Sunday, March 28, 2010

Odd Birdities

Er... Bird Oddities.

Given the hundreds of thousands of birds found here, you're bound to see some "special" individuals here or there. Ones that stick out in some way or show some characteristics that are unusual for their species. I tend to like these birds because they allow me to distinguish them from their many look-alike (at least to me) neighbors. And because, I suppose, their special-ness is somehow endearing. (No jokes about my own special-ness!!)

Sometimes, they're just superficial things such as missing feathers...

or missing legs...

Other times it's the behavior that's peculiar. This Bonin Petrel has chosen to nest between the roots of an ironwood tree instead of in a burrow like a good normal petrel.

Maybe it arrived later than the others and couldn't find a suitable burrow? Or maybe it just likes to think out of the box, I dunno.

This Red-tailed Tropicbird chick is almost ready to fledge. This is unusual because it's super early - most tropicbirds are just beginning to lay their eggs right now.

You can blame this one on the weirdo parents.

And finally, you have the genetic mutants.

This is an albino Laysan Albatross chick. Both of his parents have completely normal plumage so albinism must be a recessive trait (?). Apparently, there's an albino chick in the same nest every year.

This one is probably the most confused of all. He is the result of a Laysan and Black-footed Albatross pairing and displays characteristics of both species. Two or three hybrids like this one are seen each year on Midway.

Hybrids tend to associate with Laysans, but perform the courtship dance like a Black-footed. Here is a video of the hybrid trying to woo a Laysan. They're obviously not completely in sync, but there have been recorded Laysan x Hybrid pairings so there's hope for him yet.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Rare but Common

It's an interesting thing: nearly every day I see at least one member of a very rare species. Here, on this tiny speck in the middle of a giant ocean. I guess this makes sense as Midway, along with the other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, make up the only specks of land for a loooong ways.

Alaska is just straight ahead,

and Antarctica is directly this way.

It's still strange though. I see or hear Bristle-thighed Curlews almost every day. Worldwide they number only 7,000. In our weekly surveys, we observe about 300 of the world's remaining 1,000 Laysan Ducks. And Midway boasts three fabled Short-tailed Albatrosses who currently number around 2,200 (up from 25 remaining individuals in 1954). Their recovery is absolutely amazing and inspiring to me. It's exciting that two of the three Midway birds make up a pair and have exhibited nesting activities in the recent past. The hope is that a new Short-tail colony will be established here and efforts are underway to attract more birds.

As if these birds weren't enough, I am also lucky enough to see some rare marine species as well. On the aptly named Turtle Beach, I see around 15 or 20 Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles resting on the beach daily. Population estimates for this one are sketchy, but one source says that only 100-350 breeding females remain. There are also quite a few Hawaiian Monk Seals that hang around the shore. This is a species that I'm told could quite possibly go extinct in mine or my children's lifetime. So you can see how it's even more poignant for me when I get to see a pregnant seal resting on the boat ramp.

I count myself very fortunate to see many of these each day. It is my wish that they will be equally as successful as the Short-tailed Albatross (or more so), and that the world will see that they are worth saving.\

Bristle-thighed Curlew


Laysan Duck

Short-tailed Albatross

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle

Monk Seal with Sea Turtle

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Wacky weather and a wave that never came

I still have not gotten used to the weather here. It can be a little extreme.

My first week here was very rainy and cold. I practically lived in the only sweatshirt and pair of pants that I brought. There was one day where the winds got up to 50 mph and I could not physically bike to work! It was wild. (I was also excited to mark a 9 on the Beaufort scale for the survey that day - crazy!).

It has lightened up significantly since then and we enjoyed sunny weather all last week. I was happy to finally break out my shorts! Intermittent showers always caught me by surprise though and although I did not have a mirror on hand, I suspect I looked something like this:

It was probably a Monday.

As if this wasn't enough to remind me how remote and vulnerable we actually are here on this tiny island in the middle of nowhere, there was also a tsunami scare on the 27th. I think most of the world has heard, but as a result of the massive earthquake in Chile on Feb. 26th, all Pacific Islands received tsunami warnings shortly thereafter. I think Midway had 16 hours of notice to prepare for any damage, which was quite a bit of time, and I was impressed by how calm and organized everyone was. Important equipment and vehicles were driven up to Mt. Bart - the highest point on the island at 34 feet - and we were all ordered to the 3rd floor of Charlie Barracks to wait it out. We were considerably relieved to hear that waves in Hilo, Hawaii only reached around 3 feet and we ended being sent back to our homes after the warning was lifted. Our tsunami wave thankfully never came. Gary's account has pictures.

Call 911! Oh, wait.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Albatross Chicks

So call me a sap, but I've been here two weeks and I still have a hard time not breaking out in high-pitched squeals whenever I sit down and watch an albatross chick. It's extremely unscientific of me, but really, how can you not?

When I first arrived in late February, most were only a couple weeks old and looked like this:

While standing on their heels, they would twist around and snap their bill at any passersby.

Two weeks later and it looks as though they've swallowed a bowling ball. It takes considerable more effort to stand up so they seem to prefer laying on their big bellies.

This is what I feel like after a good meal at the Clipper House.

This is what I've learned so far: It takes tremendous energy for a mated pair of albatrosses to successfully raise a chick. Breeders will often skip a year to recover and conserve energy. After an egg is laid, both parents take turns incubating the egg for a whopping 65 days! They will feed the chick - sometimes flying incredible distances to forage - for 5 more months until it is ready to fledge. If one of the adults dies during this time, the chick will not survive. Not to worry though - on Midway, the fledging success is an impressive 86%!

I look forward to watching them grow. We can compare belly sizes.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The frizzies

I looked in the mirror the other day and discovered that I'm looking more and more like the locals:

I tried to get the facial expression just right. How'd I do?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

So, I have a pretty sweet gig here.

I wasn't planning on keeping a blog here at all, and I'm still a bit sheepish about having one, but after experiencing so many wonderful things in just my first few days here on Midway I've decided to try and share this experience with people who might be interested. Hopefully that group will include at least one person besides my mother. I promise only humble observations and maybe even some decent pictures, if you're lucky.

Where to start? I guess I should say that I'm here as a volunteer for U.S. Fish and Wildlife and I am helping them specifically with monitoring the seabird populations and restoring the habitat. (That last one is code for pulling weeds and picking up litter). I'll be here for only three months but I am so excited about gaining some valuable field experience and also making a discernible difference on the island.

So! Upon arriving here on Midway two weeks ago, I quickly found that there are unusual concentrations of many good things here. First and most obvious, you have the hundreds of thousands of seabirds flying in the air and nesting on the ground. If you know me then you know that this is rather thrilling. Like pee-your-pants thrilling. Then you have the world's friendliest and sweetest people all on one tiny island. Seriously - I've never met so many welcoming people in my life. I guess living in paradise will do that to you. And finally, and perhaps most exciting of all, people cook copious amounts of delicious food for you! And it's free! I can assure you that I'm fully taking advantage of this wonderful situation (packin' on the pounds, baby!).

Good, good people

The Clipper House (dining hall)
Um, yes. So when I'm not eating, I find myself banding albatross chicks, checking tropicbird nests, cloning native bunchgrass, boating to the next island over (with a pod of dolphins no less), and biking to a beach. I feel I should inquire if it's possible to become a professional volunteer forever.
More to come later. For my fellow bird nerds, I leave a list of birds that I've seen so far on the island.
  • Laysan Albatross
  • Bonin Petrel
  • Black-footed Albatross
  • Magnificent Frigatebird
  • Pacific Golden Plover
  • White Tern
  • Common Canary
  • Black Noddy
  • Brown Booby
  • Common Myna
  • Bristle-thighed Curlew
  • Laysan Duck
  • Short-tailed Albatross
  • Red-footed Booby
  • Wandering Tattler
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Northern Pintail
  • Eurasian Wigeon
  • Sooty Tern