Where the Gooney Birds are

More than 400,000 albatross pairs nest on Midway Atoll, which is now the site of an extraordinary National Wildlife Refuge

(Kevin Schafer)
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Mind you, visitors are never supposed to lay a finger on a bird at the National Wildlife Refuge on Midway Atoll in the North Pacific. Then picture if you will a misty 6 A.M. moment, a grassy acre or so and a Brueghelian scene in which 25 people, including me, many of them very middle-aged and not exactly thin, stalk hundreds of clacking albatross, also known as gooney birds, and fill the air with coarse shouts of "Grabber, here!" or "Bander, this way!" The show, presented on a monitored chunk of field beside the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) offices, includes a revolving cast of visitor volunteers like me. Most of them are trained as "grabbers," who work in pairs, pursuing and, if lucky, catching and, if luckier still, gently holding a big fledgling’s head and body so that it can be banded with special pliers that will not harm the bird’s leg. While gooneys won’t budge for a bus trying to make its way down the main street of Sand Island, they are frisky and feisty enough when we try to grab them. They retreat, wings uplifted.

Once in hand, the five- to six-pound chicks are warm and scarily insubstantial to the touch. You think at first you might break a wing or a neck while handling them, but in fact they are surprisingly stout and strong. And, yes, they do bite. And throw up on you if they get upset. Crucial advice for future banding participants: before you grab the bird’s body, be sure your partner has grabbed the head. Otherwise, the bird’s sharp-edged bill may leave a minor flesh wound on your hand or arm.

That’s the kind of close encounter with the exotic world of wildlife you might have on Midway Atoll nowadays. The place is little more than three tiny specks on the map of the North Pacific—Sand Island, Eastern Island and microscopic Spit—with a ring-shaped coral reef attached. The name is most famous for a significant air and sea battle fought six decades ago by a handful of U.S. ships and aircraft against a much larger Japanese fleet, which changed the course of the war in the Pacific and perhaps the history of the 20th century. The Battle of Midway, much celebrated in print and film, can still give a lift of the heart, still stir a sense of fate and history. From 1903 until recently, through several hot wars and one cold war, Midway belonged to the U.S. Navy, which helped preserve it from commercial exploitation and public access. Today, cleaned up by the Navy at a cost of $90 million and handed over to the Interior Department’s Fish & Wildlife Service, it is a matchless national wildlife refuge. Happily, for the first time it can be visited by the public—though at a price and in strictly limited numbers. Every Saturday one Aloha Airlines flight drops off—and picks up for a 1,200-mile return to Honolulu—about a hundred passengers, that being all the visitors that refuge rules permit at a time.

The visitors find a fantasia of airborne and seaborne creatures in a habitat about the size of a small college campus. They discover, too, a 1950s naval air station preserved as if it were a museum and now operating as a cozy hotel. Busily caring for the islands, monitoring, studying and explaining the creatures and the history is a shifting group of FWS people, field scientists and lecturers, as well as volunteers young and old, mostly willing to let you lend a hand. The FWS believes students, scientists and environmentally inclined visitors should be exposed to the wonders and challenges of its unique refuge. But on its meager budget the FWS could never maintain Sand Island’s airstrip or its harbor facilities, or bear the cost of servicing the incoming flights, arranging weekly courses in "observational biology," or lavishly housing and feeding visitors. That is handled by a new company, the Midway Phoenix Corporation, one-half of an admirable experiment in partnership between government and business.

Albatross own the islands

On Sand, Spit and Eastern islands’ lonely beaches, about three score and five Hawaiian monk seals, some of the rarest of sea mammals, occasionally haul out. Offshore, big green sea turtles row slowly by under your boat. As a paying volunteer, you might also motor out into the lagoon to help monitor spinner dolphin behavior with biologist Susan Rickards of the Oceanic Society, the San Francisco-based ecotourism operator that runs research expeditions on Midway. Unlike their cousins, the familiar bottlenose, spinners tend not to adapt well to captivity, and only a few have been successfully tagged, so there is still much to learn of their biology. For years, Rickards and others have headed out to photograph individuals and groups and study behavior; she keeps track of more than 200 animals by their individual markings, such as serrated dorsal fins or circular scars left by the small sharks known as cookiecutters. As we near the reef, one of the large, three-toned dolphins explodes straight toward the sky, spinning as it rises more than its length out of the water before smashing back down into the sea. Then, almost impossibly, it jumps and spins twice more—all three jumps in quick succession.

Still, it’s the birds that are the main draw on Midway: hundreds of thousands of seabirds call these islands home. White terns with black shoe-button eyes are everywhere, along with 16 other species. All the birds are spectacular, particularly the great frigate bird and white-tailed tropicbird. A few bear comic names, such as masked booby and bristle-thighed curlew. And Midway is also thick with what I have mainly come to see—the albatross. More than 400,000 nesting pairs of Laysan and black-footed albatross return to the atoll every November to breed.

In a very real sense it is the albatross who own the island. Albatross travel thousands of miles every year over the open ocean but always come back to nest, rarely more than a few feet from their previous nesting site. The banding that goes on here bears this out. Recently banders caught a black-footed albatross first tagged on Midway in 1958. Because they are so faithful to a single site, year after year, it is also easy for people to grow attached to them. When I talked with Linda Campbell, a Navy brat on Midway in the 1960s, she fondly recalled that about 25 albatross pairs nested on her chief petty officer father’s small lawn; the pair closest to the front door, nicknamed Gertrude and Heathcliffe, were regarded as the family pets.

On Midway, it is not shifts in weather that determine the seasons but the comings and goings of gooney birds. "Summer isn’t summer," explains field biologist Heidi Auman, "it’s the bird window"—the Midway term for the period from August to late fall when all the albatross are gone from the atoll. (Auman worked eight years for Midway Phoenix as "academic liaison," serving as island guide, lecturer and mentor. She has since left.) She says that the absence of albatross at first is a relief. You can bike without slaloming, drive a golf cart with no thought of causing injury. "People get to mow their grass," she says. "The place begins to look like a 1950s suburb." But then they start to miss the birds. Betting pools spring up about the exact day and hour when the first returning albatross will land. "November isn’t fall," she says. "It’s when they come back. First one, then a handful, then a dozen. Suddenly, one day the sky is raining albatross. Yowling and mewing and courting. There’s so much noise we couldn’t hear each other to have this conversation."

Auman meets our flight, a plane full of book-laden high school teachers, a group of professors, mainly biologists, plus a contingent of fishermen and divers. She joins the short bus ride to our barracks—quarters that Midway Phoenix has spent a lot of money providing with some hotel comforts. They’ve even hired French chef Alain Sacasas and built an elegant restaurant where he cooks breakfasts and dinners. Everyone on the island eats lunch at the former Navy mess hall.

Except for a bus and a few other utility vehicles, Midway is mostly unafflicted by the internal combustion engine; locomotion is on foot, bike or quiet, rentable electric golf cart. Because of the wildlife, no cats or dogs are allowed on Midway. There are no rats, either; they were exterminated by the departing Navy. Along the way, up streets with names such as Radford and Halsey, arriving visitors see neat white "Navy" buildings, a theater, a mall, tall shade trees, flowering plants and married officers’ houses now used for staff.

Lords of the air, jesters of the land

It is slow going to Charlie barracks—which once served as bachelor officers’ quarters (BOQ). Our bus has to zig and zag to avoid what look like a million albatross chicks wandering around the lawns and streets. I have always entertained a vague notion of the albatross as lord of the air, able to glide for days on superlong, motionless wings, gracefully sweeping to the far ends of the earth. It’s a jolt to see these gawky creatures, not inclined to get out of the way, which is part of the reason why they’ve earned their goofy nickname. They simply carry on as if impediments such as buses, bikes, golf carts, aircraft and even human beings don’t exist. At the command "Get ready to move birds," two husky "bird movers" leap down and gently begin lifting fledglings off the road.

Only one island event is required of all visitors: a formal FWS briefing about ground rules in what once was the base theater. Officially, Midway is a refuge, not a resort, and the jargon in the lecture mainly concerns "compatible wildlife-dependent recreation." This is a challenge to all hands because it involves a more or less cheek by jowl mix of wild creatures and curious human beings. Midway’s sacred cow is the Hawaiian monk seal. This animal once numbered in the tens of thousands, but the population dropped precipitously as humans hunted it relentlessly for meat and pelts. Despite present international protection, the monk seal has dwindled to only about 1,400 individuals worldwide.

Monk seals are so fearful and reclusive that the sight of a human being on a beach could stop a female from coming ashore to bear her pup. Should you see one on a beach, the FWS lecturer says, "stay at least a hundred feet away. Even if they’re covered with flies and look dead." The only hope for the species lies here on Midway and on a string of small refuge islands that dot the Pacific between here and Honolulu. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is very proud of the 14 pups born on the atoll last year and the 11 more this year.

Because of the monk seals and nesting birds, the whole of Eastern Island is off-limits to people, except for a once-a- week "walk and talk" visit in a landing craft with a drop-down bow like the ones familiar in World War II. Eastern is a desolate place. The revetments and pillboxes have been abandoned to nature. The battle memorial is maintained, however, and the weeds pushing up through the jigsaw cracks in the tarmac are cleaned up once a year. In the noon heat the air boils with the cries of thousands of swirling terns. But anyone who wants to summon Midway’s wartime past, or try to imagine how exposed the island’s defenders must have felt 59 years ago, should probably start here. In June 1942, Eastern, not Sand, served as Midway’s airstrip.

The screeching and mewing of birds has replaced the roar of planes

On this day I am with the biology professors, and toward the end of the ruined runway, we come abreast of a huge, treelike clump of beach heliotrope, its gnarled branches covered with squawking, squabbling birds. This has nothing to do with birds of a feather flocking together; it is like an avian Christmas tree hung with different species, most notably a few male great frigate birds, identifiable by the red-balloon sacs at their necks, which they inflate to attract females. Birds are not only on the bush but deep inside. It gives off a drowsy hum of bird noises, almost loud enough to drown out the click of cameras and whir of videotape as the professors collect exotic images to stir the interest of their science students back home.

My ear is tuned to the memory of aircraft launching from my carrier off Okinawa at the end of World War II, and the howling thunder of radial engines and prop-driven planes revved up for release to the sky. On June 3, 1942, there were a few B-17 bombers on Midway. They were sent off in the predawn, so as not to be destroyed on the ground like the B-17s under Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s command the previous December in the Philippines. Later that day nine bombers flew an attack mission. Their target: a huge Japanese invasion fleet several hundred miles offshore, no one knew exactly where. Some found elements of the Japanese Navy, dropped bombs from on high but scored no hits. Midway-based Marine dive-bombers tried, too, but with little success.

Midway had 28 outdated fighter planes, which did not fly cover for the dive-bombers. They were kept on the atoll to fend off more than 90 carrier-based enemy bombers that attacked the next day with plenty of agile Zeros to protect them. When the Japanese raid ended, a hundred-bed hospital, plainly marked with a red cross, was demolished. Also, the chapel, the powerhouse, several radar installations, the hangars, barracks and row on row of tents were lost in smoke and ruin. More than half of the American fighter planes were shot down.

Despite much bravery displayed, Midway Island’s contribution to the battle that bears its name may seem marginal. In a battle, though, nothing stays simple except who won. Some small ironies of war apply here. Except in numbers of planes, the three American carriers and their escorting cruisers and destroyers patrolling northeast of Midway were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the Japanese fleet to the northwest. In fact, the attempt to keep Japan from taking Midway and making the Pacific a Japanese lake was desperate; the U.S. carriers were able to try it only because America had broken a Japanese code and knew what the Japanese fleet intended—but not precisely where it could be found.

And the course of history was changed

It was a crucial radio message from one of Midway’s patrolling PBYs, which glimpsed enemy ships around 6 A.M. on the 4th, that gave the searching carriers the initial range and bearing that they needed. Moreover, the island’s effort at defense had been fierce enough that the Japanese decided to make another strike before the invasion. As a result, when the American dive-bombers and torpedo bombers struck, the Japanese carriers had planes on deck and below being loaded with bombs and gasoline. When they were hit, the explosive damage was tremendous. In a few minutes, while Japanese defenses relentlessly shot down the U.S. torpedo bombers, the unnoticed dive-bombers plummeted to sink three Japanese aircraft carriers. A fourth was sunk later. Thus Midway was saved from the Japanese, and the balance of power in the Pacific changed forever.

American involvement with Midway Atoll goes back well before those dramatic moments during World War II. It began July 5, 1859, when the uninhabited "guano" island, laden with bird droppings used for fertilizer back on the mainland, was claimed by one Captain Middlebrooks for the United States.

In 1903, the year Teddy Roosevelt created the first wildlife refuge—three-acre Pelican Island on the east coast of Florida—he sent 21 Marines to Midway, largely to protect the albatross from marauding Japanese. That same year the first round-the-world cable and wireless company put a station on Midway and erected five handsome houses, eventually importing 9,000 tons of topsoil full of alien seeds, and planting nonnative trees and flowers.

When the cable company came, only a few thousand albatross pairs lived on Midway, but the population did recover. They stayed there with the U.S. Navy through the 1930s, when it created a forward-area base on the atoll. And thousands of them watched as the big flying boats, the Pan Am Clippers, landed in Midway’s lagoon during the late 1930s, carrying rich and sometimes famous passengers on their way to Asia. The gooneys managed to survive not only the Japanese attack in 1942 but the Navy’s attempt to keep runways clear from the 1940s to the 1970s. During this period, the Navy killed more than 50,000 birds with bulldozers and flamethrowers to keep them from flying into their early, underpowered jet aircraft and causing crashes.

The number of albatross held more or less steady until the population began climbing in the mid-1960s and through the 1970s. But modern times brought new kinds of problems. When feeding on the surface of the ocean, they collectively gulp down—and later throw up if they aren’t killed by them—thousands of plastic cigarette lighters mistaken for squid. Behind the Oceanic Society’s research office on Sand, seven large cartons overflow with stuff from gooney bird stomachs. Not only are there lighters, but plastic pencils, spools, toy tops, hairpins, combs, tiny lightbulbs, even a small radio tube from the days before transistors.

Time to fly or die

On Midway, late June or early July is shocking for any visitor who harbors any lingering romantic notions about the albatross. It’s been seven months of hard work, and most albatross parents are returning to the nest just once every two to three days. They are waiting for that moment when the chick is gone—out on its own. For the thousands of gooney bird fledglings, each day more assailed by heat, thirst and hunger, the time has come to fly or die. Or at any rate get the squid that provide them with life-giving food and drink. Fortunately, more than 90 percent will make it.

At this stage they are at their gooneyest, with their comical, intense, nearly cross-eyed look, enormous triangular feet, huge wings and long bills. In the process of shedding the thick gray down from their heads and necks, they acquire ridiculous hairdos. Initially, this can put you in mind of bewigged English magistrates or Cyril Ritchard playing Captain Hook. Later, if their from-the-top-down shedding is balanced left and right, they wear sideburns.

You start out by simply wanting to cheer them on their way, especially when they flail at the air with outsized wings. Standard flight exhortations run to "Go! Go! Go!" or "Get with it, buddy!" One gray dawn, while watching some young birds perched on a seawall flapping but not flying, a teacher from Hawaii, who has raised four sons, bursts out, "There’s breakfast out there! Don’t you want your breakfast?"

As the days grow hotter, with no breeze or rain, the birds are even less mobile. We want to help them. If they move at all in the heat now, it is mostly to shuffle into a nearby patch of shade. Outside my window in Charlie barracks, a row of ten have edged into the slender shadow of a single telephone pole. But most birds just sit there waiting as the sun burns down upon them.

Why don’t they move at least a bit farther in search of shade? I wonder. Unhappily, their biological makeup prevents them from straying too far away from the spot where they were born, the location to which their parents have brought them food for months on end. Each afternoon when the sun is at its hottest, a curious and unsettling spectacle presents itself on the island’s largest expanse of grassy field. The space, lined on its eastern side with tall ironwood trees, is vastly larger than Yankee Stadium. Evenly spaced at about five-foot intervals, legions of fledgling albatross are stationed there, motionless. Many hundreds of them face away from the sun in concert, like a field of the faithful praying toward Mecca. The tips of their huge feet are protected from the sun’s heat by their bodies and raised off the ground for better circulation. Birds fairly close to the trees have gravitated into broad strips of shade. There is plenty of room for more, but the multitudes do not stir.

The gooney dances to get the girl

Nothing can be done, of course. There are too many. Up to a thousand a day are dying and are picked up in the wee hours and hauled to the incinerator. "This is not Disneyland," Heidi Auman has said. "Mother Nature takes its course here, and it’s survival of the fittest. It has to be that way." Still, like many other softhearted visitors, and many island dwellers with lawns, I decide to use a hose, in this case the one attached outside Charlie barracks for rinsing sandy feet, to give a quick sprinkle to the dehydrated fledglings nearby.

Fledglings that fly this spring, if they live, will spend two to seven years at sea before returning to Midway to find a mate. Whereas the great frigate bird and sooty tern stay aloft the whole time because their feathers are not weatherproof, the albatross spends as much as half of its time floating on the surface of the ocean, preening, resting and feeding. Albatross don’t breed until they are 8 or 9 years old, the average life expectancy of most songbirds. Why albatross and all other seabirds exhibit what ornithologists call "deferred breeding" remains one of the biggest mysteries in the biology of these animals.

When the albatross return home from their extensive wanderings, they look for a mate and practice an elaborate head-bobbing courtship dance. While the dance looks absurd and quite gooney, it provides a critical function: each bird is making sure that it is in sync with its potential mate. Albatross and other seabirds share an unusual trait—males and females split the duties involved in incubating the egg. Over a period of a month or two, the albatross pair must coordinate their comings and goings so the egg is protected from the hot sun. Should one parent stay away too long or both become hungry at the same time, the egg could be in jeopardy. Individual variations exist among birds, just as they do with humans, and if the parents are not on the same schedule, then problems will occur. "The level of communication that goes on between the couple," says Smithsonian research associate Elizabeth Schreiber, "is truly remarkable. Somehow they can discover their compatibility quite accurately during a series of courtship dances. Once they’ve selected a mate that works, the two will remain together for life, which can span more than 50 years."

Albatross are the islands' soul

After the egg hatches, around mid-January, the parents make many trips to sea to feed the chick. Recently, a small telemetric device fastened to a foraging Laysan parent from an island near Midway revealed that it had flown nonstop for 4,000 miles in search of food for its chick. Research using telemetry reveals that albatross don’t wander aimlessly, but instead are careful students of the wind and currents and where the fish are. The albatross digestive system includes a device like those that dairymen use to separate cream from milk. It takes fresh squid and processes it into two separate compartments, one for nourishing oil and the other for everything else. The energy-rich oil is stored to be fed to chicks back at the nest, while the rest is digested by the adult. The returning father or mother regurgitates breakfast in the form of a ghastly gray gruel. Spring isn’t spring here, it’s fledging time.

Today, Midway’s 400,000 nesting pairs represent 70 percent of the world’s Laysan population; they are by far the most numerous albatross species. Many of the 20 other species are not thriving. One reason is relentless and general—decrease in habitat. Read increase in people. Another is cruel and specific: longline fishing. Black-footed albatross particularly strike too often at baited hooks and drown.

Like the globe itself, the ancient atoll and its gooney birds are a marvel of design. They are also an evolutionary treasure, paradoxically preserved of late by war and military occupation. Heidi Auman puts it well: "Here the life force is right in your face. Albatross are the island’s soul."

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