An Island of Constant Change

June 17 – 30, 2013
Michelle Wilcox

We are bidding farewell to four of the seven island inhabitants who have been our companions in conservation and restoration work here for the past three months.  One of the outward-bound volunteers composed a poem which now permanently graces the kitchen tent. I found it such a lovely glimpse of the magic Laysan Island shows us that I asked permission to reproduce it here:

You future stewards of this enchanted isle
Carried on winds of kindest fate
To beach at Eden's seaward gate
And among these marvels dwell awhile

To you I smile and bid rejoice
Yours is a gift of priceless worth
The most wondrous place on this wonder-filled earth
Is given you by chance or wisest choice

Be drunk with joy, but remember also friend
No bottle can forever pour
No sea is not bounded by a shore
And to every joy must come an end

And so I say with heart and haste
Enjoy her fully without fail
From flowering ridge to beaches pale
And never let an instant go to waste

Study well the beauty of her Albatross
Whose slender, soaring sea-spun wings
Weave and winnow their wind-bourne rings
Nations and oceans and dreams across

Swim in her waters, talk to bright birds
Study flower, vine and sedge
Walk the roaring Southern Ledge
Hear her voice, and try to know the words

For some dawn will bring a shadow to that shining bay
A dark ship will beckon and call you on
Before you know it, you'll be gone
From Eden taking your mournful, solitary way.

                                -Ian Thomas, 2013


Millerbird female molting her tail and some of her primary wing feathers. Photo by M. Wilcox.

Millerbird female molting her tail and some of her primary wing feathers. Photo by M. Wilcox.

We have Millerbirds without tails again on Laysan Island. It is time for another molt of feathers, and we have a number of birds laying low and conserving their energy during this time—either that, or they find flying a tad harder while missing some of their inner wing feathers.

We have noticed a number of broken tail feathers indicating damage; damage and worn, tatty feathers are two of the reasons that birds molt. The rate of replacement is different for each species, but most small perching birds molt once or twice a year.

We are still learning about the Millerbird molt sequence. No one really knows how many times they molt per year or how juvenile plumage differs from adults. To that end my workmate, Megan Dalton, has been assiduously collecting photographs of the feathers of all the birds we have captured since we have been here. Hopefully we can help fill in those gaps of knowledge.

Nature Sight of the Week

 Laysan Ducklings (Anas laysanensis) dubbed Huey, Duey and Luey in front of the hurricane shelter in camp. Photo by M. Wilcox.

Laysan Ducklings (Anas laysanensis) dubbed Huey, Duey and Luey in front of the hurricane shelter in camp. Photo by M. Wilcox.

A Laysan Duck has hatched her three ducklings underneath the hurricane shelter in camp. She is teaching them to feed on the moths that are attracted to the structure. We also found a mother hen sitting on a nest of three eggs in the northeast naupaka while we were watching Millerbirds this week.  These broods constitute a second peak in duck reproduction this year; the first crop of ducklings hatched in late April.

Laysan Ducks are one of the rarest ducks in the world. They only occur here and on Midway Island where they were translocated. These ducks feed on the brine flies along the lake's edge, drink freshwater from natural seeps, and bathe in the ocean. They have also grown accustomed to human presence, and some “camp ducks” have learned that they can find fresh water on tarps and bucket lids around camp after a rainfall.

Other Bird News

The Black-footed Albatross chicks are fledging! They have been practicing their take-offs and landings in the North Desert and around the island for a few weeks, and now they are heading out ocean-ward.  When they tire of flying they land in the ocean and paddle around for a while before running atop the water to fly again. There are perils in fledging, and we have already seen a number beaten up by waves and spit back onto shore. We are also keeping our eyes peeled for our first sightings of tiger sharks that will come to prey upon the fledglings.

Laysan Albatross chicks are right behind the albatross in practicing to fly; they too will be fledging by the next blog. Brown Noddies have laid a few eggs around camp and elsewhere. They don't seem to care where they nest—on the ground or atop a 55-gallon water drum.

We have started to see Grey-backed Tern chicks that resemble mottled grey stones against the sand.  Christmas Shearwater eggs are also starting to hatch into grey fluff-balls. Bonin Petrels are fledging every day, while Wedge-tailed Shearwaters are laying their eggs in burrows vacated by the Bonins.

Yes, life is all about change here on Laysan!

Michelle WilcoxMichelle Wilcox is a Millerbird biologist with American Bird Conservancy.