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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 albatrosses.

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 island.

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 tragic landings.

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 elsewhere.

Overall, Midway Atoll is a very enjoyable birder and bird photographer's destination.

Ron Saldino
El Cajon, CA

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