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U.S.A. -- Hawaii
-- Midway Island
25 January - 1 February 1998
by Ron Saldino
My wife and I spent 6 days and 7 nights on Midway Atoll from 1-25-98 to
2-1-98. This is a relatively new destination for birders and bird
photographers. Since the US Navy left the Island last year, after
an extensive cleanup, the USF&WS and Midway Phoenix Corp. are
jointly managing this NWR. F&W manages the wildlife and
Midway Phoenix operates all the infrastructure (runway, hanger, fuel
tanks, power plant, water, barracks, food, etc.). Midway Atoll is
about 1200 miles northwest of Honolulu. The International Date
Line is only 140 miles west of Midway.
Atoll is the geologically more correct term in this late stage in the
life of Midway Island. Midway is about 29 million years old and
the main island has sunk leaving a coral atoll. Kauai, in
contrast, is only about 5 million years old.
Hawaiian Monk Seals, Green Sea Turtles, and Spinner Dolphins are the
non-bird wildlife that one may see. In the summer, scuba diving,
fishing, and swimming are available in the intensely blue very clear
waters surrounding the Atoll. Midway Atoll is comprised of 3
small areas of land: Sand Island, about 1 x 2 miles (1200 acres);
Eastern Island about 1/3 the size of Sand; and Spit Island, 6 small
sandy acres. Eastern Is. is uninhabited, altho there are
runways from WW2. Sand Is. has all of the people (about
200), buildings, runways, etc.
NOTE: Birds that I saw will be all-capitalized the first timed
mentioned. Other birds only discussed but present will not be
capitalized. The main attraction of Midway is the Gooney Bird--
The LAYSAN ALBATROSS (Phoebastria (Diomedea) immutabilis) and
BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS (Phoebastria (Diomedea) nigripes) that nest on
Midway. About 70% of the world's population of Laysan Albatross
use Midway and the rest nest on Laysan Island, 320 miles southeast,
also part of the Northwestern Hawaiian chain of islands. The
albratosses dominate the view in all directions on land and in the sky
and fill the air with endless bill clapping, moaning, squeals and
whistles. About 430,000 breeding pairs of Laysan and 40,000 pairs
of Black-footed Albatross cover the lawns, beaches, fields, under trees
and shrubs, everywhere but the paved roads and runways.
Altho the courtship dance and the stylized pair-bonding ritual differs
between the two species , each has an endearing and fascinating
sequence of sky pointing, bill tucking, rapid bill clappering, toe
dancing, and head shaking and bobbing all accompanied by loud whistles,
mooing, and squeals. It is a visual and auditory delight!
Some found the birds kept them awake at night, but we enjoyed the
sounds of nature right outside our open first floor window.
We arrived at the end of the 65 day incubation period. The
Albatrosses arrive on the Atoll in October and November and begin a
non-stop, sometimes rowdy, mate-selection and mate-rebonding display
time leading to egg laying around Thanksgiving. A single egg is
laid. The parents take turns on the nest for weeks at-a-time of
non-stop incubating. The adults leave their fledglings alone on
the Atoll in July to finish feathering and learn to fly. The
young birds fly around the Northern Pacific for 5 to 8 years, returning
to Midway to find a mate and begin what are probably annual nestings
thereafter. The birds may live to 50 years or more.
Since most of the birds had mates and were sitting on eggs or small
chicks, the number of Gooney Birds performing the elaborate ritualized
courtship displays was small. But it was easy to find a dozen
birds, dancing in groups of 2, 3, 4. or 5 birds, within sight.
Another bird present in good numbers was the BONIN PETREL (Petrodroma
hypoleuca), one of the 'nightbirds'. They would arrive at dusk
and fill the skies with their fluttery flight, often circling near
street lights so one could see their distinctive underwing pattern of
white coverts with a black diagonal bar and a black patch distal to the
wrist. They would land on the ground near their burrows and were
fairly tame. However, it is inappropriate to walk far onto the
sandy soil for the Bonin since the ground was laced with their burrows
and it was easy to collapse a tunnel and possibly trap a bird or
chick. (They had just begun egg laying.) Good viewing and photos
were easy from the walkways. The were quite vocal and emitted
raucous sounds and low churrs.
One morning, a F&W employee took us over to Eastern Island.
He (James Aliberti) was very knowledgeable about all of the wildlife
and full of historical lore about Midway. We saw two nesting
birds that do not nest on Sand Island--the RED-FOOTED BOOBY (Sula sula)
and the GREAT FRIGATEBIRD (Fregate minor). A day later, I
witnessed an kleptoparasitic attack of a frigatebird on a tropicbird
right in front of me about 20 feet up. The frigatebird gracefully
picked up the regurgitated food that had landed on the ground.
There is no 'pest control' on Eastern Island, so the dead birds are
left where they died. The F&W person gently kicked open a
juvenile albatross carcass from last year. To our amazement, the
bird was filled with multicolored bits of plastic! The adult
albatross will feed on anything floating on the ocean. Before man
began to trash the oceans, that usually meant dead or live squid or
fish or other edible material. Now BIC lighters and Styrofoam
pieces and bottle caps will be eaten and regurgitated for the
chicks. The chicks will fill up on the plastic (they apparently
can't regurgitate) and eventually starve. They have two large
sacs of BIC disposable lighters at Midway, either found on shore or in
The adult albatrosses have no natural predators on the ocean and this
may account for their tolerance of man on their nesting grounds.
Some of them are curious and will approach to within a foot or two,
look you over and then wander off, ( probably unimpressed with our
'plumage'), others are more shy and may actually scurry away. I
watched a huge multi-bladed riding lawn mower circle around the nesting
birds with the birds not moving. Once on the nest, it is hard to
get them to leave. Even with heavy rains and flooding of the nest
site, they remain site-faithful and such behavior may result in the
downy chicks getting soaked and drowning.
Later in the spring, Eastern Island is the site of thousands of nesting
Sooty Terns. The Gray-back Tern, the Christmas and Wedge-tailed
Shearwaters also nest in the spring.
A highlight of the trip was the re-appearance briefly of the
SHORT-TAILED ALBATROSS (Phoebastria (Diomedea) albatrus). This
Golden Gooney had sat on an infertile egg for 60 days and had left the
island, probably to feed at sea, about ten days earlier. I
re-discovered it about 2 PM one day, called in report in on my rented
cellular phone (more later), and saw it again the next morning. I
looked each day thereafter for the next 4 days, but it did not reappear.
It is a magnificent bird, much bigger than the other two albatrosses
and has a massive bubblegum-pink bill, with a plae blue tip..
This bird, altho 13 yrs old, was in sub-adult plumage with a dark
chocolate-brown crown and nape patch. The Short-tailed Albatross
is an endangered species with only about 400 birds worldwide.
They nest only on Torishima Is. near Japan. It is a
'Golden' Gooney becuase of the orange-yellow wash on the head and neck
of the adult.
Transportation on Midway is either by walking, rented bicycle ($5/day),
or rented electric golf cart ($25/day). If one wanted exercise
and if one wasn't carrying much photographic equipment, then a bicycle
would be suitable. But I must admit that I came to really
appreciate my golf cart where I could carry all my camera gear, a fully
extended tripod, water bottle, binocs, etc. in a quiet and
efficient manner. January is a time when strong winds are blowing
and pedaling against the wind might have been sometimes hard.
There are numerous paths, roads and cart trails all over the
island. There are only a few off-limits areas (fuel tanks area,
tug boat dock, etc.)
A cellular telephone is available ($5/day). Calls to another cell
phone on the island are free, the phone can also be used, and is the
easiest way, to call the mainland at $3/min.
Meals are cafeteria style in a large galley. Since the workers
and employees are from either Sri Lanka, the Philippines, or Thailand,
the emphasis is on spicy hot curries. We had curried pork, beef,
lamb, chicken, green beans, potatoes, beets and carrots! One's
lips would tingle after eating the curries. Also available were
other meats, rice, vegetables, desserts, salads. Fixings for a
lunch meat and cheese sandwich were always available. Breakfast
was eggs to order, potatoes, cereals, breads, pastries, etc. The
food was good, but not great. The French restaurant was closed
while they were building a new one.
The new French restaurant looks fabulous with a beachfront location,
nice decor, etc. There will be an extra charge to eat
there. Opening should be in a couple of months. Also on the
horizon by May will be direct jet service on Aloha Airlines from
Honolulu to Midway. This should make the flight shorter, cheaper,
and eliminate the weight restriction. Currently, a Gulfstream G-1
turbo prop is used, taking over 5 hrs with a headwind to get to Midway
and about 3 and 1/2 hours to return.
After spending time one morning trying to photograph a flying BLACK
NODDY (Anous minutus) to show its distinguishing gray tail, I was
pleased to come across a single BROWN NODDY (Anous stolidus).
They are not usually on the island at this time of year. The
Brown Noddy has a black tail and outer primaries. The Black
Noddies were building nests, usually high in the Ironwood trees, but
were approachable while they were perched on some low rooftops.
Most of the birds on Midway Atoll are not shy and will allow close
approach. However, the numerous PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER (Pluvialis
domenica fulva) and the 3 or 4 dozen BRISTLE-THIGHED CURLEW (Numenius
tahitiensis) would not tolerate any close approach for
photographs. But one could get magnificent views of the
Bristle-thighed Curlew (yes, even the bristles on the thigh), hear
their short two-noted whistled call, and see their light cinnamon
colored rumps with a heck of a lot less effort than required on their
breeding grounds in Nome, AK. So if you don't care if your life
Bristle-thighed Curlew is ABA- countable or not, then Midway Atoll is
an easy place to see them.
The Fish and Wildlife Service gave tours and showed several videos in
the cinema. There is a small cinema, bowling alley, gym, gift
shop, etc. left over from when there were 4000 people on the
A major attraction of Midway Island is the history of the Battle of
Midway. This battle on June 4, 1942, was a decisive victory for
the US in WW2. Bunkers, buildings, monuments, guns, and memorials
are on the island to give one a better understanding of this
event. Two videos are screened recounting the Battle.
Other birds of interest include RED-TAILED TROPICBIRD (Phaethon
rubricauda) who are just beginning to select nesting sites. They
were performing their characteristic display flight and hovering and
often were close-in allowing good in-flight photos. The WHITE (
COMMON FAIRY) TERN (Gygis alba) often hovered only inches above ones
head (usually when I had my long telephoto lens out!) silently
inspecting the intruders. They often perched in convenient spots
and one could get great looks at their pyramidal shaped long bill with
a blue base and big-eyed face.
RUDDY TURNSTONES (Arenaria interpres) were common, usually under the
Ironwood trees. I saw two WANDERING TATTLERS (Heteroscelus
incanus) and two SANDERLINGS (Calidris alba).
Two introduced birds that are commonly seen are the COMMON MYNA
(Acridotheres tristis) and COMMON CANARY (Serimus canaria).
Midway Atoll is the only place in Hawaii or the Tropical Pacific where
one can see the Common Canary, according to Pratt.
If one visits Midway in May one can see the nesting Christmas and
Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Brown Noddies, and Gray-back Terns, but the
Bristle-thighed Curlew may have left for its breeding grounds and the
Short-tailed Albatross is not likely. The Albatross chicks were
only days old at the end of January, the will be approaching the size
of the parents in the summer.
For those interested in more information about Midway, I highly
recommend the article by Susan Scott in April, 1997 issue of --Wild
Bird--. Many excellent photographs and lots of text convey the
feeling of the island quite well.
There are phone numbers and addresses in the article that are useful.
Web sites are:
General Info and Home page
Birds of Midway
A site for former residents of Midway
A few comments:
It is interesting that little or no bird excrement odor is present on
Midway. You'd think that with many hundreds of thousands
albatrosses that you'd be up to your knees in guano. But I think
the birds do little feeding while nesting and also a brisk wind was
present while we were there.
The Albatrosses are consummate fliers, soaring for hours without a wing
beat, but the Gooney Birds have poor landing ability in weak or
changing winds. This results in many humorous or occasionally
I saw only 3 dead adult Laysan, the cause of death was not apparent to
me. Another highlight for me was seeing and photographing a
HYBRID LAYSAN X BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS. The hybrid had an overall
light gray color, several shades lighter than the typical Black-footed;
a Laysan colored bill (mostly orangy-pink); white feathers around the
bill base, like a Black-footed; and feet that were most dark
brown. It was a very handsome bird, a mulatto with black and
white mixed features. The staff see a very small number of
hybrids every year. I would be appreciative if anyone can direct
me to a scientific article or more information about this hybrid.
The staff on Midway didn't think much had been published
There are relatively few birds present on Midway, but the ones there
are great photographic subjects and usually not as cooperative
Overall, Midway Atoll is a very enjoyable birder and bird
El Cajon, CA