Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sand Island Soap Opera

Just another day at The Bike Rack. Or so it seems...

Hey nerds. In honor of my colleague Dan (of TPAD fame) finishing his stint on Midway last week, I am resurrecting an old blog post that I originally wrote in March of 2009. I doubt many of you saw it, so here it is again, new and improved and even more dramatic. By the way, the birding community is celebrating the fact that Dan Maxwell actually failed to topple The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive from atop the Midway Atoll listing pedestal, and his rank in the Global Birder Ranking System slips yet again. But enough of that, may I now present, The Sand Island Soap Opera...

So Midway Atoll has been referred to as "America's Galapagos", due to the trusting nature of its wildlife. Unless you try to pick it up or run it over, many of the birds, seals and turtles dont really respond to people. This lets you get to know them pretty well. Even if you do try to pick things up or run them over (I do not recommend this), some of the birds will be too stubborn to move. Last night I picked up a Bonin Petrel that needed to be relocated (they seem to get drunk off bright lights), and it somehow got out of my hands and climbed up my arm, then sat on my shoulder like some sort of crazy sea-parrot. I really wish someone had a camera. It seemed to like it up there because when I tried to get it off it just clung to my back and climbed up onto my neck. Epic.

Anyways. Two of the commoner birds here are Laysan Albatross (most of the world's population breeds here) and Red-tailed Tropicbirds (largest nesting site in the Hawaiian Islands?). Laysans cover the islands and nest everywhere. They display a huge range of personalities and temperments, from the ones in my yard who will let you pet them to the ones on Eastern Island who will trample chicks to get away from you. They seem to experience things they are interested in by nibbling or biting them, so you can generally figure out their disposition by offering them your finger. My yardatross will delicately nibble, some will politely decline, a few others will try to rip your finger off, and others will treat you like some kind of Albatross-Antichrist and avoid you at all costs. In general, they are very affectionate and curious though, and they do all sorts of strange things.

The tropicbirds are easily the sexiest birds here. Hands down. And like any gorgeous celebrities, they have awful tempers and raging egos. They don't have the standard celebrity-length legs though, so they arent very mobile when they are on the ground. They tend to be very reluctant to move at all, and rather than awkwardly waddle away they will fight just about anything that it is confronted with. I've had to rescue a baby albatross that was getting choked to death by one, and one of the first Christmas Shearwaters I saw was being attacked and choked by a tropicbird. I'm beginning to see a pattern here. Anyhow, here are a few pictures from a funny albatross-tropicbird interaction that I watched from a few feet away, with some bonus internal monologue. As a Scientist, I think it is extremely accurate.

Albatross: Ooooh!!! What do we have here?
Tropicbird: Ewww. Another lowly albatross. How I detest you.

Albatross: Good! Its not looking! I am going to preen the hell out of it! Ooh its so pretty and soft!
Tropicbird: I am so much better than these goddamn gooney birds. I would be extremely pissed if one ever tried to touch me.

Tropicbird: Why do I feel so dirty all of a sudden? I should take a look back here...Oh. My. God.
Albatross: Uh oh.

Albatross: I think it noticed me.
Tropicbird: *builds rage*

Albatross: Oops, sorry.....

Albatross: about letting me get some more preening action?
Tropicbird: I am going to peck out your eyes, eat them, then barf them up and feed them to your chick if you touch me again.

Albatross: Ok, I can take a hint...but you sure look like you could use some light nibbling.
Tropicbird: Stop it. Just stop.


  1. I very much enjoy this soap opera and look forward to the next episode!

  2. Now that's a soap opera I could watch every day! I bet the albatross is going to turn out to have an evil twin, and the tropicbird is really a red-billed tropicbird in disguise, who left the island in disgrace and has come back to exact his revenge.

    1. I wish I couldve found a Red-billed out there! Then I could have had the tropicbird sweep (there are White-taileds there too)....I wonder if anyone has ever done that, in fact.

      Yeah, there was a lot of weird wildlife drama going on out there, good times.

  3. Do you know the affect of the Midway Atoll hurricane on the albatross?

    Thank you for your beautiful pictures.

    1. Susan, I assume you're talking about what happened out there about a year ago...there were actually 2 big storms that pushed water up over the islands, and they had a pretty severe toll on the birds...many thousands of albatross chicks perished (and Bonin Petrels), and a lot of adults as well. I think it remains to be seen if those events put a dent into the local populations or not.