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.

Friday, July 30, 2010

This place is a WORLD HERITAGE SITE!!

In FOAM's July 17 post, "Is this place a Refuge, a Memorial or a Monument?" it was explained that Midway Atoll is all three...and that it also might become recognized as a special place by the United Nations.  The good news was announced today: Midway Atoll, as part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, was approved as a UN World Hertitage Site!
Guess we'll have to change the sign!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Feather Phenomenon

My friends Katie and Thea told me about the feather phenomenon.

So I went to investigate.  Yep; there they were: I could see many feathers sticking out of the sand all along the beach.  You can see three in front of this Laysan Albatross.

Over the years I've seen lots of feathers along many beaches, but they've always been lying down flat on the sand.  I've never seen even one feather stuck point down into the beach...unless someone did it on purpose.

Katie and Thea said they didn't do it; so who did?

My friends sat on the beach...quietly...for awhile...very patiently...until they saw...a crab take a feather, point first, down into its hole!  Ah haaaaa!  That's it!  The crabs are sticking the feathers into the beach!  But why?  Do crabs like to decorate their neighborhoods?

crabs browsing the tide line
I thought maybe the crabs were eating the feathers.  I decided to spend some time sitting on the beach and observe very patiently, just like Katie and Thea.  And I did notice crabs hanging around feathers.  But it seemed to me that the crabs weren't eating feathers; they seemed to be eating tiny scraps of food from the tide line on the beach.

And then a whole handful of feathers floated in.  They were all attached to a rotting piece of Laysan Albatross skin, I think.  The crabs seemed to get closer and closer to the feather mass.  Finally, one hopped onto the feathers and began eating; yum!

Have a look at the 8 feathers in these pictures.  I pulled the 4 top feathers out of the beach; the bottom 4 came from the mass of feathers that had washed ashore.  Is it my imagination, or do the beach feathers looked "chewed up," both the feather edges and the pointed quill ends?

I think crabs are pulling feathers into their holes just like we bring take-out food to our homes!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Crab's Job

On Sunday, July 25th I posted "Some Albatross Don't Make It."  Remember I said I was going to dig up the dead Laysan Albatross and see if the crabs had eaten some of it?  The picture on the left shows the tools, a dust broom and a shoe brush, that I used to uncover the dead albatross, which had been left on the beach since July 3. 
The picture on the right shows what the buried albatross looked like, and the picture below... a little deeper view.  It looks to me as if the beach crabs have for sure been eating the body.  The skull looks especially cleaned.  The web is gone from the right foot, but the left one is still in place.  

So, beach crabs have a job to do: they are scavengers and keep beaches clear of dead albatross and other animals.  Good job, crabs!  Keep working!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is the Sea Level Rising?

Our planet Earth is getting warmer, causing the environmental problem we call Global Warming. As Earth warms, the ice fields and glaciers melt, sending water into the oceans, causing the sea level to rise.  How much is the sea level rising?  Let's find out by using advanced laser and computer technology from a plane!  
As with many difficult questions, it takes teamwork to get the answer.  In this case, the team is made up of 2 private companies in Hawai`i and 3 departments of the federal government.  The government team members are: United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), US Geological Survey (USGS), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.)

The picture above shows the private companies' side of the team, from left to right -- Robert Szabo, owner of Szabo Aerospace from O`ahu, Thomas Pattison, owner of Aerial Surveying, Inc. from Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawai`i,  and his son Kiel.  Rob will fly his plane over Midway Atoll and nearby islands while Tom and Kiel take pictures using a technology called LiDAR.  LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging.  Let's get a look at the equipment while the plane is being fueled.

Kiel is welcoming us aboard Rob's Beechcraft Queen Air plane, nicknamed "Makalani," Hawaiian language for "eyes of the skies."

Inside the plane Kiel shows us the LiDAR equipment.  Tom's company has modified the typical LiDAR rig, which weighs about 150 pounds and would be TOO much weight for the plane.  Next to Kiel's left foot, the 3 silver-colored items are used to send out the laser from the plane.  The laser reflects, or bounces, off the ground, returns to the plane, and that distance between the plane and ground is measured.  Near Kiel's right foot is the black computer.  The computer takes the laser data and calculates how high above sea level Midway's ground is.  The computer also matches up the exact GPS location for each elevation measurement.  And it will be correct to within 6 inches!!

The LiDAR data that Kiel, Tom and Rob are collecting will help answer the question, "Is the Sea Level Rising?"  They can compare the maps they make today with maps from years ago to see how much the sea level has already come up.   In the years ahead LiDAR can be used again to get new data.  Having accurate knowledge about sea level will help all the people on Earth work together to solve the Global Warming problem.

Before we leave the plane, do you notice something blue on the plane's flight deck?  When the hula doll dances, that tells Rob his plane's propeller engines are vibrating too much, and it's time to re-balance them.  The pretty hula dancer has a job to do; she's part of the LiDAR team!

Some Albatross Don't Make It

The last FOAM post reported that Laysan Albatross chicks fledge (grow up) on Midway Atoll and then fly away, over the North Pacific Ocean. 

And that's a nice image: adult black-and-white Laysan Albatross soaring over the deep blue ocean, gazing off into the distance with their shadowed eyes....

But some albatross don't make it.  Some don't get beyond the Atoll's lagoon; they die and wash up on shore.

I began to wonder what becomes of these dead albatross.  I noticed the bodies seemed to disappear into the sand.  So I set up an observation activity for myself.  On July 3 I took the albatross from the shoreline that's pictured above and placed it up the beach, far from the waves.  Then I marked the area with 4 objects that you see in the picture on the left.  Starting top left and going clockwise, the objects are:
---small, blue float
---large, round, black float
---plastic water bottle
---broken float wrapped with rope mesh
And then I took a picture every few days.  Here are the pictures in time order:
July 7
July 6

July 9
July 8

July 12
July 11

July 18
July 15
July 20
Notice all the crab holes in the right-hand column, 3rd picture down, the July 12th snapshot.  I think the beach crabs have been eating the albatross, and as the body gets smaller and smaller, it takes up less space, and sinks into the sand!  Today is July 24th.  I'm going to dig up the area and see what's left.  Maybe I'll find albatross bones and feathers that have been cleaned by crabs?!  Stay tuned for the next post.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Albatross are Gone!...but Where?

[On July 28 corrections were made to this post.]
How many Laysan Albatross (LAAL) do you see in this left-hand picture?  Maybe only 5?  Wow, there used to be LOTS in this many that you really couldn't count them!  
The photo on the right shows the same field 2 months ago.  This snapshot appeared in the FOAM post on May 31, "What's Different?"  See!!  There were LOTS of albatross.  Most of them in the field at that time were Laysan Albatross chicks at the black, downy-feathered stage.  Now that it's the end of July, the chicks have grown up and have flown away from Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, their place of birth, or rather "hatch."  Where have all the albatross gone?--where have they flown to?
On a number of posts, I've said that albatross fly off to the North Pacific.  But the North Pacific Ocean is a big place.  US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists asked the question, "Where exactly, in the North Pacific do Midway Atoll albatross go?"

To answer the question, last year scientists chose 4 Laysan Albatross that had hatched on the Atoll.  On July 13, 2009 each albatross was fitted with a small, solar-powered satellite tag.  When these albatross flew away from Midway, tags transmitted the location of each albatross twice each day.  Scientists were able to map that data, or information.  

Here's a map of the North Pacific Ocean from April 4, 2010.  Hawai`i is the string of islands near the center at the bottom of the map, and Midway Atoll is the 2nd island from the left.  Tiny gray circles show where albatross were on different days, and connecting red lines show the flight path.  (I don't know why over half the map is gray.  Perhaps that part of Earth is having night?)

The map has locations for only 2 of the original 4 Laysan Albatross.  The satellite tags on the other 2 birds must have stopped working.  Perhaps feathers covered up the solar panel and the battery couldn't recharge.  Or perhaps when the LAAL took a break from flying and floated on the ocean, the tag stopped working because of the salty water.

But two LAAL had solar satellite tags that did work!  On the west side of the map you can see one albatross was NW of Midway, near Japan.  The east side of the map shows the other albatross NE of Midway, off the coast of California.

Just imagine: Laysan Albatross from tiny, 2-square-mile Midway Atoll migrate to both sides of the North Pacific Ocean!  Of course tracking just two albatross doesn't give scientists enough information to make final conclusions about where albatross spend time in the North Pacific.  Won't it be interesting to see more data?!  

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Albatross Barf

Before albatross fledglings (the grown-up chicks) leave Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, they have to get rid of any stuff they have in their stomachs that can't be digested.  Their stomachs pack it all together into what's called a "bolus."  Then the bolus gets thrown up and out of the chick's wide-open beak.

Can you see the difference in the neck size between these two Laysan Albatross?  The left-hand albatross is trying to pass up a bolus.  Notice how much wider its neck is; it must be very uncomfortable!

For the first 5 months or so of their lives, albatross chicks are fed food which their parents bring them from the ocean.  Albatross especially like to eat flying fish eggs and squid; yum!  But the squid mouths, called beaks, can't be digested because they're made out of tough material, sort of like a finger nail.  Since flying fish eggs are usually attached to floating objects, the albatross often swallow floating volcanic rocks (called pumice) and sticks. which the fish eggs are attached to.  So, squid beaks, pumice and sticks are natural parts of bolus barf.

But there are also some man-made items in boluses.  This short video shows a Laysan Albatross chick throwing up a bolus, or maybe just part of one.  I think you'll be surprised to see what I found inside this bolus.

Albatross Barf from Barb Mayer on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Red-tailed Tropicbirds are NOT Songbirds

FOAM has had a lot of posts about albatross.  As of today, July 20, there have been a total of 29 albatross posts.  That's okay.  After all, FOAM means Friends of Albatross on Midway.
But there are other birds here as well.  I have sort of a "love-hate" relationship with the Red-tailed Tropicbirds.  I love how beautiful they are.  Look at these pictures of adult RTTR.  What a glossy white bird, with striking black feathers around the eye!  And isn't that a beautiful red bill?  If you look closely at the top picture and the one to the right left-hand picture, which shows an adult resting in the native `Akulikuli (Sea Purslane, Sesuvium portulacastrum), you can see the red tail-feather that's present only during mating season.  After mating season the feather falls off.

But I hate the Tropicbird's call.  If you get too close to one of these birds it screams at you with a really loud, raspy squawk.  The video below was taken from the porch of Midway Atoll's Clipper House, a lovely place where our meals are served.  If you look closely, you'll see the famous circular mating flight of some RTTR in the distance.  They fly in a vertical circle: flying up toward the sky, then backwards, then down toward the ocean, forward, and then repeat.  (I know, I know; you wish I would zoom in on those white specks that are birds!  I have a really, really simple camera, and if I use the zoom, the video gets fuzzy.)  The good thing about the video is its audio, which gives you an ear-full from the Red-tailed Tropicbirds sailing overhead.  They definitely are not songbirds!

Strange Flight of the Tropicbirds from Barb Mayer on Vimeo.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Loud Din of Birds

Midway Atoll is called by that English language name because it is mid- or half-way between North America and Asia.  But it probably had an earlier name given to it by the ancient Hawaiians, who were most likely the first people to visit the atoll.

Many people think the original Hawaiian name was Pihemanu, which means "the loud din [noise] of birds."  What a good name!  When I was trying to fall asleep on my first night on Midway, this is what I heard: all the sounds of the Laysan Albatross.  Close your eyes...and listen!  Can you imagine trying to sleep in all that noise?!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Strange Cloud

Clouds over Midway are some of the most beautiful I've seen anywhere. Which blue do you like the best in the picture on the left?!

In the right-hand picture above, notice the blue on the underside of the cloud, right above the naupaka bushes.  Sometimes Hawaiian sailing-canoe navigators are far out at sea, and can't see any land.  But, if they see a cloud with blue on it, they know it's reflecting the color of shallow water.  That tells them there's an island underneath the cloud!

But, as pretty as those clouds are, I wouldn't say they're strange.  The strangest cloud I've seen while here on Midway is called a "sun dog." 

One day while I was working in the volunteer office, Greg came running inside and said, "Hurry up!  Come outside!  There's a sun dog up in the sky!"  WHAT?! 

Of course I dropped what I was doing and followed him outdoors.  There was no dog hanging in the air.  But looking a bit to the side of the Sun* we saw what is truly called a "sun dog."  There, in the sky above us, was a faint, circular rainbow around the Sun. It's caused by sunlight passing through ice crystals in cirrus clouds high in the atmosphere.

Now that's a strange cloud!

[*By the way, NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN!  You'll damage the lining of your eyes, which is where you see!!]

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Is this place a Refuge, a Memorial or a Monument?

It's all three...and more!

(1) REFUGE -- Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
In 1903 President Teddy Roosevelt placed the Atoll under the U.S. Navy's control.  The Navy stopped the poaching of bird feathers and eggs.  Beginning in the 1940's during World War II Midway Atoll was operated as a Naval Air Facility.  In 1998 the Atoll was transferred away from the Navy and became the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.  The birds were really protected now!  

(2) MEMORIAL --  Battle of Midway National Memorial
On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor in Hawai`i.  The attack caused the U.S. to join World War II against Japan.  Six months later the U.S. fought and won the Battle of Midway.  That victory turned the tide and finally resulted in victory by the United States and its Allies over Japan in 1945.  In 2000 Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge was also designated as the Battle of Midway National Memorial.

(3) MONUMENT -- Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
On June 15, 2006 President Bush proclaimed what came to be called the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  The Monument map shows that PMNM includes all the islands, including Midway Atoll, stretching northwest beyond the state of Hawai`i.  The PMNM virtual visit says, if the Monument "...were laid atop the continental United States, [it] would cover a distance equal to that between New York City and Omaha, or Boston and the Florida Everglades." Please listen to these mp3 recordings about the Hawaiian meaning and proper Hawaiian pronunciation for Papahānaumokuākea.

(4) World Heritage Center?
As of today, July 17, 2010, we're waiting to hear if the wildlife of Midway Atoll will get even one more level of protection, by becoming a United Nations World Heritage Center.  Stay tuned!
[Update!! -- Read FOAM's July 30th post: "This place is a WORLD HERITAGE SITE!!"]

(5) Pihemanu
FOAM has been calling this land mass "Midway Atoll," but many people think the ancient Hawaiians called it Pihemanu, meaning "the loud din [noise] of birds."  Good name!  Listen to the "pihemanu" in FOAM's July 19th post.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tube Nose and Eye Shadow -- Ready for Life at Sea

Auntie Moana hasn't been seen around Midway lately; I think she's been one of the many Laysan Albatross that have flown away to the North Pacific for the next several months.

This picture shows P303, Auntie Moana's chick named `Ōpua.  He is still on the island; I saw him just this morning on my way to work.  He was along the roadside, having moved completely out of his nest area.  He's not going to be here much longer.  He'll be getting hungry, and will need to fly off, just like his mother, to feed in the North Pacific Ocean!  Notice how much he now looks like the adult Laysan Albatross in the next picture.  True, `Ōpua still has a little fluffy down on his head, among the new white feathers.

Notice also that `Ōpua's bill isn't the nice yellowish color like the adult bird.  So, he's still got awhile before he becomes fully adult.

Look at those bird bills more closely.  Can you see the nostrils close to the eyes?  Can you see that there are little tubes leading from the bill to the nostril opening?  That's why albatross belong to the bird group called the Tube-Nosed Marine Birds.  And those tubes are very useful for these marine birds.  Inside the tubes are special organs that help albatross (and other tube-nosed birds) drink seawater; wow!  We humans can't drink seawater.  Well, one swallow won't hurt you, but if you drank a lot, it would make you sick.  But albatross can drink seawater because the organ in their nose is like an extra kidney: it filters out the salt from the water, and then the albatross can sneeze away the salt!

Here's something else to notice about albatross faces.  Do you see the dark shadow near their eyes?  That helps them see in bright daylight.  As albatross fly over the ocean, they get a lot of sunlight shining off the ocean up into their eyes.  The dark feathers around their eyes absorb the light and make it easier for them to see.  Baseball and football players put black grease under their eyes for the same reason: to see better!

`Ōpua has his tube nose and his "eye shadow;" he's ready for life at sea!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Creepy Crawly Critter

There are almost 500 creepy crawlies -- insects, spiders, centipedes, and things like that -- on Midway.  Some of them are native, but this one is not.  This large, shiny, green, non-native beetle is really common right now.  It's called the Midway Emerald Beetle, Protaetia pryeri (no Hawaiian name, because it's not native!  It was probably accidentally introduced from China.)  The Beetle has been attacking  red hibiscus flowers near my house.
If it does this to flowers, wouldn't it be awful if the Midway Emerald Beetle got to the main Hawaiian Islands?  It would attack papaya, mangoes and other crops!  When I go home to O`ahu, I'll check my baggage carefully!

Monday, July 12, 2010

New Moon Night...

...which means No Moon Night, a night where there's no moon.  "What?!" you say; "No moon?!  But I thought there's always a Moon!"

Well, there is always a Moon; it doesn't go away, but there are days and nights when you can't see it.

The Moon takes 28 days to orbit the Earth.  During one of those days the Moon is in between us and the Sun.  On that day the Moon is up in the daytime sky, but you can't see it because the Sun* outshines it.  We call that day the New Moon, because we think of it as the beginning of the 28-day Moon cycle.

Yesterday, July 11, was the New Moon phase for this month, and there was no Moon in the sky last night.  I went outside here on Midway Atoll and it was really, really dark...

...but as my eyes adjusted, I could see by starlight!  It was beautiful!  There were so many stars, it was hard to pick out constellations.  But, after awhile, I could see Scorpius the scorpion, which is probably the easiest summertime constellation to see.  It's called Maui's Fish Hook here in Hawai`i.  Ka Makau Nui O Maui is one name for it.  There it was, sparkling high above me in the southeast sky, just like this star map from the Bishop Museum of Honolulu shows.

Read the mo`olelo (traditional story) about Maui's Fish Hook.  Figure out where the darkest place is near your home, a place away from city lights.  Pack a picnic dinner, and go see Ka Makau Nui o Maui, before it sets below the horizon until next summer!  

[*By the way, NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN!  You'll damage the lining of your eyes, which is where you see!!]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Answers for "ACTIVITY: Laysan Ducks #2 -- Who's Who"

Challenge yourself to identify the bands of some Laysan Ducks in the "ACTIVITY: Laysan Ducks #2 -- Who's Who," in FOAM's menu bar above, and then check the answers in this data table.

When I looked up these bands in Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge's data base, I found out two interesting pieces of information--
  • The duck with the WF band is noted as having a "big puka left foot."  ("Puka" is the Hawaiian word for hole.  Perhaps WF got the puka in its foot pad when it stepped on a really sharp Nohu thorn!
  • RC, the duck I couldn't tell whether it was a male or female, is a male.
Some of these bands were really hard to see.  The hardest one for me to see was BRT.  At first I thought it was BKT, but I couldn't find that code in the data base.  Next time I saw that duck, I looked more closely and realized it must be brown, not black.  When I looked for BRT in the data base, it was there!  If you got at least half of these bands correct, you're on your way to being a wildlife scientist!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Albatross Checks Barb's Bike

Yo, Barb!  Your bike gettin' flat!  Good t'ing my frien' out at Rusty Bucket wen' check your tires when you not lookin'.

I t'ink you busy wid da Laysan Duck botulism check at Rusty Bucket seep.  Your tires, da pressah plenny low!  My frien fill 'em up fo' you!  Now you good to go on da highways and byways of Midway!!  A hui hou!