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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

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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.

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