Haven’t lost my Laysanity (yet)

Here is another post from Cameron Rutt, a field biologist “stranded” on the island of Laysan working on the reintroduction of Millerbirds to the island.

Well, it has been a little while since I’ve last written…in many ways, not much has changed, although the island does look very different than it did 2+ months ago. The main reason for this is that all open spaces on Laysan have been inundated with albatrosses during the interim, with hundreds of thousands of Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses (and a single lonely Short-tailed Albatross). Robby, my co-worker, and I tried standing in one spot yesterday and counting all of the albatrosses that were readily visible. Well – an hour and fifteen minutes later – we finished with 24,032 Laysan Albatrosses. Needless to say, we’ll never do that again!

Millerbird monitoring on Laysan - so far, so good!
Here Robby Kohley (L) and Cameron Rutt (R) track the Millerbirds carrying radio transmitters. The two will remain on Laysan to monitor the birds’ survival, distribution, and first nesting attempts through April 2012.  Image credit: C. Farmer/American Bird Conservancy

With the arrival of the albatrosses, it is clear whose island this really is – not that it was ever “ours.” They monopolize the sights and sounds island-wide. Human trails, including the one to our outhouse, have become choked with nesting albatrosses, making what should be an effortless walk much more strategic. Most of the albatross are already incubating their single egg – which will take 9+ weeks! They are bound like chained dogs to their egg, but that doesn’t stop them from nipping at your heels when you pass by within reach (I got bit by one not more than a few hours ago). Clearly, the birds are serious about their business and following the female’s departure post-laying, the males routinely sit on the egg non-stop for three weeks, without so much as getting up for food or water! From our perspective, though, it looks terribly boring.

The millerbirds gave us nearly two months of breeding activity but were ultimately fruitless. Three nests had eggs (two probably got munched by the endemic, and endangered, Laysan Finch), and one of these hatched two young, which died after a week in the nest, for unknown reasons. It was hard not to be bummed out about this all, but we try and remain optimistic. After all, this is an unusual time of the year for breeding activity, with this outburst catching almost everyone off-guard, as they usually breed in the warmer months, starting in late winter/early spring. So the millerbird gang appears to have started laying low for the winter here, much to our chagrin, as it makes the task of finding them exceedingly difficult. Winters here tend to be cooler, rainier, and generally more stormy, where “cooler” equals recent lows in the mid- to upper 60s. Sorry.

For all of my work and interest in birds, I had once prided myself with the fact that I had never been pooped on (until late in college). Even since that unfortunate incident, it has been a very rare occurrence. Well, what I mistook for some sort of mutual respect has been breached in a serious way out here. It is not uncommon to feel like a target to the boobies or frigatebirds which constantly fly overhead. And there is nothing quite so repulsive as being able to approximate the relative temperature of the culprit, moments after you’re leg has been decorated a pasty white. I didn’t even receive the worst of it (yet, knock on wood). One of the poor volunteers for the Monument crew had her mouth open when a bird hit its mark! Apparently it tasted like “fish.” Disgusting!

We are still subsisting on a largely can-food diet, although surprisingly, I haven’t really missed fresh fruits and veggies that much. Our food pantry is actually quite impressive. Who knew that shrimp, clams, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, okra, lychees, and ginger all come out of cans and jars. With some culinary creativity, we have had some impressive dinners, ranging from home-made ravioli to sushi, although sadly our frozen supply of cheese is becoming depleted (our electricity comes from solar panels, by the way). Everyday I wear the same outfit, and clothing becomes permanently dirty with only our hand-washing abilities, not that anyone else on the island cares (or looks much better, for that matter). But it is times like bringing a bucket of dishes down to the ocean for dishwashing that make you realize just how atypical life has become. The soundtrack to our lives is largely void of anything human/mechanical (save the reverse osmosis system), with the tracks instead dominated by seabirds, the wind, and the waves…

Cheers, Cameron