Surviving Albatross Chick Surrounded By Bodies And Debris
When the tsunami hit there was no dramatic roar of surf, no surge of water around the building. There wasn’t even a noticeable decrease in volume of the constant squawking of the millions of seabirds nesting on the island to which I had become inured during my visit to Midway Atoll. There was no indication at all that anything was different.
Three hours earlier we had been informed of the massive earthquake in Japan and that a tsunami was on its way toward us at 500 miles per hour. Within an hour or so the third floor of Charlie Hotel, a barracks leftover from Midway’s days as a naval base, and the highest point on the island, was stocked with two weeks worth of food, water and medicine. The entire population of the island, all 67 of us, settled in to wait, watching video of the ten meter tsunami that had already hit the coast of Japan and taking note of the wave height each time it passed a monitoring station on its way toward us. Then it was over. The tide gauges at Midway recorded three or four waves with the largest measuring just over five feet.
The danger had passed. To be honest, it felt a bit anticlimactic. As it was pitch black outside we wouldn’t even know the extent of the damage to the island and its wildlife until first light. We found our way to our beds and went to sleep with little idea of the drama the next two days would bring.
Midway is a small coral atoll about 1,100 miles WNW of Honolulu – about three hours by air. It has no permanent human population. It’s composed of an exposed fringing reef surrounding the lagoon and three low coral islands. By far the largest at 1,200 acres, Sand Island is where visitors and workers stay while on Midway. Sand Island is also home to Midway’s airfield and harbor, both leftovers from its days as a military base. Eastern Island is about a quarter the size of Sand, coming in at 334 acres. Measuring in at a mere 15 acres, tiny Spit Island rounds out the trio of isles.
See this area on a map
All three islands are part of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and function as a National Wildlife Refuge. Midway is home to just over 480,000 pairs of nesting Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and 28,500 pairs of the closely related, and slightly larger, Black Footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) whose wing span can reach up to seven feet. Both species nest on the ground, creating small earthen bowls of dirt and sand where they lay and incubate their single egg. When I arrived on Midway the albatross chicks had been hatched for about a month, and were just beginning to make short, waddling, forays away from their nests while their parents were out at sea finding food.
Laysan Albatross (left) and Black-Footed Albatross (right)
And this season, for the first time in recorded history, a single pair of a third species of albatross, the Short-Tailed (Phoebastria albatrus), had bred on Eastern Island. It was hoped that this would be the start of a new colony that would help increase the numbers of this species as fewer than 2,500 in the world remain.
Other types of bird nesting on Midway include frigatebirds, tropicbirds and various species of terns and boobies. The most numerous of these additional species is the Bonin Petrel (Pterodroma hypoleuca) with approximately 70,000 pairs nesting on the islands. The petrels burrow into the sandy soil and nest beneath the ground in tunnels that can be up to a meter long.
All told, there are over 3 million seabirds in an area of 2.4 square miles. This basically means that every space other than the runway, buildings, and the paths maintained by the staff contains an albatross nest or petrel burrow, and nearly every tree and bush has a nest of some type as well.
FRIDAY MARCH 11 – THE DAY AFTER
At first light the morning after the tsunami I didn’t see much in the way of damage. I walked along North beach, where I imagined the worst of the damage would be given the shore’s orientation toward the tsunami’s origin off the coast of Japan. However, outside a few dead fish on the beach and an obviously high wrack line deposited in the night by the tsunami, it looked to me like the island had gotten off lightly. This initial impression shows how little I know about the dynamics of oceanic tsunami propagation.
By noon it became apparent that there were some areas of the island that had been hit hard – very hard. The runway was partially covered in sand and debris, and at its east end there was a new tidal lagoon where there had been dry land the day before. There was also damage to some of the boat ramps and piers, and the spit of land that sat between the lagoon and the harbor was completely overwashed. There were devastating consequences to the birds nesting in these areas. My vacation suddenly became a rescue mission.
Spit Of Land Between Lagoon And Harbor Of Sand Island The Morning After The Tsunami. There would have been hundreds of albatross chicks in this scene the day before
The albatross chicks and petrel burrows were simply gone in the most affected areas – washed out to sea or filled in and buried by debris. On the spit of land between the lagoon and harbor there is a fringing of bushes which acted as a net, catching many albatross chicks and saving them from the certain death of being washed out into the ocean. Alive but hopelessly entangled in a maze of branches, the chicks were not mobile enough to free themselves from the thicket, and their parents, if still alive, would be unable to reach or feed them. Rescuing these chicks became our first priority. My fellow tourists and I were hesitant at first to handle the chicks, but this reticence quickly passed as we became more experienced in handling them. Amongst those we endeavored to rescue there were the bodies of hundreds of drowned or crushed chicks. Reaching some of the chicks required major bushwhacking and contortion of our bodies around roots and the larger trunks that couldn’t be cut. The chicks, not happy about being approached and handled, nipped at our fingers and any other exposed skin as we worked to free them. They also had the habit of regurgitating a tremendously foul smelling concoction of partially digested squid on us. This didn’t deter us from our work, but did ruin a few items of clothing, as the smell does not come out even with repeated washing. We worked our way down the spit rescuing chicks and collecting bodies as we went. By the time we reached the end of the brush I’m guessing that we had rescued 2-300 chicks.
Our next task was finding the burrows of Bonin Petrels and attempting to dig out any birds trapped in the collapsed remains of their homes. The day before one couldn’t walk anywhere other than the maintained path without the risk of collapsing a petrel burrow beneath your foot. Now, there was little indication of the burrows at all, other than slight indentations in the ground where the burrow entrances used to be. They had been filled in by debris carried by the tsunami. I’d like to say we had great success in locating and rescuing the petrels, but the odds were not in their favor. Many of the petrels we dug out were already dead, crushed or suffocated. It also became clear that the petrel chicks had just started to hatch as in some holes we found tiny hatchlings, and in others cracked eggs containing a perfectly formed chick ready to hatch.
Bonin Petrel I Just Rescued From A Burrow Filled In By The Tsunami
Just as we were about to give up this seemingly hopeless task I found and dug out a live petrel adult from its burrow. It was a great feeling when I pulled it free, held it up to the wind and watched it take flight from my hands, heading out to sea. After a few more hit and misses I picked up on the fact that the burrows in which I was finding live birds had entrances that faced away from the lagoon and were on slightly higher ground, which makes perfect sense in hindsight. By concentrating my efforts in these areas I was able to find and free 20-25 live petrels, and as a group we totaled about 50 petrel rescues. Not bad, but thousands of these birds had populated the area the day before.
I did have one moment of delight during an otherwise completely depressing day: while searching for Bonin Petrels to rescue, I disturbed a pair of White Terns (Gygis alba) roosting in a small tree nearby. As they hovered a foot or so above my head I stood up and admired the sunlight streaming through their pure white feathers. Angelic is the best way I can think of to describe it. I impulsively removed my work gloves and raised my left arm above my head with my index finger extended. One of the terns promptly settled on the perch I offered. The carnage around me forgotten, I passed a couple of seconds in apt amazement, a huge grin spreading across my face. Then I had to go and ruin it by calling out for those nearest to me to look. Upon hearing my voice the tern took to the air and flew back to its original perch.
The Angelic Vision Of A White Tern Hovering
A few of the Refuge staff had gone over to Eastern Island to survey the damage and returned with the good news that the lone Short-Tailed Albatross chick had been swept up by the tsunami, but that it had survived.
The bad news was that Eastern Island had been hit much harder than Sand Island. Approximately 75% of the islands surface had been washed over by the tsunami, leaving the bodies of albatross and fish scattered across the landscape. There was also a large number of albatross, both adults and chicks, trapped amongst the debris and in need of rescue. Saving the surviving birds would be our task for the next day. After dinner and some time watching the sunset I went to bed early, tomorrow looked to be another long day.
SATURDAY MARCH 12 – THE SECOND DAY AFTER
The next morning we boarded one of the Fish and Wildlife Service boats and headed out toward Eastern Island. What is normally a ten minute trip took us close to an hour as we were constantly stopping to rescue adult albatross off the water. An Albatross’ outer feathers provide excellent waterproofing, but when water does make its way beneath them, as was the case when the tsunami swept over the birds while they slept and pulled them out to sea, their inner down starts absorbing water. The weight of the water is so much that the albatross cannot lift their wings off the surface of the ocean, much less take flight. The waterlogged down also has no insulation value, so the birds become hypothermic. At this point the tsunami had hit over 36 hours before and there were more drowned birds than live ones struggling on the surface of the lagoon. Whenever we saw a swamped bird we would change course toward it and spend a few minutes catching it and placing it on the deck of the boat for transport to dry land. Most of the birds were so tired from their ordeal that they barely put up a fight, but one Black-Foot Albatross had enough energy left that it took three tries to catch him. I managed to snag his leg while leaning over the edge of the boat as he tried to get away. It immediately turned its head and bit my arm. He held on until we had him on deck and could pry his bill open. It was to be my first of many albatross bites for the day. An albatross’ beak is over a foot long and sharply hooked at the end. The bites hurt… a lot. Two weeks later as I’m writing this I still have scratches and bruising on both forearms from the bites I received this day.
Albatross Chick Buried To Its Neck In Debris
Eventually, we had no more room for birds on the deck and we headed directly to Eastern Island. Once we docked we lifted the albatross onto dry land. Some were so worn out that we had to spread their wings for them in order to dry.
As we moved inland off the beach the bodies of dead albatross, both adults and chicks, surrounded us, and there were many injured birds dragging broken wings across the ground. As we scouted around we saw thousands of dead fish, and came across two sea turtles which were promptly carried back to the beach. There were channels cut into ground all around us, mini canyons scoured out by the tsunami.
While not taken from precisely the same location, these two photos of Eastern Island taken three days apart give an idea of the albatross density before (left) and after (right) the tsunami
We split into two groups at this point, each consisting of about eight people. One team headed to a small seep frequented by critically endangered Laysan Ducks (Anas laysanensis). The seep was filled with torn up brush, debris, and albatross, both alive and dead, all of which had to be removed. In 2004 a small population of Laysan Ducks was transplanted to Midway from Laysan Atoll, the only place they then existed, to reduce the risk of a single disaster (such as a tsunami) causing the extinction of this species. I’m not sure how the tsunami affected the ducks on Eastern Island at Midway or on Laysan Atoll itself, but I saw many on Sand Island after the tsunami so I doubt there is any immediate risk to the population as a whole.
My group concentrated on rescuing birds from the large piles of debris scattered across the island. Sometimes this was as easy as flipping a bird back onto its feet, as adults can have a hard time turning over if knocked onto their back due to the length of their wings. More commonly, we had to dig the birds out of the debris with our hands, the albatross attempting to bite us the entire time. We found birds buried to their necks, or with just a wing or webbed foot sticking out. The chicks, with their small size and stumpy wings were relatively easy to free. But the adults with the three and a half foot wings were sometimes trapped quite deeply. It was heartbreaking to be feeling along one of these majestic bird’s wing to try and figure out where to dig next and discover a break in the bone, as this meant the bird had little chance of survival even after we freed it.
In one instance I found an albatross that wasn’t pinned down by debris, but rather by the corpses of other birds and the wing of one live albatross. I had to break the bones in the wings of the dead birds to rescue the live ones. It was also common to dig one bird out only to find another underneath it, especially chicks.
I’m sure that for every bird we found and rescued there were probably 10 more we didn’t see. We just had to do the best we could.
Laysan Albatross Trapped In Tsunami Debris
On a positive note the boobies and frigatebirds, which make their nests high in the bushes, seemed relatively unaffected by the tsunami, and were even courting. Life goes on.
Later that afternoon a smaller number of us headed out in the boat again for a survey mission to Spit Island. Spit has no pier or dock and requires a wet landing as we couldn’t risk running the boat up on the beach, which meant jumping out of the boat into the water and wading to the beach.
Normally Spit Island is off limits to visitors and even the Refuge staff only lands once a year when doing the annual albatross nest count. Despite the circumstances, I must admit to a certain level of excitement at the chance to set foot on its shores.
We immediately got down to business looking for birds in need of rescue, and trying and get a count of the surviving chicks on the island. I found one chick right away after reaching shore, and another volunteer found a second a few yards away. I then noticed a third near the second chick. All three were doing fine and did not need to be rescued. A good start.
As we surveyed the island it quickly became obvious that Spit Island had been completely inundated by the tsunami. The ground was scoured clean of loose sand and there was no evidence of any petrel burrows at all. All the brush from the ocean side of the island had been torn up. Unlike the other islands there were few dead birds in evidence, and only two adults were found tangled in the brush. I later found another chick trapped in a thicket. This ended up being the full extent of our rescue mission, there was simply nothing left to save. From a total of 1,520 albatross nests surveyed on the island in December, there were now four chicks left. While it’s possible that additional chicks have been were found in subsequent surveys, I’m pretty confident in this number.
Drowned Laysan Albatross Washed Up On The Beach Of Spit Island
While we completed the survey of Spit Island, the boat team was rescuing distressed albatross from the lagoon. Their tally was 48, and I waded out into the surf on the ocean side to pull in one more so we just missed 50 saves of this type on this excursion.
After two days we had saved the birds we could reasonably save. My rough estimate is that we managed to free 500 albatross, 50 petrels, plus the odd tropicbird or booby.
There will be a noticable dip in the numbers of nesting albatross on Midway in 5-6 years as the birds born this year come of age and start breeding. Overall, though, the adults fared much better than the chicks and will be able to return to breed next year.
I went back to being a tourist, riding a bike around Sand Island with my camera and taking photos.
My visit to Midway would have been memorable even without the tsunami, and I’m glad that I was there to help as I could. I know everyone else on the island felt the same way.
I apologize for the small number and low quality of the photos accompanying this article. Confronted with the choice between helping an animal in need, or taking a photo of it, I consistently opted for the former. I guess this proves that I love wildlife more than I love being a wildlife photographer. I’m quite pleased by this revelation.
Some of the numbers and estimates in the story above are my own, and some are based on the initial estimates made by the refuge staff while I was on the atoll. I’ve done my best to call out which is which in the text. Any mistakes or inaccuracies are my own. It’s also probable that the initial estimates given by the refuge staff will change as further survey work is done in the coming weeks and months. Please visit the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge website or this blog by Midway’s wildlife biologist for up to date information.