After the Hurricanes: Life Abounds on Laysan

A Millerbird perches in plain view, just begging to be resighted. Photo by Megan Dalton

A Millerbird perches in plain view, just begging to be resighted. Photo by Megan Dalton

September 7, 2014 | By Barbara Heindl

Welcome Home

Megan and I are back on Laysan after our emergency evacuation. The only noticeable change was an unusually high debris line, indicating large swells from Hurricanes Julio, Iselle, and Genevieve, who were in the area while we were gone. Otherwise, Laysan is more or less just how we left it.

Within 48 hours, Laysan welcomed us back in the only way she knows how: with an intense heat wave enveloping both of us in a big, hot, sweaty hug. She also gifted us with unpredicted swells, numerous juvenile Laysan Finches, Wedge-tailed and Christmas Shearwaters, Brown and Black Noddies, and Millerbirds galore.

NOAA vessel Oscar Elton Sette sits just outside the barrier reef at Laysan on offload day. Photo by Barbara Heindl

In the far distance, NOAA vessel Oscar Elton Sette sits just outside the barrier reef at Laysan on offload day. Photo by Barbara Heindl

It feels like everything is welcoming us back to the island in its odd, unique way. During a swim after work on our first day, I lifted my head above water and was watching the tide moving sand back and forth beneath me. While doing this, a Blackspot Sergeant Fish jumped out of the water and grabbed at a lock of my hair that was dangling into the water. Though it startled me slightly (that is an understatement!), I am choosing to see this as a welcome back from the little fishes that usually come to nibble at our feet. Even they seem excited to have us back floating in the bay when the water is calm. Thanks Laysan, we missed you too.

Winter is Coming

It is hard to tell if it's really as hot as it feels. It could easily be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, it might just feel that way because we have been traveling in an ice box for the past six days: the well air-conditioned NOAA vessel, the Oscar Elton Sette.

Though it does not feel like it with the heat, and it is only just the beginning of fall, winter is on its way to Laysan. The first of what are usually winter's north swells reached us shortly after our arrival, churning the bay in front of camp like a washing machine and encouraging resting monk seals to galumph (the actual term for forward propelling undulating seal movement) up the beach inland more than usual.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal galumphs up the shore to rest. Photo by Whitney Taylor

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal galumphs up the shore to rest. Photo by Whitney Taylor

Inland the albatrosses are all gone, fledged and foraging in the Aleutians. They are wisely missing out on this heat and the large incoming swells, which would have been difficult for any new flyers to triumph over. I think flying among the large waves and spray would be fun for the adults, racing down 20–30 feet faces with speed and grace, turning upward just in time to miss the closeout, and then catching the next wave in the set.

Kids These Days

Though the albatross presence is missed, the island is by no means vacant or quiet. Young Laysan Finches that fledged while we were gone have taken over our camp, tackling the moths on the screen doors to our tents and generally being curious and underfoot. Often multiple finches will tackle a single moth, tearing it to pieces and then looking for more. You might think it would resemble the iconic scene from Lady and the Tramp, two dogs slurping up a single piece of spaghetti, meeting in the center for a kiss. Rest assured it is nothing as graceful or charming as that.

The fearless juvenile finches are so numerous that every entry into a weatherport requires a finch check: Are there any finches perched on bottom of the door? No. The top of the door? No. On the handle to the door? No. On the step in front of or perched on anything next to the door? No. Have any landed on you while you were doing the check? No. Now recheck all around the door one more time just to be sure.

Curious-LAFI2

Young, curious, and endangered Laysan Finches investigate a biologist's boots. Photo by Megan Dalton

Curious-LAFI1

Getting personal: Laysan Finch getting to know the Millerbird team. Photo by Megan Dalton

Underground, the Wedge-tailed Shearwater burrows that held eggs before we left are now occupied by small fluffy chicks. The Red-footed Booby chicks that were all white fluff before we left are now a sleek grey, almost burgeoning on handsome. The Brown Noddies that were just hatching as we left are now vocal, begging to their parents at all hours of the day and night and tap dancing on rooftops while the human residents try to sleep inside.

A young Wedge-tailed Shearwater rests in the shade of a native bunchgrass.  Photo by Barbara Heindl

A young Wedge-tailed Shearwater rests in the shade of a native bunchgrass. Photo by Barbara Heindl

Millerbirds Come Out to Play

Further inland in "NIMI land," we were delighted to see that the Millerbirds were out in full action. After our first day back in the field we had three newly resighted individuals who had eluded us earlier in the tour. They now bring our known individual count to 100 birds! This is twice the number of individuals that were translocated in 2011 and 2012 combined. This number does not account for all the unmarked birds that we have been seeing either, and we hope to have that number nailed down soon to give us a more solid (and larger) population estimate for the season. But, regardless, YAY!

With three weeks of field time to do seven weeks' worth of originally planned work, Megan and I hit the ground running, and the Millerbirds seem to be cooperating. Megan heard four male Millerbirds counter-singing with each other at one location. This is a stark contrast to the earlier leg of the tour when most birds were quiet, busy molting in new feathers.

It is an exciting time to be on Laysan, and we are more than excited to be back!

heidiBarbara Heindl is a field biologist on Laysan Island monitoring translocated Nihoa Millerbirds. She has also done extensive work on Kaua‘i, Alaska, and across the United States' mainland. She is originally from Wisconsin and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Madison.