Birding Midway Atoll


On 4th June 1942 the Imperial Japanese Navy launched an attack on a small coral atoll 1000 miles northwest of Hawaii and more than 2000 miles from Japan. The US Fleet were waiting, having anticipated their actions, and ambushed them. Sinking four aircraft carriers, they took revenge for the unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor about 1000 miles to the southeast. The conflict was a turning point for the United States in the Pacific and, together with the Battle of Britain in Europe, was one of the Allies' greatest triumphs in World War II. The Battle of Midway was written into the American history books but, despite this, Midway Atoll remains a little-known part of the USA. Due to its remote location and military involvement the only birders to visit the islands were military personnel.

Midway Atoll consists of three small sandy islands on the peak of a submerged ancient volcano surrounded by an almost unbroken coral reef. The only entrances have been created by man to allow shipping access. Sand Island, at about 1 mile by 2, is the largest, and is the only island that is currently inhabited. Adjacent to it is Eastern Island which, like Sand, once supported a runway that dominated the landscape. The third is a small sandbank aptly named Spit.

Until 1993 Midway remained under the jurisdiction of the US Navy and its thousands of seabirds became second-class citizens. Experiments were carried out to control their numbers and reduce the risk of collision with aircraft, but the birds were not easily deterred and dug in for a hard fight, a battle in which they would ultimately triumph. In 1996 the US Fish and Wildlife Service took official control of the site and the Midway Atoll National Wildlife refuge was created. Following a long and expensive clean up operation the last US Navy personnel departed the islands in June 1997, and the birds were reinstated as Midway's most important inhabitants.

The following March, I joined a group of the first civilians to visit the new preserve. We comprised a mixed bunch of wildlife photographers, divers and a CNN news crew. Arriving under cover of darkness to reduce the risk of an airstrike, I was greeted at Midway's airport by the locals: a handful of cheerful people and hordes of swarming Bonin Petrels. This was certainly very different from anything I had ever encountered despite visiting numerous seabird colonies; the birds were actually INSIDE the aircraft hanger! On the short journey to our rooms (in comfortable converted barracks) the bus weaved through countless Laysan Albatross while a subdued murmuring of sound accompanied us. After a hearty breakfast and the compulsory introduction to the refuge's rules and regulations, I was allowed to roam Sand Island at will for a week of very unusual but extremely satisfying birding.

The Laysan Albatross or 'Gooney Bird' dominates Midway Atoll. So far the oldest individual recorded was 43 years of age and had even witnessed the Battle of Midway! Over 388,000 breeding pairs, or 70% of the world's Laysan population, cover almost every yard of the islands of Sand and Eastern.

Laysan Albatross

The concrete airstrip on Sand is still kept clear of nests but the runway on Eastern is now overgrown with weeds and is broken in places, allowing both plants and Gooneys to recolonise. Every type of habitat is utilised, as the introduction of Ironwood trees, houses, gardens and roads has done little to deter the birds. Unfortunately those choosing a woodland nest site seem to suffer a higher infant mortality rate, while the corpses of several adults hung from the branches as a reminder that a 7-foot wing span hardly allows manouverability amongst trees.

Accompanying the Laysans are a smaller but still significant number of Black-footed Albatross; indeed the 43,000 pairs form the world's second-largest colony.

Black-footed Albatross

Between them the two albatross species dance and clatter their greetings 24 hours a day. Each click of my camera shutter seemed to be greeted with applause as the sound of rapid bill clapping echoed all around me. There were several cases of interbreeding and the progeny of such pairings was seen at various points on the island. The similarity of their behaviour and degree of hybridisation may indicate a closer relationship between the two species, and the possibility that they are just light and dark phases of the same species must exist.

Taking up residence at Frigate Point on the west end of the island was the 'Golden Gooney', a female Short-tailed Albatross, of which only about 250 pairs exist.

Short-tailed Albatross

This species breeds on one or possibly two small Japanese islands, and is the world's second-rarest albatross. Although she had laid an egg the only other Short-tail nearby was a male that set up home briefly on Eastern Island. It is hoped that eventually the 'Golden Boy' will visit Frigate Point and the ultimate golden egg might be produced. To encourage them a "no stopping zone" has been created to reduce disturbance, and for 62 days the female had incubated the infertile egg until the wardens eventually removed it. She was then able to leave and feed at sea. At the time of my visit she had been gone for a week but returned during my first day. As the week went on she spent the day sleeping until I was fortunate enough to see her flying up and down the runway before alighting to dance with, and then bully, a much smaller Black-footed Albatross.

Frigate Point became my favourite part of the island, as it was the furthest place from human habitation and the galley, and consequently it was the least-visited site as it was a long walk back for meals or shelter if a storm broke. Numerous seabirds cruised the shoreline there and while searching for a vagrant Kittiwake I found a Laughing Gull which is also a rare bird there, as indeed is any gull in Hawaiian waters. Great Frigatebirds drifted down the point named after them and I was surprised to watch an adult male Peregrine drift into my viewfinder whilst photographing the Frigates. It turned, and with powerful wingbeats stooped low over the airfield to strike at a group of lemon-tinted Canaries. About 500 of these cage birds roam the islands having been released by the wife of the cable company's manager, who despaired at the racket created by the drab-looking Gooneys. The only other passerine on the island is also an alien species, the Common Mynah. Vagrants do occur, however, and an Eyebrowed Thrush and Snow Bunting reached this remote corner of the fiftieth state the month before I arrived. A Black Kite had also lingered since December. Having not been informed of its presence and being familiar with the species in Europe, I was startled when it glided overhead followed by about 200 angry Fairy Terns.

Black Kite and Fairy Terns

I saw the bird on a daily basis and was the first to see it take prey: an adult Fairy Tern that was plucked from its single egg and carried to an Ironwood tree to be dismembered. This is only the second American record for the species (the first was also on Midway in 1988); the nearest population of this raptor is over 2000 miles away in Japan. This individual had apparently not followed the golden rule that raptors don't like large water crossings.

If vagrant birds and listing are your interest, Midway certainly has plenty to offer. A patch of shallow water on the runway held two Eurasian Wigeon amongst Pintail and a Shoveler, while I managed to obtain a unique photo of a Long-billed Dowitcher, Pacific Golden Plover and Ruff together on the rocks: three shorebirds from different continents (America, Asia and Europe respectively). With about 200 individuals present during my stay, the commonest shorebird on Midway was the Bristle-thighed Curlew, an endangered migrant from the Alaskan tundra.

Bristle-thighed Curlew

The small population winters on small Polynesian islands using Midway as a staging point en route. Wandering Tattlers and Turnstones fed around the shoreline while Pacific Golden Plovers seemed to have taken up residence on garden lawns. They did not form flocks, but staked an individual claim to small pieces of turf.

Two specially arranged visits to Eastern Island were highlights of the week as I was able to log a Brown Booby perched on a nearby buoy and a single Masked Booby, once a common breeding bird here, asleep on a large log. A thousand Sooty Terns circled noisily overhead having just arrived to begin setting up home. The atoll's terns breed at different times of year - the Fairy Terns were mostly on eggs, the Black Noddies had large young and the Brown Noddies were not due to return for at least a month.

The lower branches of small bushes held the nests of Red-footed Boobies (my third Booby species of the trip), tending recently hatched young while the Frigatebirds occupied the higher elevations inflating blood-red pouches at the sight of a female passing overhead.

Great Frigatebird

My run of luck continued as a single Christmas Shearwater flew close by me (having been flushed from bushes by a young lady answering the call of nature), only the third individual to have been seen in daylight by our ranger guide. The pier was a good vantage point to look for the Hawaiian Monk Seal, the world's second-rarest seal with only c.1200 left, and while at the dock on our return I was able to watch Green Turtles operating a search and destroy strategy. One would surface beside a floating Portuguese Man o' War Jellyfish and swallow it whole, having an obvious desire for hot spicy food!

Back on Sand Island, numbers of Red-tailed Tropicbirds had increased during the week and several were incubating under bushes and at the base of trees while above them the Noddies sat on nests woven from grass. Looking upward it was also possible to see the single eggs of Fairy Terns being incubated precariously in the fork of branches. Occasionally adults would bring fish to their downy offspring, gripping a bough with long toes evolved especially for the task. The other tern species showed the typical webbed feet characteristic of their genus.

Fairy Tern

At dusk the Bonin Petrels came closer to the shore before sweeping inland to carry food to their burrows where hungry youngsters waited. The cloak of darkness prevented attacks from piratical Frigatebirds and having satisfied the single chick the adult Bonins would sit beside the subterranean entrance to rebuff the attentions of neighbours. As I sat amongst them under the street lights the number of mice that scavenged around the nest sites surprised me. It was clear that rats must have exacted a considerable toll on the petrels in the past. At times there would be a dull thud, as birds would flop onto the ground, pick themselves up and waddle up the steps of the barracks, only to be carried out again when we retired for the night. All a bit like putting the cat out last thing at night.

Bonin Petrel

The removal of aliens is an emotive subject and following the eradication of the rat and cat population the Ironwood tree and other introduced plants are now being tackled. Spit Island is at last presumed to be in the same state as it was a century ago while presently Eastern has most of the Ironwoods in decaying condition following injections of poison. The risk of avian malaria and other diseases may mean that the Canary and Mynah have to go, but the insects, including the house fly, brought by man may prove impossible to kill.

What of man himself, probably the greatest threat? Sand is the only inhabited island and Eastern has only supervised visits, while researchers only rarely check Spit. Thankfully the refuge now exists for the benefit of the birds. The US Navy may have won a decisive battle here in 1942 but the birds are definitely winning the war and are on target for a glorious victory.

Phil leads trips to Midway. If you would like to visit this special place please contact Bird Holidays, England ATOL 5546; telephone 0113 910510 or e-mail pjw.birdholidays@care4free.net. See also Phil's website at www.britishbirdguides.org.uk

Text and photos © Phil Palmer.

Written by: Phil Palmer