In Carl Safina’s book “Eye of the Albatross,” one of the researchers stationed on another remote island in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Laysan, told Safina, “The island becomes your world. You almost don’t want to know what’s going on outside.”
After 11 days, I feel the same way. Caroline Kennedy is running for senator? Hmm. A reporter threw a shoe at President Bush? Really? The University of Hawaii football team was trounced by Notre Dame. Too bad. It’s snowing in Chicago? So.
Midway Atoll may be a wildlife refuge, but it’s no park. And counting birds is no walk in the park. It’s hard work. Just look what it did to Beth’s shoes.
Today, we headed out, back to Eastern, before sunrise. And, glory be, there was a sunrise. The good thing about counting birds on Eastern is that there are no Bonin petrel burrows.
Bonin petrels fly through the night sky as if they are reenacting the Battle of Midway. They are crazy flyers, darting this way and that. And they are attracted to the lights of our headlamps like a moth to a flame. One even brushed my head as I walked home from the Clipper House cafeteria after dinner one night. During the day, these petrels sleep in burrows they dig in the sand. Some burrows run four feet deep and 10 feet long.
Walking through many sectors on Sand Island is like walking through a minefield of petrel burrows. I’ve slipped through plenty. Some with both feet. Some up to my knees. It makes for tough walking and, thereby, tough counting. Especially because every time we crash through a burrow, we stop to repair it and, sometimes, dig out a bird. The petrels aren’t too happy when that happens. I mean, I wouldn’t be too happy if someone plowed through my ceiling into my bed while I was sleeping, either. I can only hope they would apologize, like I do, “Oh, I am so sorry, little bird. So sorry.”
Blessedly for us bird counters, on Eastern Island, there are no petrel burrows. Sadly, though, the population was decimated by rats. (The rat problem has since been eliminated. We’re hoping the petrels will come back some day, but for now, we are happy not to feel like we are walking on eggshells.)
Still, counting on Eastern Island is no easy thing. First, the passes are long, and we don’t have our bicycles to get to our plots. We walk and walk and walk. Next, there’s the native naupaka bushes to plow through. In some places, there’s verbesina taller than we are. The webs of naupaka branches and the thickets of verbesina make me wonder how the birds make their way in and out. The sad thing is that not all of them do. We have found dead carcasses wrapped in verbesina. And the chicks have an even harder time of it. No telling how many chicks die, because they simply cannot get out of their front door. Yet, these birds are loyal to their nest sites.
Even when there isn’t naupaka and verbesina, the birds are densely packed in the open fields. Practically nesting on top of each other. Today, I had one pass of 821 birds. By the time we kicked off an hour early—because it was Christmas Eve, and we had a white elephant party to get to—my feet ached. Truly ached.