Sunday, March 25, 2012

Midway Atoll!

Alan and I are just back from Midway Atoll, an idyllic coral-fringed trio of islands, where significant history and wildlife converge. I was scouting a tour which WINGS will offer in coming years.

Color-drenched Sand Island at Midway Atoll (Photos by Narca)

When we step off the small chartered jet into the night, into the cool sea breezes, our first sight is of Bonin Petrels fluttering overhead. The petrels enter their burrows at night to take over incubation duties from their mates or to feed chicks. At dusk, a tempest of petrels amasses just offshore, and when it's dark enough, they storm inland, homing in on their burrows, filling the air with their churrrs and piping.

A Bonin Petrel returns at night to its nest burrow.

The track from the runway to our rooms in Charley Barracks is lined with the nests of albatrosses, as far into the dark as our vision penetrates. And indeed, when day comes, the sight of a million albatrosses within the confines of a small island is astonishing. Midway is the birds' turf. How presumptuous of humans to think it was ever ours.

Charley Barracks surrounded by nesting albatrosses, all of them quite unconcerned that humans share their island.

Portrait: Laysan Albatross

Laysan Albatrosses are sovereign here. About 70% of the world's Laysan Albatrosses nests at Midway. Their numbers have been steadily rising with the change in the atoll's status from being primarily a military base to being managed as a national wildlife refuge. (In addition, the atoll is now part of the Papahanamokuakea Marine National Monument.) The number of Laysan Albatross nests had grown to about 480,000 in spring 2011, when the tsunami struck the island. Biologists figure that 110,000 chicks and quite a few adult birds were lost in that catastrophic event. This year the albatross nest tally is about 380,000, so the tsunami caused a downward tick, but they are still prospering.

An adult Laysan has just returned from the sea to feed its chick. A chick needs provisioning by both of its parents in order to survive and fledge.

When we look at the vast stretch of nests––nests of one sort or another are packed into nearly every available square foot––we see chicks everywhere, adults returning from the sea to feed their young, and masses of teenage albatrosses, all socializing, learning to display, checking out potential mates, forming their life-long pair bonds. When young albatrosses are about 3-5 years old, they return to their natal island to find a mate. They practice everything: synchronous displays, nest-building (such as it is), occasionally cuddling chicks.

A trio of young Laysan Albatrosses relaxes after a bout of strenuous displaying.

Like teenagers everywhere, these subadult Black-footed Albatrosses pass the days socializing and pair bonding.

Along with the vast numbers of Laysan Albatrosses, a few tens of thousands of Black-footed Albatrosses also nest––and a single pair of nesting Short-tailed Albatrosses.

Portrait: Black-footed Albatross

Short-tails are highly endangered. They mostly nest on Torishima, an island off the coast of Japan. At one time their entire nesting population consisted of only 10 pairs. By 1949 they were thought to be extinct, but a few subadult birds were still at sea, and they eventually returned to Torishima to nest. With intensive protection, Short-tailed Albatross numbers have come from a low of about 25 birds in 1954 to a current estimate of 2,000 or more.

The Short-tail is magnificent. It towers above the other albatrosses. The Laysans seem very curious about it, approaching and circling with outstretched necks, occasionally attempting to preen it. I am so very, very glad that this splendid and regal bird still rides the winds, glad that some day our grandchildren might also see it.

A superb Short-tailed Albatross (a.k.a. "Golden Gooney")

We'll return to Cambodia-related posts when there's a free moment, but right now I'm heading off for a Jamaica tour, while Alan holds the fort at home! A busy winter and spring!

1 comment:

  1. We saw ~ 10 Waved Albatross in Galapagos (Espanola Island) so I cannot fathom seeing thousands and thousands of Albatross! I'm glad its a nature refuge now.