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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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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.

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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.

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