Our prop plane touched down at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge under cover of darkness just a couple minutes before 6:00 a.m. local time, nearly 5 hours after we departed Honolulu International Airport.
Laysan albatross lined the runway, like spectators at a parade. It was as if they were awaiting our arrival. Then, I realized the cheering crowd-and they were loudly whistling and clapping (their bills)-were nothing more than the resident albatross who just happened to call a patch of land beside the runway their home. And every patch was taken. It reminded me of Hawaii in the real estate boom of just a few years ago. Houses-here it was nest sites-were going up everywhere.
Some 1.5 million Laysan albatross visit Midway during nesting season, from November through July, each year. We’re here to count only the nesting pairs. We do that by marking the nest with non-lead-based paint. That number could tally close to half-a-million. With 15 volunteers, that means I will pull the trigger on my paint gun some 30,000 times. Veteran volunteers complain of blisters.
After checking in to our rooms-ex-Navy barracks-I took a three-hour nap. (That 1940’s style plane on which we winged it north from Honolulu felt like it was built for children. It was one of the most uncomfortable plane rides of my life, and it lasted five, long early-morning, hours.)
This afternoon, we checked out bicycle cruisers. We will use these to tool around the island, which won’t take much pedal power. Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is actually comprised of three islands. We’re staying on the biggest, Sand, which totals a meager 1,200 acres. Let’s put that in perspective: Sand Island’s longest side runs 1.5 miles.
Then, we received our paint guns and clickers. Outfitted with the necessities, we hit the first field. Three hours later, I my clicker read: 529.
(Note: At this time, I am unable to upload photos. Very s-l-o-w internet connection here in the middle of nowhere, I suppose. I will keep trying, though.)