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Midway Atoll NWR

Trip Report by

Emmalee Tarry

April 2001

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Welcome to Midway Atoll NWR

Welcome to Midway Atoll  National Wildlife Refuge.  Visitors are greeted by Laysan Albatross adults and chicks.

There are two brown chicks each at the foot of the sign posts.  The white and black birds are adult Laysan Albatross.

Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
Midway Atoll is one of the western most islands in a chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean the most famous of which are known as the Hawaiian Islands. Midway lies 1,135 miles west-northwest of Pearl Harbor, Oahu.

Midway Island and its wildlife have survived a fascinating history to become a National Wildlife Refuge which is unfortunately not open to the public at present. The author was lucky to visit in April 2001 when a contractor provided week long tours of the island. Visitors had a wonderful wildlife experience and were exposed to an important piece of American history . All this while living in comfort on a beautiful tropical island with one of the world's most beautiful beaches inhabited by more endangered monk seals than people. It is a rare and wonderful place to visit. For the present you can only visit the web site       and hope that some day soon this wonderful place will be open to birders again.

Volunteers able to do hard work clearing invasive plants, pulling fishing nets off coral reefs and cleaning out something called seep pits are still allowed on the island. See the web page above.

Midway Atoll was formed by an active volcano in the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Long dormant, all that remains are three small sandy islands surrounded by a coral reef.

The largest island is Sand Island and this is where the active airport and all the facilities for visitors are maintained.

The runway on the second island  Eastern Island is no longer used.  In 2001 the National Wildlife Refuge allowed visitors to visit Eastern Island once a week on ranger led walk.

Other ativities on the atoll during 2001 included cleaning up hazardous waste left by the US Navy during the years when this was an active naval base and also cleaning up plastic waste and discarded fishing nets that drift onto the coral reefs and the beach. This work is being done by contractors and in some cases volunteers.

Midway Atoll map

The early Polynesians who settled Hawaii certainly visited Midway Atoll bu they never had a permanent settlement here. At that time the island was only a sand island with no vegetation to speak of. 

With no indigenous human population the atoll was first claimed by the United States which has always controlled the island. Japanese plume hunters used to come to the atoll to slaughter Albatross for feathers. Fortunately the US put a stop to this.

The island was a station on the Trans- Pacific Cable line and for the China Clipper which provided sea plane air service across the Pacific. This is one of the cable companies buildings restored by the refuge.

Cable Company building on Sand island

Introduced Species
The character of the islands was much changed by human residents. Originally the island was a low sandy mound with little vegetation.

The cable company brought in soil and planted trees to make the island more hospitable. Many non-native plants were either accidentally or deliberately introduced at this time.
Canaries were introduced by the Manager of the cable company as caged birds. It is believed that he released 9 birds on the island. They were not tame and amazing hard to photograph. Since the canaries do not pose a problem, the refuge neither encourages or discourages them.

Common Mynahs are also present.

Other introduced species such as rats and pigeons have been extirpated. Some yellow flowering low shrubs are proving more difficult to eradicate and they interfer with the Albatross nesting.  You will see pictures of these plants.

Canary introduced by the Cable Co Manager

Naval Base

After World War II Midway was an active navy base and supported a population of up to 4000 people including families. There was a school, a chapel, and a medical facility.

A dentist stationed on Midway spent his spare time carving a statue of a goony bird out of a piece of mahogany that washed ashore. Later a plastic fishing float was added as an egg.

Laysan Albatross statue carved by a dentist stationed on Midway.

The architect added portholes to the porches of the military housing on the island for the navy. Housing is now used for employees. (Notes from 2001 visit).

Notice the adult Laysan Albatrosses on the lawn in front of the house. Just to the right of the sidewalk and in front of the left most tree are some Albatross chicks waiting for the parents to return and feed them.

Apparently the Albatross were as prevalent on the lawns during the navy years as they are now.  A woman who was the wife of a naval officer encouraged protection of the Albatross which were known as Gooney Birds.

Navy Housing with port holes.

Tour Groups and the National Wildlife Refuge
After the naval base was decommissioned, the island was made a National Wildlife Refuge. A contractor was hired to maintain the airport and to provide visitor services on the island. Unfortunately the contractor Phoenix Corporation had plans not compatible with a wildlife refuge. Their idea was to build a full resort with sport fishing, scuba diving, fine restaurants, bars. This was not profitable and conflict with the refuge management ended the relationship.

I was fortunate to visit the island in April 2001 as part of a tour group arranged by the Oceanic Society. Rangers from the NWR also guided the tourists.

The gentleman on the left with binoculars is the author’s son Roland Tarry. The author is just to the right of the sign in a pink shirt.

Our tour group.
In 2001 there was one flight a week on Sunday night from Honolulu to Midway. Tourists flew out on a Sunday night and returned on the same flight a week later. The problem was this did not bring enough tourists to maintain the service.

I am so very glad I made this trip when I did. It was a wonderful week of birding with history added in. I hope some day the public tours can resume.

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