Greetings from Laysan

Here is a post from Cameron Rutt, a field biologist “stranded” on the island of Laysan working on the reintroduction of Millerbirds to the island. This update is from October at the beginning of his field work.

Not since 1923 – nearly 90 years ago – have millerbirds graced the island with its furtive presence, its long-lost notes once again joining the voices of finches as the only songbird representatives. Although it has been many generations since the ancestors of Laysan’s present avifauna have had to coexist with this Old World Warbler, the other birds have hardly batted an eye.  Not that the millerbirds return was that triumphant.  I watched as the final two millerbirds were at last released into their new home, expectantly, hoping for a grand exit.  But, no, the millerbirds did it the only way they know how – quietly, shyly, without making a splash – discreetly reclaiming their turf.

Transfer of birds off Nihoa - a tricky moment

Daniel Tsukayama holds birds above the surge while Eric VanderWerf and Cameron Rutt (USFWS/ABC) stand ready to help. Image credit: T. Work/USGS-National Wildlife Health Research Center

It was a long journey to get here, literally and figuratively.  Plans for this translocation have been in the works for years now, but the final leg was at last underway September 2nd, when our team of 12 started westward from Honolulu.  From there we arrived at Nihoa, a 30-hour commute, spending the next few days capturing the then “Nihoa” millerbirds, who had little idea what was in store for them.  We took two dozen birds, with a 50/50 split of males/females, transferred them to our boat and prepared for the nerve-wracking three-day voyage to Laysan.  But the Pacific remained true to its namesake, ushering us through with safe passage under unbelievably calm seas, as though nature itself knew the restorative work that was afoot.  All birds were released on Laysan in apparently good health, where only Robby and I remained to tend the flock.  So far, we’ve seen 23 of 24 birds, and are charged with the tedious task of keeping an eye on these birds for the next 5.5 months.

Nearly a month after leaving behind the real world, cell phones, internet, and Honolulu I write to you via satellite phone.  Stationed on a remote island, hundreds of miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, life still doesn’t seem so far-fetched.  The days of fresh fruit and veggies, fast food, real milk, store-bought bread, and showers are behind us, perhaps just not far enough to really feel it. Yet.  Planes still leave contrails overhead, in apparently a single east-to-west track, perhaps Tokyo-bound, but jarring enough to notice. And no matter where you are, I suppose, the orbits of satellites in the night sky are inescapable, a reminder of our world’s connectedness.

Millerbird posing on Laysan Island

Nice pose of a Millerbird, the morning after release on Laysan. Image credit: R. Kohley/American Bird Conservancy & US Fish and Wildlife Service

In order to obtain fresh water, we use a reverse osmosis system, turning saltwater into drinking water. Twenty-five gallons of saltwater produces a single gallon of freshwater and the system as a whole is able to crank out a mere 2 gallons/hour.  As freshwater is a “hot-commodity,” we use saltwater to wash our dishes, clean clothing, and for any personal hygiene, should it be so desired.  The only other mammals, besides the island’s six Homo sapiens, are the indifferent Hawaiian Monk Seals, which regularly haul themselves up on our beach (or vice versa).  Like mammals, trees too are in short supply, with only a single real, live tree remaining (and non-native).

The sheer number of birds around us approaches indescribable. Nowhere else have I had to sidestep petrels, shearwaters, and noddies on my way back to my weather port at night.  If you’re not careful, a  mouthful of toothpaste could wind up on an unsuspecting seabird. Although I’ve experienced my fair share of bird/window collisions, having Wedge-tailed Shearwaters running into my door is a new one. And seabirds aren’t exactly the white noise or natural sounds to lull you to sleep.  Dealing with the foot-patter of restless noddies overhead, the wheezing stutter of petrels, and the spooky braying of shearwaters takes more than a little adjustment…