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Birds on Midway Atoll Each Have a “Personality”

The birds of Midway Atoll are defined by their quirky characteristics. Each species has its own unique and fascinating traits.

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One incredible thing about Midway, when compared to other islands I’ve visited, is the sheer number of birds present. Since there are birds everywhere, it is impossible not to interact with them and begin to observe the unique ‘personality traits’ of each species. I thought it would be fun to share my interpretation of this cast of characters.

Laysan Albatross

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A Laysan Albatross taking flight. Credit: Bettina Arrigoni

The Laysan Albatross are commonly known as ‘gooney birds’, which almost says enough by itself. These birds are goofy and curious. My role on Midway sometimes consists of walking through various areas, stopping and then sitting down to do some work. As I approached the rookery of Albatross, the chicks would sit, oblivious to my presence and then rapidly clacked their bills as they got closer. I haven’t figured out if this clacking is a warning for you to leave them alone or in hopes you will give them some food – I think it’s probably both.

When it comes to the adults, a common experience is to have some birds ‘lock-on’ from thirty feet away and stare at you. When you stop, one of the adults will keep that stare and slowly waddle towards you. Once they get close they’ll want to use their bill to check you out. The best is when you have a gloved hand and can let them explore your fingers. Otherwise, they will probably end up pulling on every loose item you have, untying your boots and messing up all your backpack straps. The worst is when you don’t see them and start your work only to have a bird sneak up from behind and grab your love handles.

Black-footed Albatross

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A rookery of Black-Footed Albatross stretching across the island. Credit: Gregg Howald/Island Conservation

These birds are similar in personality, but they seem downright cool compared to the Laysan Albatross. Instead of bobbing their heads as they waddle, these birds tend to lean forward and weave back and forth. Black-footed albatross are also less interested in humans, and give off more of an ‘if you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you’ vibe. These birds can get extremely energetic while courting their mates, and you haven’t experienced loud until you’ve heard a black-footed albatross screech at the top of its lungs while furiously shaking its head from left to right.

Laysan Duck

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A Laysan Duck surveying its territory. Credit: Wes Jolley/Island Conservation

The Laysan duck is the most endangered of the common birds on Midway, so it’s easy to get a little bit star-struck like I do every time I see a rare animal. However, once the effect wears off, it’s possible to really appreciate these birds. They are small ducks with a basic brown color. Upon closer inspection, you can see that they have quite intricate patterns in their feathers. Their heads turn white as they age, so you can judge how wise a duck is right away.

Laysan ducks are generally shy birds, especially when they have chicks (which are super cute and tiny).  At certain times of the year they tend to collect around water sources, and at these times a group may come up to you and emit a series of quick, gentle quacks.

White Tern

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A pair of White Terns fly curiously towards a photographer. Credit: Wes Jolley/Island Conservation

These birds are very charismatic.  They are all white and have a deep purple-blue bill and big dark eyes.  They like to hang out in trees and they lay their eggs on the branches. That’s right, they lay eggs on the branches of trees and not in nests.  Actually, it’s almost as if they are having competitions for who can lay their eggs and raise a chick in the most precarious position possible. I’ve seen eggs balanced on branches thinner than the egg itself, and I’ve even seen eggs laid on the end of a small piece of pipe that was pointing up.

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A White Tern egg, precariously placed. Credit: Forest and Kim Starr

These birds will often fly very close to you and make a bunch of small vocalizations.  They seem so harmless that from a human’s perspective it is like the birds are super curious and friendly. Personally, I think they are trying to look tough and scare you away and the little noises they make are saying ‘you come any closer and you’ll regret it!’.

Bonin Petrel

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A Bonin Petrel cools off in the sand. Credit: Wes Jolley/Island Conservation

Bonin Petrels are an interesting bird. They arrive by the hundreds of thousands each night (except for a short time in the summer), spend all night hanging out and digging holes everywhere, and then they disappear again before sunrise. They are very vocal while they are on the ground, but tend to be quieter when they are flying around. As such, it’s a unique experience each evening as you can look in the sky one moment and not see any Bonin Petrels and then look up again 15 minutes later and suddenly the whole sky is filled with a swarm of seabirds.

Bonin Petrels are very drawn to light, so you have to be careful to close your curtains or they may crash into your window.  You also have to be careful when using a headlamp at night because they may crash into your head. Because of this, Midway is kept really dark which is excellent for stargazing.

Bristle-thighed Curlew

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Bristle-thighed Curlew perched on a rock. Credit: Island Conservation

These birds have long legs and bills that curve downward. Like a lot of the birds on Midway, they are used to flying long distances. These birds nest in Alaska and spend their winters on Midway and other islands in the Pacific. They are pretty shy and keep their distance, but they have a distant call that sounds like a person whistling, so you always know when they are around.

Golden Plover

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Pacific Golden Plover. Credit: JJ Harrison

These birds are incredibly pretty when they are in their mating plumage, and ‘golden’ is a great description. My favorite thing about these birds is that they stake out a small territory and then spend a lot of time there. A plover in its territory is like a tiny soldier on patrol because they are remarkably vigilant and constantly scurry back and forth along their patrol route.

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I hope you enjoy this little look into the Midway experience. As you can probably tell by now, you’re never lonely when you’re working on Midway.

Featured photo: Black-footed albatross pair. Photo credit: Dan Clark/USFWS

About Wes Jolley

Wes joined Island Conservation in 2009 as part of the team dedicated to the restoration of San Nicolas Island, California. He has served various roles on Island Conservation’s projects in the US, Ecuador, Chile, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas and the Dominican Republic.

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