satellite view from PMNM
E komo mai; welcome! Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is surrounded by a lei of foam in the middle of the North Pacific; it's a beautiful, special place.

Not only are there albatross on Midway, but many other interesting kinds of wildlife, both on the land and in the sea. Please enjoy exploring FOAM, an educational blog actively done while on Midway from May through August 2010. Posts are added from off-Midway, as information becomes available. If you're interested in a particular topic, please use the search box or the alphabetical list of "labels" along the left side of the blog page.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Canary Pox on Midway?

Nihoa Finch, Dave Boynton photography
Nihoa Millerbird, photo by Dave Boynton
Nihoa is a small island just out-of-sight northwest of Kaua`i.  Two endemic birds, Nihoa Finch the Nihoa Millerbird, live there and NOWHERE else in the world!  What happens if a natural disaster like a hurricane or a tsunami hits the island and all the Finches and Millerbirds are killed?  Those species would become extinct!

Perhaps we could help these two bird species by bringing some to Midway; then they would live on both Nihoa and Midway -- two islands, instead of just one.  If a disaster hits one island, the birds would be able to survive on the other island.

But before we can think about doing such an expensive translocation, we have to know how healthy Midway’s environment is.  And it turns out there is a disease on the Atoll that could hurt the two Nihoa birds.

Have you ever caught a cold or had the flu?  You can feel pretty awful.  Both colds and flu are caused by small germs you can’t see called viruses. 

Avian, or bird, “pox” (rhymes with box) is a virus that attacks birds.  Since avian pox is sort of related to chicken pox, if you’ve ever had the itchy, oozy sores of chicken pox, you’ll know how painful avian pox must be for birds.  In fact, birds can die from the pox!

Two kinds of avian pox were accidentally brought to Hawai`i: the fowl pox and canary pox.  The fowl pox only affects chickens, but the canary pox causes serious problems for Hawai`i's native birds.  Because the birds have never been exposed to the pox before, they haven’t evolved resistance to the disease, and many have become extinct. Happily, there are still `Amakihi in some of Hawai`i's forests, but here’s a picture of an `Amakihi with a bad case of avian pox on its foot.  

'Amakihi with avian pox, photo by Dr. Dennis LaPointe
Bird pox is carried from one bird to another by touch.  If a bird preens a diseased bird with pox-infected blisters and then pokes another bird, breaking its skin, the bird pox virus will be transferred.  A mosquito can transmit the virus if the insect gets pox on its mouth parts and then bites a healthy bird.

Does Midway have avian pox?  What kind?  Is it a kind that could hurt the Nihoa Finch and Millerbird, if they’re brought to Midway?  Dr. Carter Atkinson and Dr. Dennis LaPointe from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center in Volcano on the Big Island of Hawai`i are on Midway to survey bird pox.  They will find out what kind of avian pox is in the atoll’s birds and mosquitoes.  Because canary birds were brought to Midway as song birds over 100 years ago, Carter and Dennis think the dangerous canary pox is here.  Take a look at the 2 pictures below showing Dennis with a mosquito trap, and a canary.

Let’s hope that the canary pox is not on island, and that maybe Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge can become a refuge for the Nihoa birds!

What's Different?

What's different between these 2 pictures?

My friend Andy is in the first picture, and he isn't in the second one. Also, the picture with Andy was taken on an overcast day, and the plants are shorter.

I took the second picture today, May 31, and it's a bright, breezy, sunny day.

Both pictures are showing the same field with many, many Laysan Albatross stretching all the way to the horizon. Look closely at the albatross; what do you think is different between the 2 pictures about the birds' posture and colors?

When you think you know, check for the answer in the first comment in this post.

(Then, you might like to check the post "Laysan Albatross Return to Midway Atoll: You Are There."  Three videos show a BIG change in the number of Laysan Albatros during the months of October, November and December.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dolphin Survey

Here are the scientists working, while I took a short video, "Spinner Dolphins at Midway Atoll."  Cynthia Vanderlip (above) and her crew conducted a dolphin survey while visiting Midway, before traveling onto Kure Atoll for a summer of work. As we approached the SW channel leading from the deep blue sea into Midway's shallow, turquoise-colored lagoon...there they were! LOTS of Spinner Dolphins, Nai`a in Hawaiian, or Stenella longirostris!  For an hour or two we observed their behavior. Cynthia took pictures; individual dolphins can be identified by distinctive markings on their dorsal fins.

Ilana Nimz (left) used a special instrument to record the depth of water;
and Matt Saunter (right) logged the data onto the clipboard data table.

Surrounded by 175 Spinner Dolphins

Spinner Dolphins at Midway Atoll from Barb Mayer on Vimeo.

Adam and I went on a dolphin survey. It was truly an amazing experience. In my next post, I'll concentrate on the science of the survey, but for now I'm hoping I've successfully uploaded a short video. My camera is really just for snapshots, but it does have a video setting. I hope this simple video gives you an idea of how amazing the experience was.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

NOAA's ship, the Hi`ialakai, visits Midway

The Hii`ialakai left Midway this morning about 9 a.m., after having been here a few days.  They had several science projects that they were studying here in the Midway area, as well as other areas in the NW Hawaiian archipelago.  Here are 2 of them:
The Hi`ialakai, and other research ships, are like floating communities.  Compare a ship to a house with this fun matching activity! 

    Saturday, May 22, 2010

    Albatross have BIG Wings

    I'd like to point out to our blog followers something they might not have noticed yet. All species of albatross have really long wings. I and my fellow Black-footed Albatross have wings that are about 7' long; wings on a Laysan Albatross are shorter by a few inches. We are sometimes called "nature's hang-gliders," since we use these long wings to soar for thousands of miles. Check out this BBC video:

    Black-footed Albatross taking off from sea surface

    There's an albatross skeleton on view in the Refuge Visitor Center. (Since the exhibit was put together with respect, and for public education, it's OK with me to have these bones of a member of my species on display.)

    In this photo of the skeleton, Barb is holding the right wing; her thumb is on the humerus, the bone that goes from the shoulder down to the elbow. Right after that you'll see the radius and ulna are partially fused for strength during our long glides. Finally, the wing ends with the wrist and finger bones that are much reduced in all birds.

    Pay attention to the ruler in the picture. When you eat a BBQ chicken wing, the meaty part is the humerus and it's about 2" long. Compare that to our humerus, which is about 10" long! Do a little math: how many times bigger is this albatross humerus compared to a chicken humerus?!

    Planting Cuttings of `Āweoweo

    Yesterday we worked in the greenhouse and made cuttings of an endemic plant called Goosefoot, Chenopodium oahuense.  Doesn't the leaf in the small picture to the right look a little bit like a goose foot?!  It's called `Āweoweo in Hawaiian, which is also the name for the Big Eye reef fish, Priacanthus.  Matt said Hawaiians made this plant-fish connection because they noticed that Goosefoot leaves smell very fishy.  Since we were trimming some leaves off the cuttings anyway, I tried crushing some...and they DO smell like fresh, raw fish!    

    After cutting a leafy piece of Goosefoot and trimming off some leaves, we dipped the cut end into a plant hormone powder called Rootone and stuck it into a pot of sand.  Rootone will speed up the growth of roots near the cut end.  After enough of those roots have grown, we'll plant the `Āweoweo back into its native environment.

    Matt Saunter, Ilana Nimz and Ted McKinley (the photographer) joined me, Adam and Greg in this work.  We planted 3 or 4 plants in each of 65 pots; you can see how happy we are!

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Outplanting Bunch Grass, step #4: Native birds enjoy the new planting

    These Laysan Albatross seem to be enjoying the shade of a Beach Heliotrope tree in the newly planted field of Bunch Grass (Kawelu.)

    Small birds called Bonin Petrels (Pterodroma hypoleuca) nest in burrows, which collapse very easily underneath the alien, invasive plant Verbesina, but not under the native bunch grass. Here's a Bonin Petrel chick next to Bunch Grass. Although it looks as if it has most of its regular feathers, look closely and you'll see some down on either side of its tail.

    Outplanting Bunch Grass, step #3: Visitors plant the grass

    Visitors from Germany help Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge by planting the native Hawaiian bunch grass.  Their work is much appreciated because Bunch Grass, or Kawelu in Hawaiian, Eragrostis variabilis, is an important part of the atoll's original environment.  For example, Bunch Grass roots hold the sandy soil together much better than the alien invasive plant Verbesina.

    After all the grass was planted, we worked together to pour a little water from buckets into each plot of Bunch Grass to give it a healthy start on life!

    Outplanting Bunch Grass, step #2: Greg demonstrates

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Biological Technician, Greg Schubert, shows us how to plant the native Bunch Grass...with a Laysan Albatross chick and visitors watching carefully.

    We started by digging 3 smaller holes deeper into the edge of a crater that had been dug earlier by us.  We carefully removed  grass and its sandy soil from a pot, like Greg is doing in the picture, and planted the grass in one of the holes.  We did that with 2 more pots, and tucked each grass in firmly, making sure it was flush with the bottom of the crater, not sticking up above like a little island.  We made sure the edge of the crater was sloped evenly to a shallow center.  That way, when it rains, the water will collect in the bowl-shaped crater, watering all the Bunch Grass!

    Outplanting Bunch Grass, step #1: digging holes

    Mu & his fellow Thai workers, Adam, and I dig holes in the sand and pull up the alien invasive Verbesina plant to prepare for the bunch grass planting.

    "Albino" Laysan Albatross Chick

    Here's the picture I promised of the "albino" chick. A normal Laysan Albatross chick would be dark gray, almost black, perhaps with a bit of "frosting" on the downy head. But this chick's feathers are entirely white. Examine the dark eyes; they obviously have pigment. Therefore, this is not truly an albino; I believe it's called "leucystic," meaning almost an albino.

    These birds don't survive in the wild as well as the normally colored LAAL. Even though their eyes appear normal, we scientists think they don't see as well, and therefore can't catch enough squid, one of their favorite foods, to stay healthy.

    A Downy Chick's Down

    In Auntie Moana's post below, with the "bling" bracelet bands on a Laysan Albatross chick, she pointed out the chick's down.  It is soooooo fluffy!

    Here's a close-up picture that I took of a single down feather.  It's really different from a typical feather.  Notice that there's only a little point where the down is embedded in the bird's skin, the way our hair is stuck into our skin.  Notice that down doesn't have a stiff, central shaft, like feathers we're used to seeing.

    Anybody wonder why this down feather is white, when the Laysan Albatross chick in Auntie Moana's post has black down?!  For the answer, check this post's first comment!

    Tuesday, May 18, 2010

    Laysan Albatross Chick "Jewelry"

    Hi Barb! I'm sorry I've missed you. Right now I'm texting you from the North Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away from Midway. Yes, I am up here finding ono kine (good) seafood for me and my chick.
    But I thought our FOAM blog followers might want to see this picture I have of a young Laysan Albatross chick (see the fluffy down at the top of its leg.) The plastic, "aux" band (for "auxiliary," meaning extra) on its left leg will be on just until the bird gets all its non-downy, sturdy, adult feathers. The aux band is easy to see and makes it simple for you volunteers to identify each know who survives and who doesn't. So far, this chick #P300 is alive and well in LAAL plot #L10, where I live. The metal band on the right leg will stay on the bird its whole life, and will identify it wherever it travels. Pretty important "jewelry," right?!

    Monday, May 17, 2010

    Auntie Moana Laal's Neighborhood

    photo by Paul, the "Journalist on the Loose"
    I did visit Laysan Albatross plot #L10 today, which is where Auntie Moana lives...but she wasn't there.  Her neighbors told me that she was away, getting food (squid and flying fish eggs) in the North Pacific.  She'll bring some of her catch back to feed her chick, and I hope to meet her then.  Check FOAM's "Midway Map" to see where Auntie's home is, and where I worked today. 

    I and my fellow volunteers checked to see which LAAL (Laysan Albatross) chicks are healthy and still alive in plot # L10.  This is called "reproductive success."  The picture shows me with a stick that we use to nudge each chick into a standing position so that we can see the plastic band on its leg.  Each chick has a different number on its band; that's how we can tell which chick is which.  Doesn't the Laysan Albatross chick look healthy; see all its black, fluffy down...with just the beginning of its adult white feathers!

    (By the way, that's the US Fish & Wildlife Refuge office right behind my hat.)

    Sunday, May 16, 2010

    Snorkel Trip to the Edge of the Atoll

    Yesterday a group of us went snorkeling to the edge of the Atoll. Look at the aerial view of Midway Atoll shown on the top of FOAM's webpage; our boat took us to the "top" of the picture, or toward the north edge of the Atoll.

    Now look at the picture with this post and you'll see what I saw from the boat, before I went in snorkeling: 2 of my friends are already in the water heading for the "emergent (sticking-out-of-the-water) reef!" We're on the inner, lagoon, shallow-water-side of the reef; you can see the waaaaaaay deep open-ocean swells breaking on the reef. Outside of the Atoll, the sea floor drops away pretty quickly to about 4000 meters (12,000 feet) deep; WOW!!

    It was a wonderful snorkel trip! I don't have an underwater camera, but I'll try and get some pictures from friends who do, because we saw an amazing variety of fish and beautiful coral. My 2 favorite kinds of coral seemed to be glowing with neon colors; one was lemon-lime and the other was an incredible shade of lavender-purple.

    As we were swimming back to the boat at the end of the snorkel, I saw Uncle Ulua! He was swimming right at me, and looked ferocious; in fact, it took my breath away to see him. He rolled his eye at me, as we swam past each other. I wish I had taken a moment to say "hi," but as I said, I was a little scared; he is a top or apex predator, after all.

    Saturday, May 15, 2010

    Welcome to Midway Atoll!

    Barb: Aloha kakahiaka! It was so good to meet you face-to-face yesterday morning at Sunrise (see the S10 on our FOAM's Midway map page!)

    I had just taken my new ducklings out for a swim and food forage...and there you were, together with the other 2 volunteers, Gary and Adam. So nice to meet all of you. I'll look forward to your occasional visits, as you gather data about our health.

    I know you'll be pono (on good behavior) when you come to visit us: please walk up to our pond slowly and quietly, crouching low; you don't want to scare us, causing us to go into the water before we want to, or hide in the plants growing at the pond's edge.
    I hope you enjoy this picture of me and 4 of my 7 ducklings from this year. Gary has a couple of nice close-ups of my kids on his blog entry for today. Again: welcome to Midway Atoll!

    Thursday, May 13, 2010

    Oli Mahalo (Thank You Chant)

    Oli Mahalo composed by Kēhau Camara and performed by the Kamehameha Scholars

    This afternoon I'll get on a small plane in Honolulu and travel 1200 miles almost to the end of the Island chain to Midway Atoll.  As I start my 3-month volunteer work on the Atoll, I'd like to say mahalo for this new opportunity. 

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    Brush Your Shoes

    Yep, if you're going to Midway, you gotta scrub your shoes -- with brush & soapy water...and really check all luggage to be sure there are no soil, seeds, plants, insects or other animals accidentally backed along with your clothes.

    The Refuge is a unique ecosystem.  Non-native species accidentally carried to Midway can get out of control and become serious pests, completely damaging Midway's ecosystem.  Take a look at the pictures in FOAM's "Alien Invasive Plant Activity" (top menu bar) to see how the non-native plant Verbesina has become a terrible, terrible pest.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010

    What's your food? --brine flies?

    Btw, Happy Mothers Day everybody! My ducklings let me sleep a little longer than usual this morning.
    I'd like to see lots of photos and videos in our blog. This video shows some of my relatives eating flies. It might take a bit of time to load, but I think BBC Arkive's video "Laysan Ducks feeding on swarms of flies at Laysan Atoll" is really funny!

    Saturday, May 8, 2010

    Decoding FOAM authors' names

    I thought what Auntie Moana and Edward said about their last names representing their bird species was interesting...
    Auntie Moana Laal = Laysan Albatross
    Edward Bfal = Black-footed Albatross I guess Kahiko Ladu = Laysan Duck

    I'm curious to know what "Moana," "Ulua" and "Kahiko" mean??

    E komo mai! (Welcome!)

    I'm going to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge!!...which is part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, located about 1200 miles northwest of Honolulu, Hawai`i.  From its name you can understand that it's in about the middle of the North Pacific Ocean!  I'll be working as a volunteer there for about 3 months, doing all kinds of wildlife management work.  My friends and I are going to author this blog about Midway together.  Let's introduce ourselves.