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Return of the Albatross to Midway Atoll

The start of fall means Black-footed and Laysan Albatross are beginning to return to Midway for yet another breeding season.

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After a long hot summer, seemingly endless days of the sun beating down upon Midway’s islands, fall feels right around the corner. For just a brief period, Midway is largely void of nearly all seabirds. When summer is at its hottest, Midway is at its quietest. But now, as fall arrives, the nights begin to cool, gentle breezes flow through, and there’s something fresh and exciting in the air.

After a quiet summer, fall beckons the return of Midway’s most iconic wildlife: albatross.”

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There’s only one albatross in this field now… but in a few weeks, more than a million albatross will be back on Midway Atoll. Photo credit: Wieteke Holthuijzen

The albatross return.

For those who work on Midway, the sight of an albatross is essentially commonplace; Midway is, after all, the world’s largest Laysan albatross colony. But the first albatross of the season is something spectacular. In the coming weeks, more than a million albatross that will start pouring in to nest on the Atoll. But for now, there is but one. Alone in the field, sits a large Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes). Resting on a bed of native Alena (Boerhavia repens), its chocolate brown plumage blending into the landscape of green, tan, and gray hues, the albatross has a strong yet stoic aura. What is so beautiful and inspiring about these seafaring species? Their regal majesty, on the ground and in the air? Or their life of extremes, spending months roaming at sea only to return to a jam-packed, non-stop dancing, rowdy and rambunctious colony?

Every day now, more albatross slip in, almost fluid-like, the soft drizzle before a downpour. They sit calm, nestled among the low green vegetation, as if they had never left, had always been there, and were part of the landscape—but somehow forgotten. They are the heart of this place; together, in the millions, they are the beat that keeps life flowing. Eyes slightly squinting in the bright light, they gaze out over the open herb land, swaying with the wind, like the tall, proud Bunchgrass (Eragrostis variabilis). They have a look of knowing, a kind of patient waiting but also one of prudence; it is no wonder how or why the most famous albatross (Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross) earned her profound name.

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On November 21, 2015, Wisdom (the world’s oldest known banded bird in the wild) was sighted (left) with her mate (right) on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; we hope to see her soon! Photo credit: Kiah Walker

A resident of the North Pacific, Black-footed Albatross wander throughout these cooler waters, from Alaska, down to California and across the entire ocean to Taiwan. In fact, the Black-footed Albatross is the only albatross species seen regularly off of the west coast of North America

After the breeding season, Black-footed Albatross leave their colony behind and head out for a life at sea. Initially, they make a northward trajectory to the subtropical waters in between the California Current and the Central Pacific Gyre. Then, as summer progresses, the albatross move more north and northeastwards, eventually working their way into the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, where they spend the rest of the summer and early fall following food. Up north, they spend most of their time foraging in subarctic, eutrophic waters, skirting along the continental margin of the Alaskan Exclusive Economic Zone or in the subarctic transition domain, feasting on a variety of prey including neon flying squid (Ommastrephes bartrami), Pacific pomfret (Brama japonica), various squid species (Gonatidae and Cranchiidae), and flying fish (Exocoetidae) eggs. As the season progresses, Black-footed Albatross, like their Laysan cousin (Phoebastria immutabilis), start to make their way back south and become increasingly common throughout the waters around the Hawaiian archipelago.

Along with the return of the albatross, there is also a mechanical migration afoot. Throughout the summer months and into fall, Midway Atoll NWR undergoes a massive transition—from an atoll packed with seabirds, literally stacked on top of one another (Bonin Petrels and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters in burrows; Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Gray-backed Terns, Sooty Terns, and albatross nesting at the surface; and White Terns, Black Terns, Red-footed Boobies, and Great Frigatebirds in the canopy above) to a largely barren, open island with only the wind causing any movement and sound among the grasses and shrubs. In the small window of time where the majority of birds have fledged and left, the island very briefly grows quieter.

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The first albatross of the 2016 breeding season on Midway Atoll NWR. Photo credit: Wieteke Holthuijzen

But now, as the albatross start to pop up, the silence slowly gives way to the “honk honk!” of Black-footed Albatross, who are warming up to one another’s presence and preparing for a bustling meet-and-greet in the coming weeks.

The air has started to shift and a new, cool wind greets the evenings. Before, at the start of fall, a warm blanket would follow us all day and all night. The sun would blare and bake the day, and even after sunset, the concrete and sand would continue to radiate warmth into the dark hours of the morning. The ocean water too is cooling down, and so, in many ways, along with quieter nights and fewer and fewer fledglings scurrying around, we feel that we are coming to the end of one season and ready to start the next.

What will mark this new breeding season? What will winter bring? Peace and calm, a time to reflect? Quiet, like the million incubating albatross? Or chaos, like thousands of birds bobbing, side-stepping, and dancing all at once? My hope is for a beautiful, serene season, a fresh start—and a bright future for those to come.

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You can help ensure that the next breeding season for Midway’s albatross is one of hope. Learn more at www.noextinctions.org

Featured photo: A Black-footed Albatross. Credit: Wes Jolley

About Wieteke Holthuijzen

Wieteke Holthuijzen is a National Science Foundation graduate fellow at Northern Illinois University, where she studies the ecological impacts of introduced house mice on Midway through a collaborative research effort with Island Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Previously, Wieteke served as the Invasive Plant Control Specialist on Midway, helping to restore the atoll to a bustling seabird colony. She is intrigued by the nexus of nature and human presence and seeks to study and contribute to the conservation of imperiled species. In her spare time, she enjoys playing the cello, ukulele, banjo, and electric bass.

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