to restore the remaining Cable Station buildings, the only ones still in existence and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the-mid 1930’s Pan American Airlines began operations on Sand Island to support their trans-Pacific Flying Clipper seaplane service. Pan-American built a hotel for overnight passengers and a huge seaplane hanger still in use. The architecture of the Clipper House, the wonderful French restaurant where we took our meals reflects the island’s Pan American history. As the world’s political conditions deteriorated in the late 1930’s, the United States decided to establish a permanent military presence on Midway by constructing a Naval Air Station on Eastern Island and submarine and seaplane bases on San Island. Prior to America’s entry into World War II the U.S. Navy constructed numerous permanent buildings, many of which remain today and which collectively comprise a National Historic Landmark. The military buildings on Sand Island received some off-shore bombardment on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec 7, 1941, but its most severe Japanese attack occurred in June 1942 as part of the Battle of Midway when American Naval aviation forces launched devastating air strikes against the Japanese carrier fleet several hundred miles to the northwest of Midway Atoll. All air strikes were launched from the long-abandoned runway on Eastern Island where the old aircraft revetments now are overgrown with the native Tree Heliotrope and provide wonderful habitat for Red-footed Boobies and Great Frigatebirds. The sinking of four Japanese carriers, essentially their entire fleet, by planes from Midway and the American carrier fleet, was unquestionably the greatest U.S. Naval victory and doomed the Imperial Navy to defeat. Following World War II, the U.S. Navy expanded its operations at Midway, eventually building a 7,000-foot runway on Eastern Island and developing an infrastructure to support 4,000 military members and their dependents. With the end of the Cold War, Midway’s military significance declined, rendering it a prime candidate for closure. In 1996 Midway Atoll began a new life as a National Wildlife Refuge under the management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


SAND ISLAND

Our first full day on Sand Island began with a mandatory U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) orientation. Here we heard about Midway's cultural and natural history and learned of a few simple rules to follow as we explored the island (don't approach the Monk Seals closer than 100 yards and don't touch the birds--wow--no problem!). While Doug joined one of the rangers for a morning cultural history walk, I elected to check out my rental bike and set off with my cameras to begin documenting this amazing place. Seven days had seemed a bit long to us to be confined to such a small landmass. Little did we realize that seven days wouldn't be nearly long enough to satisfy us.

The lay of the land:

From the air, Sand Island looks like one big runway. In actuality it is much more than that. The central part of the island is where the old military buildings are located, some of which have been rehabbed and are still in use today. Quarters for the staff and visitors, as well as the galley, shops, bowling alley, theater, etc. are all located here. Along the east side of the island is the Inner Harbor, where the sport fishing and sport diving operations are located as well as the historic WWII seaplane hangar. It is possible to bike almost anywhere on the island either on paved roads or graveled paths.

There are three main beach areas: North Beach, West Beach and South Beach. North Beach, with its pristine white sand, Naupaka shrubs and turquoise blue waters is the designated swimming beach for visitors. Most afternoons would find us on North Beach, swimming, snorkeling, and keeping an eye out for Monk Seals and Spinner Dolphins. Meanwhile the albatrosses, Common White-Terns, Black Noddies and Red-tailed Tropicbirds soared above over the incredibly blue water of the lagoon. At the west end of North Beach is an area called the "Rusty Bucket". This was one of the two spots on the island that were favored by the migratory shorebirds that were passing through at this time. Imagine the thrill of seeing two dozen or more Bristle-thighed Curlews feeding at the "Rusty Bucket".

Crossing the end of one of the smaller runways, one enters the West Beach trail. It is along here where there are signs indicating that this is the territory of the female Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) or "Golden Gooney" that has been spending the winter months on Sand Island for the past 18 years. We were disappointed to find that she had left about 6 weeks prior to our visit. We found that the bluffs at West Beach were a perfect spot to stop and watch birds in flight. The West Beach trail is indicative of the forested areas of the island. The Ironwood or Casuarina tree, introduced by man to provide some shade on an otherwise treeless island, has taken over much of the island. While it provides nesting habitat for tree-nesting as well as ground-nesting birds, it has also become a hazardous barrier to the young albatrosses as they learn to fly. We were told that it was not uncommon to find dead birds entangled in the branches of these trees. While removal of all of these non-native trees would be problematical, thinning and removal in some areas is taking place.

By crossing the end of the runway at Frigate Point, we had access to the trail along South Beach which, like West Beach, was off-limits to humans so as to be a safe haven for Monk Seals and sea turtles. One area that we could access along South Beach was "Bulky Dump," a beautiful spit of land (which must have been a dump at one time) extending out into the lagoon. It is a favorite nesting area of the Black-footed Albatross of which many young dotted the open sandy areas adjacent to the beach and runway. It was also a good spot to find Bristle-thighed Curlews and other migrants such as Ruddy Turnstone, Pacific Golden-plover and Wandering Tattler. We made many trips to Bulky Dump during our weeklong stay on Midway.

Flora of Sand Island

Human occupation of Midway Atoll brought with it a dramatic change in the native vegetation. Early photographs reveal a landscape dominated by beach grasses with only occasional shrubs and small trees. By contrast, today the vegetation of Sand Island is dominated by the longleaf ironwood (Casuarina glauca), a hardy tree introduced from Australia. Red-tailed Tropicbirds are frequently found nesting at the base of these trees. However, several native shrubs and small trees persist on both Sand and Eastern Islands along with other herbaceous species. The beach naupaka (Scaevola sericea) is a beautiful salt-tolerant shrub that occurs throughout the tropics. It is characterized by large, smooth edged, shiny leaves and an unusual asymmetrical white flower. The tree heliotrope (Tournefortia argentea) is another native species that occurs throughout most of the islands of Micronesia and Polynesia. It is best represented on Eastern Island where we saw large specimens that provided excellent nesting sites for the Great Frigate Bird and Red-footed booby. Ranging in size from a shrub to a small tree, it has velvety pale green leaves and small white flowers coiled in a scorpioid inflorescence characteristic of the Borage Family. During our visit, the most showy native plant was the beach morning glory (Ipomea pes-caprae), a hardy woody vine that is indigenous to all beaches throughout Polynesia. It produces beautiful pink to purple flowers and bright green shiny foliage. The common garden annual, Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is abundant on Sand Island and the sweet odor of its flowers permeated the air during our stay. Superficially resembling a pine tree, the longleaf ironwood is actually a flowering plant that is a superb tropical island colonizer. The dominance of this species, along with many other introduced exotics, such as the golden crown beard (Verbesina alternifolia), have a very negative effect on many of the wildlife. Consequently, the Fish and Wildlife Service has undertaken a long-term effort to remove or at least control several of the most serious exotic species and replace them with native grasses and shrubs raised in the refuge nursery on Sand Island. Many volunteers help with the exotic plant removal and habitat restoration efforts. A small amount of soil was brought to Sand Island in earlier years upon which to grow fresh vegetables and fruits. However, upon assuming management of the island services, the Phoenix Corporation, established a hydroponic facility for growing fresh vegetables without soil. Delicious strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, and many varieties of lettuce were among the hydroponically grown produce which we enjoyed.

Birds of Sand Island

LAYSAN ALBATROSS (Phoebastria immutabilis)

One of our goals in traveling to Midway was to see the famous "Gooney Birds." We were not disappointed. Midway has the largest breeding colony (nearly 400,000 breeding pairs and 70% of the world's population) of Laysan Albatrosses. They breed here but spend the majority of their lives at sea. Ground nesters, they pull grass, leaves and dirt up to make a neat nest cup. Returning to the atoll in late October/early November, eggs are usually laid December and the chicks hatch by early February. It takes 130-150 days to fledge. Most of the chicks fledge in July. Parental duties are shared with both adults incubating the single egg and feeding the chick. Parents fly far out to sea to obtain food and can forage as far as the Gulf of Mexico.

By mid-May the albatross chicks are nearly fully grown, are losing their down and are beginning to exercise their wings whenever the wind comes up. 75% of the half-million young successfully fledge, having overcome many obstacles beforehand. If one of the parents dies, the chick will starve to death. Floating plastic debris in the ocean cannot be distinguished from food by the adults and it is fed to the chicks along with their normal food, octopus. The young chicks don't have the ability to regurgitate this foreign material and die of digestive blockages and dehydration. This unfortunate situation was all too obvious on the islands. Chicks that fledge are sometimes not strong enough to fly and land in the water. When their feathers get waterlogged they drown or are eaten by Tiger Sharks who time their entrance into Midway's lagoon with the fledging season. Those chicks that overcome all obstacles disperse throughout the Pacific and don't return to land again for 3-5 years. It then takes up to two more years before a mate is found. It was easy to spot the "young adults" who often hung out in groups of a dozen or more, practicing the courting dance with potential partners. Upon their return to Midway for their first nesting, the adult albatrosses have been found to nest within 3 square meters of their birth site.

The courtship dance and accompanying vocalizations are one of the most unforgettable memories of our trip to Midway. It went on day and night.

Listen to the albatross courtship sounds:

  Whinney (103k)

Mooing and bill-clapping (173k)


BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS (Phoebastria nigripes)

The Black Footed Albatross, a handsome chocolate brown bird, prefers the open beach edges for its nesting site. Said to be more aggressive than their smaller and more docile cousins, the Laysan Albatross, they might snap at strangers approaching their nests. We didn't notice this aggression but it may have been too late in the season. The Black-footed young were passive and the adults seemed too engaged with their begging young to notice our presence. The reproductive cycle of the Black-footed Albatross is similar to the Laysan, but diet and courtship rituals differ.


BONIN PETREL (Pterodroma hypoleuca)

Midway's largest Bonin Petrel colony lay just outside our quarters, and each evening just after dark, we eagerly awaited the return of the adult petrels from a day at sea. Their young were just about ready to fledge and with the ability to take infrared videos, we were able to capture these amazing creatures flying to the colony. We could even see the sand fly as they improved on their burrows which they excavate themselves. Bonin Petrels possess a well-developed sense of smell which is thought to aid them in locating their burrow. In the morning some of the young were outside affording us some good photo ops. One day, we were allowed to look down into one of the burrows using a fiber optic cable.


WEDGE-TAILED SHEARWATER (Puffinus pacificus)

Nicknamed the "moaning birds" because of the eerie moaning sounds they make at night, the Wedge-tailed Shearwater is another burrowing ground nester. Their nesting cavities are not excavated as deeply as the Bonin Petrels and are usually found under tree or shrub roots. There is a nice colony of shearwaters at the Midway Cemetery, which seems like an appropriate site for birds with the reputation of eerie calls. We came across a small colony of birds as we were biking along South Beach trail one day. Inside, we could just make out two birds huddled together.


RED-TAILED TROPICBIRD (Phaethon rubricauda)

A bird that flies backward? Yes, the Red-tailed Tropicbird does exactly that during aerial courtship. This ground-nesting bird can puts on quite display, with its loud squawking, pure white body, scarlet red bill and long, red tail feathers. It is interesting to note that the tail feathers provide no flight advantage but are strictly an adornment to attract a mate. Besides watching the aerial antics of this bird, we often encountered it hunkered down at the shady base of an Ironwood trees or semi-hidden under a shrub, incubating an egg or tending its young. While an outstanding flyer, the tropicbird can barely walk on the ground, giving the impression that it is injured. Midway Atoll has the largest breeding colony of Red-tailed Tropicbirds in the Hawaiian Island chain.


BLACK NODDY (Anous minutus)

The first unusual thing you notice about the Black Noddy is that it is one of the rare tree-nesting seabirds, unlike its cousin, the Brown Noddy which nests on the ground. Their conspicuous nests, composed of leaves and twigs, were usually found in the Ironwood trees. These birds like to gather in groups on the ground and were often seen sunning themselves. Midway hosts the largest colony of Black Noddies in the NW Hawaiian chain.


COMMON WHITE-TERN (Gygis alba)

The beautiful Common White-Tern (formerly called Fairy Tern) is abundant throughout the islands. About as tame as a wild bird can be, it seems right at home in the most unusual places. Often fluttering around our heads as we were biking, we sometimes didn't notice them as they sat placidly on railings and signs in the busiest of places. Their single egg is often laid in precarious spots that could be anywhere from a window sill, tree branch, or even a bike rack. No nest is constructed. A common bird of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, Midway has the largest population of Common White Terns in the Hawaiian Island chain. The little tern shown in the slideshow hatched from an egg laid on an upright metal pipe of a bike rack. The egg hatched a few days before we left the island. The bike rack was in one of the busiest spots on Sand Island -- right in front of the Galley restaurant!



EXPLORING EASTERN ISLAND

On Tuesdays, the USFWS provides a boat trip and guided tour to Eastern Island. This island is a sanctuary for nesting seabirds and is normally off-limits to the public. Only a few miles from Sand Island, it is a nesting site for many different species of seabirds: Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor), Red-footed Booby (Sula sula), Masked Booby (Sula dactylactra), Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), Sooty (Sterna fuscata) and Gray-backed Terns (Sterna lunata), Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus) and Christmas Island Shearwater (Puffiinus nativitatis), as well as most of the same birds that nest on Sand Island.

Upon debarking the boat, we were pleased to find Green Sea Turtle #38, sunning itself on the beach. We would often see these large turtles swimming in the waters of the harbor on Sand Island.
As we walked down the old deteriorating WW II runway, we were warned to watch our step -- and for good reason. There were nesting terns and noddies everywhere and it was easy to look among the vegetation and find birds incubating their eggs. The sound of the thousands of seabirds was incredible as they flew in the sky and all about our heads.

As was the case on Sand Island, we would occasionally find the carcass of an albatross chick decaying on the ground. There are several reasons why a chick may perish. If one parent is lost, the chick cannot be adequately fed. Anywhere from 5-10,000 chicks are abandoned each nesting season because of this. The albatross adults, while foraging out at sea apparently consider any floating object that they can pick up as potential food. If this flotsam, usually plastic materials such as cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, toys, bottle caps, etc. is fed to a chick, it fills the crop making the chick feel full. Dehydration and starvation then occur. It's a sad reflection on the amount of detritus that man has introduced to the marine ecosystem. The mortality rate for the albatross chicks is estimated at 30-40%.

Gingerly walking down the old WWII runway we approached a mixed nesting colony of Red-footed Boobies and Great Frigatebirds. The frigatebirds, known as "kleptoparasites" (steal fish from other birds), were nesting right along side the boobies. It was hard to understand why the boobies would tolerate this close proximity to the frigatebirds. Great numbers of Sooty Terns (an estimated population of 90,000 birds) as well as Gray-backed Terns (population of 400) constantly flew over our heads. Many of them were also nesting on the runway with the Brown Noddies.

All too soon our visit to Eastern Island was over and it was back to Sand Island for some more exploration and  a swim in the warm waters of the lagoon.
 



OTHER FAUNA

Besides the amazing birds, there are other fascinating animals to see on Midway Island such as Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, Spinner Dolphins, exotic and endemic coral reef fish. Most notably perhaps, is the presence of the critically endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal. Midway is a prime breeding area for these animals and there are restrictions which must be adhered to when one encounters them. In order to give the seals space and privacy, most of the beaches on Midway are off-limits. However, the seals often appeared on the swimming beach and we were allowed to approach them if we kept a distance of 100 feet.

One day we enjoyed a snorkeling trip to a coral reef on the edge of the atoll. One would expect these waters in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to be quite pristine. Unfortunately this isn't the case. A very important service performed by the Fish and Wildlife Service at Midway Atoll and elsewhere in the Hawaiian Archipelago is to collect the tons of discarded nets and other detritus lost or abandoned by commercial fisherman. Made of nearly indestructible nylon or plastic, they have a disastrous impact on the coral reefs and their associated faunas. Sea turtles, dolphins, and monk seals cans easily become entangled in their deadly grasp. Huge piles of nets and floats temporarily stored at the seaplane ramp testified to the hard work performed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in ridding Midway’s coral reefs of this deadly pollution.

There are no predators on Midway, thus the success of the ground-nesting birds. Rats had been a problem but were been extirpated by the Navy some years ago. There are a few introduced birds such as the Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) and Common Canary (Serinus carius). Neither are a problem. Research is being carried on to rid the islands of a large, bothersome insect, the Emerald Beetle (Fam. Scarabidae). It is both an agricultural and esthetic problem, occurring in very large number in the summer months.

Here is a checklist of the birds that one might see when visiting Midway Atoll (provided by the USFWS).


AMENITIES

Our quarters were remodeled rooms in what used to be the Naval Bachelor Officer Quarters. We enjoyed a very clean, comfortable, carpeted and air-conditioned room with a private bath, telephone and television (certainly not needed). We were thoroughly satisfied with the accommodations. Since visiting Midway is a 7-day "package deal," meals are included in the plan. We can't say enough about the meals. Most breakfasts and dinners were taken at the Clipper House Restaurant. This is certainly the only French Restaurant on a National Wildlife Refuge! This architecturally pleasing structure, built several years ago, reflects a theme of the Pan American Clippers. It overlooks North Beach with, perhaps, the most beautiful view on the island. The meals can only be described as exquisite and the French family that runs the restaurant performs feats of magic, creating amazing dishes from what must be limited resources. Lunches, two dinners, and two breakfasts were taken in the Galley, the former Navy mess hall and now a cafeteria-style restaurant where the permanent residents of the island take their meals. The galley offered a wide selection of American and ethnic foods.

Bicycles are available for rent for $5/day and are a necessity in order to get around. Golf Carts are also available for $30/day if you aren't into biking.

The USFWS offers several free tours and provides lectures and movies on various aspects of Midway's natural and cultural history. Besides the cultural history walk, there is a Tuesday trip to Eastern Island which is not generally accessible to the public. For extra fees, activities such as deep sea fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving are available. There is always something to do on Midway.



OBSERVATIONS AND COMMENTS

We can't say enough good things about Midway as a birding/vacation destination. The atoll is beautiful beyond words, the accommodations comfortable and meals excellent. The encounters with the wildlife exceeded our wildest dreams. Opportunities to observe and photograph birds are abundant -- probably among the most unique in the world. The island can be explored at your own pace, resulting in a very relaxing and rewarding seven days. There is no doubt in our minds that we shall return to Midway, hopefully as volunteers to assist in some of the many on-going research projects. Midway Atoll is a gem waiting to be discovered.


UPDATE: Unfortunately, a year after our visit, Midway Phoenix Corporation ceased operating the visitor program on the atoll. While the USFWS still maintains a presence on Midway, there are no longer facilities or public transportation available. It's a sad and disappointing turn of events and the future possibility of public visitation looks dim.


©2000 Arlene Ripley and Doug Ripley