Friday, November 30, 2012

Goose Sighting

I’ve agreed to run a 5k on Christmas, involving many laps on the runway, and during my inaugural training run yesterday evening I noticed an odd looking bird flying in an unusual pattern high over the island. Frigate birds have a distinct soaring flight, with very distinct frigate bird shaped wings. This bird however had a chunky body, long neck, and a labored flight pattern, different from all other species that breed on the island. Immediately I made the connection, “that’s a damn goose”. Chad the current refuge manager on the island has worked with waterfowl in the past, and given the nearest mainland is roughly 5,000 miles away, I thought he’d be interested in the sighting. So I sprinted to the barracks and yelled…”Goose over the island!” grabbed my bins and ran back outside to get a better look; it was backlit before so I couldn’t make out any identifying field marks. Of course when I returned outside the bird had already disappeared. Typical. Also typical was the air of doubt in the responses from the others about my goose sighting. It’s tough when you’re the only one who spots something out of the ordinary.

Fortunately I got a report early this morning that the goose did in fact exist and was standing near meter marker 100 on the east end of the runway. So once again I grabbed the bins and my camera this time and hopped on the bike. Sure enough there it was being harassed by a group of noddies that had also realized a foreigner was invading their island home. It had the overall appearance of a Canada Goose, but was much smaller in size; compared to the albatross this thing was tiny. After consulting the internet, which is finally working again,  it turns out the mystery bird was a Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii), once thought to be a subspecies to the Canada Goose but was split into its own species status in 2004. There are currently five recognized subspecies of Cackling Goose now, all of which breed in the tundra around Canada and Alaska, wintering throughout most of western Canada, the US, and northern Mexico. They are sometimes found in eastern Siberia, China, and Japan; Japan being the possible final destination for this lost bird.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012


After finishing lifting weights in the gym, something I have never recreationally done before in my life but hey, when in Rome, Larry and I decided to jump off the dauphin. Not exactly sure what the proper definition of a dauphin is (notice the spelling lacks an L), but ours is a tall metal structure with a catwalk leading out to it that I believe was once used to tie up large ships. Naturally the dauphin is on the edge of a dredged channel, and I was thinking about diving in head first but chickened out. Striking the water in a pencil dive fashion I stuck my face in to look around, and as the bubbles cleared I noticed a large blob near the bottom against the seawall. Unable to focus without I mask, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“Hey Larry, looks like there’s some kind of large fish down here”


I stuck my head in for another look and realized the blob was moving towards the surface, “at least I think it’s a fish, definitely large though”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah…” the inflection in my voice changed from calm and observant, to slightly cautious, to… “Shit it’s swimming towards me!”

Finally the blob surfaced just a foot away from me. What emerged was a round dome with whiskers and cold black eyes; it was a young monk seal, not a shark. My heart was in my stomach…or is it my stomach was in my mouth? I can never get that expression right. We are required to keep our distance from any monk seals we encounter, and I think this one knew the game, for it was lingering around our exit, bobbing at the surface right in front of the ladder. Occasionally it would swim off slightly, but as soon as we got close to the ladder it would pop up and block access again. Maybe there was a shark down there after all and it was baiting us. Maybe this was a diabolical seal...perhaps named Stan. Maybe some former researcher or volunteer had harassed Stan as a pup, and now it’s seeking its revenge. Maybe its revenge was to have us torn to bits by the tiger shark lurking beneath our feet. Whatever its motivation the seal wouldn’t move…so eventually we just had to get bold, break protocol, and take charge of the ladder. It watched us clamber up the rusty metal rungs, and once we were back on the island it lost interest and disappeared, as if its plans for revenge had been foiled. I’m convinced Stan was out to get us…

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tour of the Atoll

Fierce winds and persistent rain squalls have been the predominate weather pattern for the past week, but a break in the storms allowed us to explore the outer islands of French Frigate Shoals. With a mirror sea and sunshine we ditched the day’s activities to take advantage of the conditions, loading both the grey and red whalers with enough gas and supplies for a roundtrip tour of the atoll. Roughly six miles at a heading 140 we reached East Island, a narrow sand spit half the size of Tern. We visit East typically once a week to remove invasive vegetation and count any seabirds that happen to be standing around, so we didn’t land here this time. East is where roughly 80 percent of all Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles nest, and where around 1,000 breeding pairs of albatross will soon nest. On clear days a tall telephone pole fixed with surveillance cameras used to broadcast streaming video of turtle activity is visible on the horizon.

Next on our stop was a pair of small sand islands, Gin and Little Gin, another 4.5 miles from East Island on the same bearing. The Gins are beautiful, two white sand mounds separated by a deep blue channel. Both are narrow and less than 100 meters in length. They periodically get washed over by large waves, so no permanent vegetation has taken root. The only items that breakout the bleak white sand are bits of trash and fishing gear from Asia, lounging monk seals, and loitering albatross. Aside from Disappearing Island on the southern fringe of the reef, the Gins are the southernmost islands of the atoll that remain constant above mean high tide. We counted about 100 albatross and a few Brown Noddies on both Gins, and collected a boogie board that had washed up from some distant civilization.  
The trip to the Gins had taken up most of our morning, so we decided to explore the pinnacles of reef that make French Frigate Shoals so notoriously dangerous, to find a good spot to snorkel (or as Larry would like to rename it ‘nature swimming’ since he feels it has a better ring to it than snorkeling) and have lunch. Leaning over the bow, we assisted Chad in navigating the deeper channels by pointing out shallow reef. The water was so unbelievably clear we could see green coral heads 50 feet down, though the brown ones 3 feet down were the ones to watch out for. With East Island back in sight as we worked north again, and the illusive La Perouse Pinnacle to the northwest, we came upon two round patches of shallow reef with a snaking channel between them. In lee of the atoll this would be a nice calm spot for a swim, so we pitched our anchors overboard, dawned our masks and jumped in. It was a gorgeous reef, the healthiest we’ve seen yet. Boundless diversity of both reef and fish, full of all the brilliant colors and shades of the rainbow. It was mind blowing to ponder we were the only four people in the water within a 500 mile radius, in the middle of the Pacific, within a crescent shaped rim of reef that once was a mighty island; nature swimming a spot that previously had never been seen by another set of human eyes... as far as we know. I made taquitos for lunch, and named this spot in their honor.

Flying over blobs of dark coral heads, watching our boat’s shadow glide over a sandy seabed in emerald blue water, we made our way from Taquito Reef to Round Island. Round has a radius of roughly 10 meters, so we didn’t bother landing on it. There were a few noddies and boobies hanging around along with a very small monk seal weaner, but other than that not much was happening here. Round once had a companion island called Mullet, which is currently eroded away and under water. Soon to be a growing trend for other islands of French Frigate Shoals as the ocean continues to rise over their banks. It’s predicted that in 100 years or less almost all the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atolls, Lisianski and Laysan Islands, and French Frigate Shoals) will be under water; forcing the seabirds, turtles, and seals to find some other trash laden islands to breed. 

Last on our stop was Trig Island, just a few miles east of Tern. Trig is protected by a very shallow and dense reef, so finding a passage to access the beach was a bit tricky. There is a well known narrow channel that can be difficult to find in the glare and dangerous to pass through in a swell, but we had sunny skies and calm seas, so we gave it a shot. A chunk of coral shaped like an anchor, called Anchor Rock, stands at the entrance of the channel and notes where to make the turn into the reef. After some skillful zigzagging through a coral mine field with finally anchored off the east side of Trig, and waded through placid water onto the beach. This was by far the most beautiful blue lagoon I have seen yet in French Frigate, with huge steep pinnacles of coral scattered throughout. After completing our census of birds on the island (and one turtle with a shark bite to its tail) we jumped in the water for our final snorkel of the day. The diversity was low here, the clarity not what we expected; and given the shark bitten turtle on the beach we didn’t stay in long.

Exiting the reef proved to be even more challenging than entering. With the late afternoon glare obstructing our view through the water, it was slow going avoiding the shallow spots. We decided, perhaps recklessly, to be adventurous and chart our own path through the barrier reef. Just when we thought we were in the clear and out of the hazards I noticed a shallow mound of coral just off the bow, and before I could point it out we were on top of it. Seconds went by with no reaction… “hmm must have been deep enou”….BANG!. We violently jolted forward as the keel of the motor slammed into the immovable reef. We pulled the motor up to inspect the damage, nothing major. So we continued on our way back to Tern, finishing up an amazing tour of French Frigate Shoals with only a few minor scratches to the propeller.  

That was Tuesday, it’s now Thanksgiving. I awoke at 4:30 am to the blinding flash of lightning over the shoals out my bedroom window. Still half awake and groggy, I fumbled in the dark to gather my camera gear. Numerous bolts of energy, one after the other, weaved through the clouds; illuminating the sky with a brilliant purple haze. The thunder claps were so violent and strong they made my bones shake. I couldn’t help but exclaim out loud... “Jesus Christ!” It seems the albatross were thinking the same, as they would call out in chorus after every rumble. The explosion of sound hit my ears with such force I was certain the island had been hit. It was one of the most exciting lightning storms over the ocean I have ever seen. The fireworks blazed on all morning until the sun came up a 7:30. Winds shifted as the storm blew over, followed by a cold rain that whipped through the front door, soaking the entry way and blowing over items on the shelves. So much for a break in the weather, winter has arrived to Tern.
I’m in charge of the turkey today. I covered it with two sticks of butter, jalapenos, garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper, and it’s now simmering away in the oven. We have on the menu all the classic side dishes: stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, biscuits, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and peach pie, and some home stilled moonshine I’m not supposed to tell you about. The sun’s back out and the wind light again, so we plan to have Thanksgiving dinner under white trash Christmas lights on the porch.

La Perouse Pinnacle

No longer a mystery on the horizon, I finally made it out to La Perouse, a steep pinnacle of basalt standing alone like a passing ship six miles south of Tern. La Perouse Pinnacle is the tallest monolith in the atoll, all that remains of a 13 million year old shield volcano battered and torn away by relentless trade winds and powerful swells. In fact the pinnacle was once the main lava tube that supplied the building material to this extinct island. Like a conveyor belt on a mind numbingly large scale, 70 million years of WNW movement of the Pacific Plate over a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle has produced a chain of volcanoes stretching 5,000 miles long. The Big Island of Hawai’i now sits over this hotspot at the southernmost end of the chain, spewing lava from active volcanoes - creating new land as it cools. Eventually the Big Island will drift away from this active region, cutting off the supply of magma to the volcanoes and stunting any further grow of the island. It will then take on the form of O’ahu and Kaua’i, extinct cinder cones slowly eroding away as the islands move WNW. Over millions of years as erosion accelerates the island will shrink in diameter. As the area of exposed island decreases, coral that once fringed its shores will create a rim of reef around a shallow lagoon, known as an atoll, formed by millions of tiny coral polyps that build calcium carbonate structures to keep them close to the sunlit surface waters; as has happened with French Frigate Shoals and the 30 million year old Kure Atoll. So long as the coral growth matches or exceeds the islands rate of submergence, the atoll will remain at the surface. Conditions change as the conveyor belt drives forward; drifting the atoll into latitudes too cold to support coral growth. Without the coral the atoll dies, and the entire structure will finally sink below the waves. The story, however, doesn’t end there as this submerged island will become part of the Emperor Seamounts; important features in the seafloor that extent all the way to the Aleutians, known to support a diversity of marine life.

French Frigate Shoals is in one of these transitional stages, where a small fragment of the old island (La Perouse) stubbornly holds onto existence as the atoll marches north to fulfill its destiny. This unique structure in the middle of the Pacific provides a critical habitat for seabirds that prefer to nest on high relief substrate. Brown Boobies, Blue-grey Noddies, and possibly White-tailed Tropicbirds for instance all   prefer the jagged weathered rocks as a perch upon which to lay an egg. These three species are only occasionally seen investigating Tern, but without steep cliffs suitable for nesting they are merely visitors to our island home. Probably for the best, this island is crowded enough as it is.

We snorkeled the pinnacle on our visit, one of the best spots thus far, possibly rivaling the aptly named Taquito Reef. The water is deep around La Perouse and lacking in sand suitable to anchor in. To avoid damaging the reef, we carefully maneuvered the anchor chain over a patch of sand, and I swam down to set it clear of the delicate coral heads. The clarity of the water made the bottom appear deceptively closer than it was. It looked roughly 35 ft, but in reality it was likely about 50 ft. My first attempt to make the dive failed, I ran out of air 10 ft short of the bottom; this doesn’t happen often for me, another indicator of the depth. Back at the surface I was able to replenish enough oxygen in my system to make the second dive. Reaching the bottom I managed to dig the anchor barbs into the sand without entangling myself in the chain. Looking up at the surface from the deep watery world below is one of my favorite sights; I like to imagine what it would be like to live in such an environment. The depth of the reef made the snorkeling rather exhausting, especially since we were still recovering from Thanksgiving dinner, but the multitude of caves to swim through and huge satellite dish-sized shelf coral made the effort worthwhile. The shark factor felt high here, and I was constantly watching over my shoulder for any strange silhouettes. It’s rumored there exists a long tunnel that cuts through the width of the pinnacle which people have swam through, full of sharks of varying shapes and sizing. Our grapes were not feeling large enough to attempt such a swim on this day.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Big Eggs

Testing the strength of my relationship and putting my friends and family on hold for six months, I came to this isolated runway far from home to see one thing…albatross. The boobies, frigatebirds, and even shearwaters are interesting to say the least, but the albatross demand respect and admiration. Three thousand strong and increasing in attendance each day, two of the three North Pacific species now dominate the landscape. Their presence on the island provides validation for my decision to invest half a year of my life to Tern. Long seven foot wingspans seize the wind like the sheets of a schooner, harnessing this resource for flight with only the slightest investment of energy. Walking down the runway I can hear the buzz of primary feathers vibrating past my ears as a Laysan tacks in a figure eight (known as dynamic soaring), dipping so low only centimeters remain between the hard packed ground and its wingtips. Just as a plane lowers its flaps to spill air from the wings, the bird pivots its broad wings vertical to the ground, stopping all forward motion and dropping it from the sky; possibly the first time this bird has touched land in over a year. Research suggests that albatross remain loyal both to their partners and their natal islands. Most pairs will return to the same patch of ground every other year to build a rudimentary nest suitable for an egg. Black-footed Albatross (BFAL) are the first to lay, followed by the Laysans a few weeks later. As of yesterday, I counted eleven BFAL eggs in four rectangular plots throughout the island; part of a weekly check to sample the breeding success of these birds from egg laying to chick fledging. These eggs will take nearly two months of incubation effort from the parents before chicks begin to hatch just around the time of my birthday in mid January. Now the waiting game begins.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Brought in with the Storm

A heavy storm has lain in over Tern Island and its neighbor Laysan to the north, both literally and figuratively. An unfortunate chain of events, one after another, has tested our resolve out here. As if the tsunami warning wasn’t enough excitement, it appears certain now that the entire winter crew on Laysan, and one of our own Ternites, will be forced to cut their season short and head back to Honolulu. I won’t disclose the details here, but one member of the Laysan team is in need of medical assistance not available on island, forcing an emergency evacuation of the entire crew. Sadly, given the isolated nature of Tern Island, the powers that be in the Fish and Wildlife Service office have deemed one of our crew members at risk of infection from a minor on island operation of an inflamed abscess. Despite the fact that it’s healing up nicely, the people in charge don’t want to risk it, and have decided without negotiation that this person most come off the island when the Kahana passes by in route to Honolulu from Laysan on Tuesday. Very frustrating for all of us to see one of our own leave so soon for such an absurd reason – but I won’t vent my frustrations here. There is a chance we will be receiving at most two volunteers from the Laysan team, but we won’t know until Monday who will be chosen and if any of them even want to stay with us. Our main concern is the food supply, but we should be able to accommodate them. It’s damned unfortunate, but there’s nothing we can do.

On a positive note, the literal storm seems to have passed. Strong winds and heavy rain carried on throughout the night and into the early morning, creating whiteout conditions and turning the runway into a rectangular lake. We all suspected the next big wind would bring in the much anticipated Laysan Albatross, and sure enough once skies cleared, the sun illuminated the white heads and dark brows of at least six of them. Their white bodies and pink bills stand out amongst the increasingly abundant all dark Black-footed Albatross. Soon these birds will pair up with their lifelong mates, renew their bonds through a ritualistic song and dance, mate, lay a massive egg, and rear a fluffy chick to fledging; flying thousands of miles into the North Pacific to collect squid, fish,  and roe, during the incubation and chick rearing periods. A remarkable life history of both parents alternating flying between feeding grounds in the cold offshore waters of Alaska and Russia and breeding islands in the warm sub-tropical seas here in the NW Hawaiian Islands; all in a week’s time, and repeating this for six months or more. Amazing. It is highly likely that many of the Black-footed Albatross seen from California have been banded by volunteers here on Tern, and may regularly fly between California and here to find food for their chicks. Suddenly home doesn’t seem all that far away.  

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Hatchling

We left behind October and its Halloween cake with the sunrise this morning. We are now entering the dynamic month of November, where the albatross will soon take over the island as the dominant breeding force. Lying in my hammock yesterday evening I watched Albatross stream in like a formation of fighter jets onto an aircraft carrier. First passing over the island to assess the landing conditions, then circling into a headwind to glide down the runway. Unfortunately their landing gear always seems to malfunction and I’ve seen a few flip tail over nose when the wind is too light; they’re much more adept at landing on the sea. Still no Laysan Albatross, bet we’re expecting them in at any moment. The weather has been hot and still, perhaps they’re waiting for a strong trade wind to bring them in.

Relatives of the albatross, the Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (or wedgies for short), are getting ready to fledge their chicks. They are burrow nesters, so to monitor their breeding Olivia has been going around with a burrow cam (an LED illuminated camera at the terminal end of a long tube; the image broadcasted wirelessly to a headset) to check the feathering status of the chicks. Many chicks have reached ‘mostly feathered’ to ‘fully feathered stage’, where they have almost completely lost their insulating down and have developed a similar plumage to adults. Eventually the parents cue in on when their chick is ready to fledge, and stop attending the burrow. This will prompt the chick, when it gets hungry enough, to leave the burrow (fledge) and experience for the first time what one can only imagine would be the thrill of flight and the hardships of making a living at sea.

I assisted Olivia with a couple wedgie burrow plots. It’s a repetitive task. Turn camera on, put camera in burrow, find the chick, report its status.

“Burrow 21 fully feathered chick. Burrow 23 fully feathered chick. Burrow 24…hmmm…this one’s difficult to see. Oh it’s a feisty one…possibly mostly…nope fully feathered chick”.

Repeat for an hour in the hot sun.
The monotony was broken, however, by an interesting find.

Whoa check it out, it’s a turtle hatchling!”
“Yeah and it’s still alive…well barely”.

Most of the lost hatchlings we find around the island have already dried out in the sun, turtle chips. This one however had discovered the relative shelter of a shady burrow, keeping it cool enough to stay alive and out of the deadly heat. We took the hatchling, about the diameter of a soda can, and carried it to the beach. Nearly stepping on a slumbering Hawaiian Monk Seal (I didn’t notice the tracks in the sand until passing it) I made my way, turtle in hand, to the water. Like bacon to a dog’s nose, the hatchling perhaps hearing the light surf or smelling the salty air awoke from its heat induced coma and began slowing flapping its flippers. Its sand encrusted eyes cracked open, as if its biological drive to seek out the sea kicked back into gear. It grew livelier as I set it on the cool wet sand, waving its flippers slightly faster and attempting to move down slope of the beach. Suddenly my doubts on its odds of survival were shaken, and once the water lapped over its body, it was clear this hatchling stood a good chance of recovery. Within seconds of being dragged down the beach by a surge of water, the hatchling was fully alert. Orienting itself perpendicular to the direction of the waves, it began vigorously paddling out to sea; lifting its tiny fingernail-sized head out of water after every stroke.  It was like watching someone who had just been slammed by a semi get up and start running a marathon. Amazingly resilient creatures. Vulnerable and weak, the struggle to find the sea is only one in a series of hurtles it now faces in the open ocean. In fact not a minute after it hit the water, a frigatebird swooped in and attempted to pluck the hatchling from the surface. A failed attempt by the bird, this life or death gamble will be a common occurrence for this hatchling until it reaches adulthood. If it does manage to escape the hungry beaks of predatory birds, the sharp teeth of oceanic sharks, and the deadly grip of drifting marine debris, this hatchling could reach a girth of 300 pounds, and may one day return to French Frigate Shoals to replay the drama all over again.