Friday, September 11, 2015

Midway Report

For a variety of reasons I was unable to publish to this blog as often as a would have liked while I was on Midway. I'm off the atoll now and this synopsis is an effort to summarize my experiences over the past 2 1/2 months.

What follows is a quick and dirty report of my recent stay on Midway.
                I left Midway about noon Tuesday and had an uneventful flight. We had intense rain showers off and on all morning before we left so folks were making good use of the dryers so they would not be soaking wet for the flight home. We flew out with the NOAA Marine Debris crew and they were able to identify the atolls that we saw as we flew along the archipelago. We had good views of Pearl and Hermes and fleeting glimpses of French Frigate Shoals and Tern Island, where I spent 4 months in 2008.
                My work while on island was a mixed bag. Lots of shoveling and hard labor so I could eat anything that Pong and his wonderful kitchen crew presented. I didn’t finish the 70 foot flagpole since the paint for the finish coat had to be ordered. I did get all the scraping, wire brushing and prime coat finished so it is ready for someone else to paint when the supplies arrive. I measured and drew a rough plan of the cross on Cross point that had recently fallen. I was assigned to reinstall another one but it became a job for several people and a piece of heavy equipment so my role was small. I answered to Bret and he gave me free rein. I tended to mix my hard labor and boring jobs with less demanding work and eventually everything that was assigned was completed or well under way. I did quite a bit of work at the Ave Maria site but was prevented from repainting the memorial because of lead paint issues. I spent nearly a week working with the American Battle Monument Commission contractors as they installed a beautiful new mosaic panel in the Navy Memorial and installed a new monument at the edge of the Inner Harbor honoring all who served during the battle. I expected something specific to the submariners but that is not the case. There has been no official announcement of either of these monuments as the commission hopes to have an official unveiling later in the year. We were asked not to publish anything about them until after their announcement. I cleaned up around the Japanese fisherman’s memorial, removed the old broken down plastic chain and installed 4 black floats to delineate the area. I think it looks much better.  I re roofed the sign at the old Galley in 2 stages, one side in early July, and the other side in September after a White Tern chick was large enough to move out of the way while I worked. Early in July there was a large die off of adult Laysan Albatross. I didn’t hear an exact count but about 500 adult LAAL died, mostly concentrated along the old runway near the 3 large water tanks. This kind of die off is not unprecedented, but this particular die off and other similar events in the past are unexplained. I pressure washed many sidewalks and drive ways to clean up after the albatross chicks. On 2 different days I spent several hours on Eastern and time on Sand trouble shooting the STAL nest camera but was not successful at returning it to operation. I had a phone conversation with the builder who offered many ideas but my work was not successful. The climate and remoteness of Midway make the upkeep of outdoor electronic devices very difficult. I witnessed the shorebird migration as birds arrived in groups of a 100 or more from their nesting areas in Alaska. One day I made multiple trips to the tarmac area in front of the old hangar for work and on the last trip of the day a mixed flock of more than 100 shorebirds had landed. They had been flying for 36 hours or more over water and landed on Midway. What a feat!  I continued the work that V began on the composting project. The chipper shredder arrived and I used it to grind light cardboard and vegetation and with added waste from the greenhouse I produced a large compost pile. I worked on this project for several hours most weeks. My compost piles were heating and working well when I left. There is still much to accomplish if the compost operation is to reduce the waste stream on the refuge. I taught Origami on Monday evenings and had from 3 to 8 students. Siripong was folding constantly when I left so it is fun to leave that kind of activity behind. On 7-25 I mentioned in my journal that 4 weeks seemed a long time when I was on the Townsend Cromwell but I’m just getting started here on Midway. Each time I’ve been back the veteran Thai guys welcome me with open arms and I have a set of old friends instantly. I read more on Midway than I do at home and my reading this time included: The recent Steve Jobs biography, The Warmth of Other Suns, Kent Haruff’s , Where you Once Belonged, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There, Dan Brown’s Inferno, My Beloved World, a reminiscence by Sonia Sotomayor, and Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowada. Not having much TV helps to increase my reading. There was a large outbreak of Botulism among the Laysan Ducks and I had 2 of the seeps to check most mornings, 7 days per week. The sick birds can be caught and usually rehabilitated successfully and picking up the dead birds helps prevent the spread of the toxin. We had 3 hurricanes to keep track of at one point in time but managed to avoid all 3. We had a short but intense rain and wind event in the middle of the night as one storm was at its closest, which was impressive, but caused little damage. I snorkeled almost every weekend but the visibility was consistently bad. Interestingly enough the clearest water we saw was during a windy day that saw impressive choppy waves under the pier but visibility in the water was at least 30 feet. There was a group of large Jacks under the pier most days and Ulua to at least 4 feet circling and watching these strange mammals in the water. Also large turtles were seen most days. I saw an event under the pier that was laughable but rare. A turtle fart!  My work included an ongoing effort to remove hazards to the albatross. I coordinated filling with sand, a large vault near the old fuel farm. The cover had failed and several dead albatross were found inside before we filled it. I also removed many pieces of rebar sticking up out of the sand in various areas on Sand Island. I left a list of hazards that were too large for me to remediate without heavy equipment and I hope they are completed before the albatross return. The Bonin Petrels, which fly at night, were back in huge numbers. You could sit in a comfortable spot before sunset and as the sky began darkening the Petrels began flying. When it was just barely bright enough to see them there would be thousands in view. As the evening progresses they land and begin uttering loud, moaning calls. A flashlight is mandatory after dark to prevent stepping on one, or ridding over them with your bicycle. My favorite project was building a trail around the Cable House building. As part of the MOU to remove the 3 structures that were falling down a plan was agreed to that included replanting the area with native plants and building an interpretive trail. Bret had a rough plan and I laid out the trail and started work alone. It included laying plastic mesh fencing, and burying the edges 1 foot deep or more to prevent petrels from digging underneath. After this shade cloth was laid over the top and nailed down with 12 inch spikes. The last step was pushing/pounding 6 inch staples thorough both cloth and mesh about every foot. I had the help and advice of a 3 man Thai crew on 3 different days. We shoveled, raked, and pounded alongside each other for days but occasionally they wanted to carry something or in other ways respect the old guy. They were a great, hard working crew. For a few years the trail will be a lasting reminder of my visit. For part of my stay I lived in one of the Officers houses with 2 women who were my housemates in 2010. It was fun to be back together and share stories of the past 5 years. Megan and Ann have both continued to volunteer/work in bird colonies in the NW islands and beyond. The social time I shared with the Thai guys has always been fun. Even though we don’t share a common language I still consider several of them as loyal friends. Riding my bike home from work one Friday afternoon several friends and acquaintances were working at a table in the garden plot so I stopped to see what important work was happening. I was immediately offered a beer. This became a regular Friday afternoon ritual. It often included an invitation to Aree House for dinner. E, one of the men I spent days working with on the trail, was an excellent cook. He prepared, from scratch, wonderful meals that were beautifully presented. Because I was the old guy, I was pampered to the point of embarrassment. While 4 or 5 of us ate communally around the coffee table a poker game would begin with 6 or 7 other familiar faces. On a bike ride to Clipper House for dinner one afternoon I was stopped by Go, one of my Thai friends, and he put an iphone in my hands. On the other end was his wife in Thailand via Skype video. I uttered the only greeting that I know in Thai, Sa va de kap, and smiled a lot. It is not hard to smile in a situation like that. So goes cultural life on Midway. As the botulism outbreak intensified I spent several days helping Megan, my housemate from 2010, doctor sick ducks. What a privilege to handle and help a bird that has a world population of about 1,000 individuals. Because of Midway’s isolation supplies for various jobs are difficult to come by. I am a person that scrounges constantly at home to supply materials for my various projects. Even though scrounging doesn’t appear on my resume it certainly was put to good use on the atoll. I spent hours in the bone yard looking for materials. By the time I left it was like going shopping, because I would remember seeing something from past trips and drive my cart to the right spot and pick it up. After each trip to Midway: 3 ½ months in 2009, 3 ½ months in 2010, a month for the albatross count in winter 2011/12, a month for the albatross count in 2012/2013 and now 2 ½ months in 2015 I’ve expected not to return.  Kathy asked me at breakfast Tuesday if I was looking forward to getting back to civilization. My answer was, that I can easily live with Midway civilization but I miss Jan and will be very happy to see her again. Leaving Midway is always bitter/sweet.

Cable House Trail

The Cable buildings on Midway were built in 1903 by the Commercial Pacific Cable Company who were responsible for laying the first round the earth communication cable.  Midway was a relay spot for information being sent over the cable and the company built 4 buildings that housed the employees and were used for any necessary equipment. The cable company employees were the first permanent residents on Midway. Hawaiian lore suggests that native Hawaiians visited Midway but did not chose to live here. The buildings were lightly built and over the years of various island managers they fell into disrepair. The building pictured is the only one of the 4 buildings left and it is in poor condition. The biggest project I took on while a maintenance and monument volunteer was a trail around this remaining building. The trail consists of construction fencing laid on the sand with 1 foot buried on each edge to keep the petrels from burrowing under the trail and undermining the walking surface. Once the plastic mesh fencing is stretched out and its edges buried, heavy shade cloth is laid over the top and nailed down securely with 12 inch nails every 4 feet and 6 inch wire staples every 8 or 10 inches. Lots of shoveling, hammering and stretching of cloth and mesh. I worked intermittently with a crew of Thai workmen: Sam, E, Ek, and Sak were tireless workers and brought knowledge of the building process that I was missing. I never could have accomplished the project without their help. There has been an effort to use plants native to Midway in areas such as the cable compound and the trail snakes through these plantings. If you look closely at the pictures you will notice an isle of low plants leading to a circle of plants. This circle is approximately where the cistern was located during cable company use of the island.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

August and December on Midway

This is my 5th time to Midway in the past 6 years but the first time I've been here when the albatross are not here. There are still a very small number of chicks and most days I see 1 or 2 adults but within a week or 10 days there will be no albatross on Midway. From August until November the atoll is a very different place. The following 2 pictures were taken in August and December and show approximately the same area of Sand Island.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Only on Midway

There is only 1 place on the planet that these 2 pictures could be taken at the same house. A Laysan Albatross chick on the front step and a Laysan Duck on the back step. Something similar is possible on Laysan Island, and Kure, but for arguments sake, only on Midway.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Work Week

This weeks work has again been a good mix. I've spent time laying out a trail around the old cable house and am beginning to figure what materials will be needed to complete the project. To build trails on the sand requires a strong mesh with a layer of shade cloth on top to prevent the Bonin Petrels from tunneling in the trail. After all that is stretched out, it is nailed in place with 6 inch staples every foot or so, and a 12 inch nail with a 2 in washer every few feet along both edges. It is a labor intensive project and will probably be unfinished when I leave for home. I've also been to Eastern Island to look at a remote camera setup that is malfunctioning. I found a corroded wire and will splice it and waterproof the splice and hope that solves the problem. I've also spent time cleaning in our garage and tool room and trying to bring some order to an area that gets used by many people. I'm experimenting with composting the cut branches and plant waste I generate in my projects along with waste from the hydroponic garden. We have a shredder/chipper that grinds the small branches and leaves so they compost much faster. The goal is to produce compost for the native plant propagation program. Native plants are grown and planted out into areas that have been recently cleared of noxious weeds. I stay busy everyday.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hard to Watch

Some days it is difficult to watch what goes on around us. In a large bird colony such as Midway there are always many dead and dieing birds. It is just part of the life processes that take place in a seabird nesting colony. This time of year, with the albatross chicks learning to fly and making the transition to caring for themselves, is particularly stressful for the birds and hard to watch if you have a soft heart for wildlife. The chicks practice hopping and flying and move toward the edges of the island this time of year because of some inborn plan. If they get to an open beach with the wind blowing toward the beach they make their first flight and crash and become waterlogged and drift back to the beach to dry out and try again. If they happen to fly downwind off the island, land on the water and become waterlogged they drown. If they take their first flight off of some man made precipice, land, and become waterlogged they don't have a second chance and drown in large numbers. I've learned not to look in certain corners that collect these waterlogged and drowning birds, but the death continues. I remind myself that these deaths have gone on for untold albatross generations and this year had a record 660,000 albatross nests on Midway.

Important People

There are many talented and important people that keep this island humming along. There are supply people, craftsmen, the hydroponic gardener and laborers that all do their important work to keep us in place at Midway. It is a tall order when the speck of land is so isolated. Among these important people is Pong, our lead cook. Pong and his crew are wizards! They keep us well fed and with amazing  variety. When the plane comes we all enjoy the fresh fruits and other goodies but day to day the cooks continue to keep us well fed with good tasting and nutritious food. Attached is a picture of Pong in front of one of our solar freezers.

Monday, July 13, 2015


My work week was a mixed bag. I'm still using a hand held grinder with a wire brush head to clean and prepare the flag pole for painting. I cleaned, prepped and put a first prime coat on about 50 feet of the main pole and the cross tree. The grinder is hard on my hands so I mix in other jobs and I don't end up with numb hands. I cleaned and raked the Japanese Fisherman's monument and partially buried black floats in the 4 corners to delineate the markers. I also spent time cleaning and raking in the Doctor's Cemetery and the trail to the first gun emplacement past the cemetery. The trail took several sessions to smooth out all the Petrel damage and get a reasonable grade up the steep slope. I started work on the "Ave Maria" monument on Friday.This monument is a small structure that protects some artifacts from the church that stood in this location. It isn't a building but an open air backdrop and roof to provide some weather protection for the artifacts. It will be an ongoing project with lots of plastic mesh and shade cloth laid along the concrete to slow the damage created by burrowing petrels. There is also some damage to the small roof that I will need to repair. Friday I did some pruning and looking at what was there so I can decide how to proceed. I also got over to Eastern Island to do a seep check looking for dead or sick Laysan Ducks. The ducks contract botulism  and the spread of this disease can be slowed or stopped with seep monitoring and pick up of dead or dieing ducks. The sick birds can usually be successfully treated and released within a couple of days. The Galley sign that I had been working on has a White Tern Chick sitting on the lower portion, so that has stopped work on the sign for a couple weeks.While I put the roof on the front side the adult Tern sat firm on the egg incubating but since it has hatched I need to stay away until it takes off from the ledge where it was hatched. I mentioned earlier that the internet has been very slow and this makes uploading pictures very difficult. I'm going to write more and upload fewer pictures and try to keep you up to date that way.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Commuter trafic

This traffic may be a little different than most of us deal with in real life but this is the traffic reality on Midway. Yesterday I rode past a chick just as it extended it's wings and it caught between the spokes and the frame of my bike. This is the stuff of bad dreams! The chick grabbed my leg and yelled stop and I did. I looked down and it's wing had been drawn into the space between the spokes and the frame. I had visions of how I was going to put down this chick with a broken wing. I backed up slowly and it rattled it's wings and settled them into place and walked away!

Red-tailed Tropicbird

Red-tailed Tropicbirds are breeding and raising young in many areas on Sand Island. They perform spectacular breeding display flights in which 3-5 birds, and sometimes more, fly together in a large vertical circle. Through part of this display they appear to fly backwards and sometimes the bottom of this circular display is close to the ground. While this flight is happening they are very vocal, producing

loud guttural squawks for lack of better descriptors. These photographs were made from my yard about 2 p.m. today during one of these displays.

Island Smells

As you can imagine there is quite an odor in a large seabird colony such as Midway. With more than 1.5 million seabirds living and visiting a small space such as Sand Island there is a lot of guano deposited. There are also thousands of decomposing, dead chicks that are part of the natural cycle. When you step off the plane the smell is very strong, and for me was still pretty intense when I got outside my first morning here. Interestingly, the intensity of the odor diminishes over a few days and I rarely notice it now. I've read that our sense of smell becomes desensitized pretty quickly to strong odors, and this beautiful, smelly seabird colony is a perfect example.

Friday, July 3, 2015

White Tern

This White Tern is sitting on an egg. Notice the blue breeding color on the bill. They nest in precarious spots of all kinds including faucet handles, fire hydrants, branches barely big enough to hold the egg but a surprising number survive.

Work Projects

This time on Midway my job will be very different. There are many historic markers and buildings from the early 20th century Pacific Cable Company, through WWII, and the cold war. This environment is very harsh and man made structures suffer from weather, the salty environment rusting iron and steel, deteriorating concrete from the salt air and several termite species. This isn't a complete list but it gives you an idea of the maintenance issues. My volunteer position this time centers on these monuments and structures that can use the help of a painter/carpenter/handyman to help in their preservation. I have been working closely with the Thai workmen from DBSI, the contractor that provides construction and maintenance workers for the island. This past week I spent time scraping and painting the lower portion of a 70 foot flagpole that will be hinged down next week so I can work on the rest of the pole. Lots of scraping, power wire brushing and then 2 prime coats of paint and a top coat of silver colored paint. Once the painting is complete, I will figure out what parts need to be replaced
while to pole is down and then coordinate with DBSI to get it raised again. The shipping containers behind the pole give some scale to the picture. I also have been working on a sign from the Navy days that stands in front of the old dining hall. I've refurbished the roof structure and am just getting started nailing down new shingles. After that we will talk about paint and protection for this neat hand made sign. This is a new volunteer position and we are building the job description around whatever skills I can provide. I'm tired each night from working in the harsh Midway sun but feel like my accomplishments are worthwhile.

Inquisitive chicks

The chicks are interested in everything. If you stand still very long they will walk to you and give your legs the same once over they are giving my bike. It is best to keep moving though as eventually they will bite down hard to see what you taste like. Ouch!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Return to Midway

I flew to Midway Friday evening and arrived about 9 p.m. I knew most of the guys that were helping with the plane and it felt good to be back. The internet is deadly slow and I'm not sure exactly how much I will be able to post but I will try to post a couple times a week.