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Blog Action Day Hawaii Style

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Oct 16, 2009

Blog Action Day. Apparently, one day a year, bloggers get together and write about the same topic. This year, that day is today, and that topic is climate change. Here is my contribution.

The Laysan albatross pictured above nests on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The highest elevation on one of the three islets that makes up the atoll is known as Henderson Hill. The word “hill” is a hint as to the atoll’s heights.

When I spent two weeks at Midway last December counting the nest sites of Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses, I regularly summited this hill en route to my day’s work. It required a few concerted rotations of my bicycle’s pedals to do so.

You get the idea: The land here does not rise very far out of the sea. It doesn’t rocket toward the skies like the 13,679-foot Mauna Loa on Big Island, the spot where this body of land once sat—approximately 1,500 miles from its current location—when it was formed roughly 28 million years ago over the same hot spot that spews lava today to grow the island of Hawai’i. Because Henderson Hill tops out at 40 feet. Put another way, Midway is short. The Napoleon of islands. What’s more, it’s not even called an island anymore. Only the tallest peaks of its highest mountains now rise above sea level--and barely, at that. They are nominally called Sand, Eastern and Spit (get it) Islets. These islets sit within a lagoon that is encircled by a barrier reef. Hence, atoll.

But enough of Midway’s physical stature for a moment. When I was there, wildlife biologist Beth Flint estimated 1.5 million albatrosses roaming the land. Did that register? A million and a half birds nesting, dancing, walking and flying over this speck of land in the middle of the Pacific. And these aren’t tiny songbirds. Adults measure wingspans in excess of six feet. Did I mention Midway itself measures approximately one mile by one-half mile? So the density of birds per foot, as I measured it, is about one for every one of my strides. Seriously, albatrosses everywhere.

That doesn’t even take into consideration the White Terns, Bonin Petrels, Black Noddies, Brown Noddies, Laysan Ducks, Red-footed Boobies, Brown Boobies, Masked Boobies, Great Frigatebirds and the occasional Emperor’s goose flying overhead.

Let’s go back to the albatross pictured above. It scratched together its nest site smack-dab in front of the door to our work shed, where I picked up full cans of paint each morning to mark the nest sites I’d counted that day and where I dropped off empties when I finished every night. On each visit, as this guy (girl?) dutifully sat on the lone egg in its nest, I gave it a tickle behind its head (don’t try this at home).  He loved it. He would tilt its beak skyward and push against my fingers, reminding me of the way my dog wiggles her behind when I rub above her tail. But I had to be careful. If the bird got wind of me—a bird unlike any it usually allowed to preen it—instinct would set in, and he would snap at me with its four-inch-long bill that scoops up fish eggs, squid and flying fish out of the sea when it’s not incubating an egg. Because of its location, I took to calling this guy “Shed Bird.”

This past Tuesday, as part of a government-sponsored “National Wildlife Refuge Week” celebration, I accompanied Beth Flint on a hike through Crater Hill at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai. The refuge encompasses 203 acres. It’s a Mecca to seabirds: Laysan albatrosses, great frigatebirds, red-footed boobies, brown boobies, red-tailed tropicbirds, white-tailed tropicbirds, wedge-tailed shearwater gather here unlike anywhere else on the island—and perhaps all of Hawai’i. The reason: Predator control. The land is fenced—dogs are not allowed—and rats and cats are trapped. The result: It’s a safe place. A refuge for seabirds.

It wasn’t always like this, at least, in recent memory. Seabirds did not flock to Kilauea Point. The 31 acres that encompass the Kilauea Lighthouse was designated a wildlife refuge in 1985. Since then, more land was added and the birds started showing up.

Next month, we expect about 100 pairs of Laysan albatrosses will return to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge to breed, lay a single and care for their one chick until it fledges some time in July. Factor in three birds for each nest site (not all birds breed), and I don’t even need a calculator to sum up the fact that Kilauea Point doesn’t contribute much to the overall Laysan albatross population. Not compared to Midway.

But that may change. As Beth pointed out, if the worst-case scenario of climate change comes to be and oceans rise 25 meters—or 131 feet—we stand to lose 20,000,000 seabirds. That includes all million-and-a-half albatrosses on Midway. That includes Shed Bird.

At Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, where our Laysan albatrosses nest at nearly 300-foot elevation, our Laysan albatrosses should be safe from a new predator—rising sea levels.

That makes protecting them—and providing a safe place—pretty darn important. Don’t you think? 

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