Four days have passed since I bid a hui hou to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, and the experience is slipping away like a dream upon waking, or, more appropriately, like an albatross flying off into the sunset. Midway is fading from an everyday reality into some ethereal event. I find it hard to conjure up in my mind the sounds of hundreds of thousands of dancing, bill-clacking, sky-mooing, cooing, trusting albatrosses? Did I really crawl through ropey naupaka bushes and dig Bonin petrels out of crushed burrows? Can the two-week experience already be over?
Aren’t most vacations-or adventures-this way? Now that I am home, with every trip to the post office, visit to the grocery store and encounter with friends, Midway slips through my grasp.
I try to hang on to the experience. I look back at the hundreds of photographs I took. I email my friends who are still up there counting nests. But with every minute and every day father away from Midway, I lose it. I lose what the experience gave me.
When you count albatrosses’ nest sites at Midway, you are counting hundreds of thousands of birds. Our team, during our two weeks together, tallied exactly 125,675 Laysan albatrosses and 7,991 black-footed albatrosses for a total of 133,666 clicks of our tallywhackers. That’s close to an average of 2,000 nests per person per day. That requires some thought.
Instead of contemplating the meaning of life, worrying about the screeching halt of Hawaii’s tourism industry and what it means to me, or listening to an audiobook on my iPhone, I wondered whether I was placing my orange paint splotch in just the right place so the person following me could see it. I wondered whether I missed any nest sites. I wondered whether the bird I just marked was really a “nester” or possibly a “poser.” I wondered whether the egg I saw near a nest site was part of a female-female pair. I wondered whether my path was too wide or too narrow. I wondered whether the next step I took would crush a nesting Bonin petrel. I wondered how I was going to get through the thicket of verbesina in which I found myself.
Every thought was related to what I was doing. There was no room in my head for stray ideas, boredom, homesickness, or, even, hunger. The beautiful thing about counting albatross nests at the site of the species’ largest colony was that I was forced to be present. To focus on one thing. To exist in the moment.
And that, I discovered, is a blessed experience. It made chancing upon a masked booby, eye-to-eye, a delight. Without erroneous thoughts to muck things up, every moment seemed to be a good one. Even the wet and windy moments were bearable. (Or is that just time and distance speaking here?) And I never once—not even when I lay prone in bird poop—uttered or even thought, “What am I doing here?” A milestone, to be sure.
One of the things I love about volunteering at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kaua’i is witnessing the change that occurs there every week. The wedge-tailed shearwaters fledge one week and the Laysan albatrosses return the next, just as Nene family groups with downy, little goslings start exploring beyond their nest sites. I look forward to returning to the Point this Friday after three weeks away. Much will have changed, I am sure.
It’s the same now with Midway. It’s no accident that my last blog post from Midway was a simple, “a hui hou,” a Hawaiian phrase that translates to, “Until we meet again.” Because I want to go back. I want to see albatross chicks as they emerge from their shells and, five months later, I want to see them fledge. I’d like to witness the courtship dance of short-tailed albatrosses, assuming they do return to Midway to nest. I’ll bet the mating sounds uttered by these rare seabirds are deeper than the Laysan and black-footed albatrosses. And wouldn’t it be great to hear the moaning and groaning of the thousands of wedge-tailed shearwaters which return to Midway in late March to breed. And see the volleyball-sized and stop-sign-red throat patch of male great frigatebirds as they entice a mate. And watch as the hundred thousand sooty terns descend on Eastern Island in spring.
And that’s just the birds.