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My Month at Midway Atoll

Kristy Lapenta, a Kupu AmeriCorps intern doing education and outreach for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Marine National Monuments of the Pacific, shares her experiences from a month spent on Midway Atoll.

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By: Kristy Lapenta

In June 2017, I was given the amazing opportunity to travel to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge for work. This was my first experience living in a remote location for so long. The second you get off the plane, your senses are assaulted by the smells and sounds of an enormous seabird colony. Take a second to imagine what 3 million birds smell like… Yeah. The white noises of the city that I had grown accustomed to were replaced by the sound of waves crashing on the reef and the screams of seabirds.

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Clockwise from top left: White Tern chick, a pair of Laysan Albatross, a pair of Black-footed Albatross, a Red-footed Booby, and a mother Laysan Duck with chicks.

 

A popular place for a quite dinner.

Your entire schedule on Midway revolves around food. Clipper house, aka the cafeteria, is only open at specific times. It’s also the main time to socialize. Midway is a small island and if you’re like me coming from a huge city like Honolulu where you’re constantly surrounded by people, you go through social withdrawal.

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Clockwise from left: the author and her bike, white terns, a baby albatross in the road.

The main mode of transportation is a bike. Let me tell you, for a “flat” island, there are a TON of hills. My muscles were not ready for the amount of biking that I did and I felt every single 1-inch incline. Once I got used to biking all day every day, I really began to enjoy it. My favorite thing was looking at my shadow as I was riding and seeing the shadows of these beautiful, curious birds called white terns, or fairy terns, following mine.

The majority of my days were spent alone in the field picking up bird vomit. That’s right I said bird vomit. I had the pleasure of going to Midway Atoll with the sole purpose of picking up bird vomit, called boluses.

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Left to Right: Baby albatross and a bolus, the author holds a bolus ready for collections, bolus full of plastic debris.

A bolus is essentially a “package” of indigestible materials that is regurgitated by albatrosses. They generally contain natural materials such as super pointy, sharp, stabby squid beaks that will poke holes in your fingers, fish egg filament, and eye lenses. Unfortunately, in this day and age they also contain plastic.

I found boluses that included whole woolen gloves, a reflector, and even a plastic gear from who knows what. We collect boluses from places like Midway and send them out to educational programs and schools around the country to dissect as part of a lesson plan on ocean health and seabird biology. On this trip, I managed to collect around a thousand boluses. You can call me the Bolus Queen.

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Albatross couples go through elaborate courtship dances seen here.

By far my biggest struggle on Midway was learning how to navigate the fields. There is a learning curve. Midway Atoll is home to around a million Bonin Petrels. Bonin Petrels are nocturnal, burrowing seabirds They dig holes in the sand where they live and raise chicks. Small island + a  million birds = a lot of holes for me to fall in. Navigating through the burrows was like playing a live game of minesweeper (90’s kids for the win).

Every step you take could land you in a burrow and when you collapse a burrow you have to dig it out. Why? Because when performing field work, we want to cause as little disturbance to the wildlife as possible. We are guests in their house. When you collapse a burrow you might be burying a bird alive – so we dig. You have to get down on your knees praying you don’t fall in another burrow in the process and start scooping sand out and brace yourself for the potential of the sharp twang of pain that means you found a bird and it is biting you.

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Petrel chick in a burrow.

Speaking of biting birds, when I arrived on Midway it was early May and the albatross chicks were getting feisty. I’m used to working with albatross chicks on a translocation project. (Read about that project here.) Those chicks actively run away when they see us coming. The chicks on Midway ran TOWARDS me looking for food. Occasionally adults would get curious and come up and nibble on my pants, shoes, and sometimes even my fingers. The birds on Midway evolved without a fear of mammals or predators on land.

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Albatross have no fear of mammals because they evolved without mammalian predators. This can make them extremely vulnerable to invasive species like rodents.

By the time I had been on island for a month, I knew it like the back of my hand. I was a master of weaving around burrows and dodging albatross chicks on a bike. My world shrunk to 25 square miles. What felt like not enough people on the island now felt like too many. The birds were my constant companions. By the time I left in mid-June, they were just beginning to practice flying. On windy days you could see them jumping, trying to catch flight.  My month on Midway was an amazing experience and hopefully someday I’ll be able to return.

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Featured Photo: Juvenile White Tern on Midway Atoll. Credit: Wes Jolley/Island Conservation
Originally Published by US Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Region

About Island Conservation

Island Conservation prevents extinctions by removing invasive species from islands. To date, we have successfully restored 64 islands worldwide, benefiting 1195 populations of 487 species and subspecies. Working together with local communities, government management agencies, and conservation organizations, we select islands that have the greatest potential for preventing the extinction of globally threatened species.

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