Midway Atoll 2011 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on May 09, 2011

I’ve just returned home after an entire month of photography at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in Hawaii—four consecutive photo tours to one of Earth’s most incredible locations for bird photography!

The first of our four groups arrived at Midway just three weeks after the tsunami that struck the atoll following the March 10 earthquake that devastated Japan. Yet, despite the fact that parts of the atoll’s three islands were impacted by the five-foot surge of water that ensued, our opportunities to photograph the annual bird spectacle at Midway were virtually unaffected.

This is not to say that we were oblivious to the devastation that killed thousands of albatross chicks, petrels and numerous endangered Laysan ducks on the atoll. In fact we documented it thoroughly—and in a subsequent blog I’ll post photos of the impact of the tsunami. But, larger Sand Island, where we stay, is the nesting site of almost a million birds that were essentially not disturbed. When the birds return to nest next year it will be difficult, for those unfamiliar with the atoll, to easily detect the effects of the tsunami.

One thing was different for us this year, though. All of our groups flew to Midway from Honolulu on our chartered Gulfstream G2 corporate jet rather than the turboprop we have used in previous years. This is the very same jet—chartered by the Democratic National Committee (DNC)—that Barak Obama used during the early months of his presidential campaign after winning Iowa, and later by Hillary and Bill Clinton. It is also the jet Janet Jackson used as transport to the 2004 Super Bowl that was highlighted by the infamous “wardrobe malfunction.” This year, with the G2, our flight time has been cut in half and, because we can fly at an altitude of 45,000 feet, the plane smoothly avoids lower-altitude weather conditions. It also carries a bigger payload—allowing us to bring additional photo equipment as well!

So much of Midway was still the same—including my favorite shooting locations and activities. Every time we went out to shoot we would evaluate wind and weather to obtain optimal shots at various strategic locations around Sand Island. During our trips this year, we experienced a wide variety of weather conditions from drizzle and overcast (which I prefer for close-ups and bird portraits) to brilliant blue skies, electric turquoise water and gusty wind (great for flight shots).

Midway is among the best locations on the planet to practice bird flight photography. Many species are abundant, fly amazingly close overhead, are reasonably slow in the air, or hover over your head. In the accompanying slide show, many flight shots were made with a hand-held 24–105mm lens. Imagine doing that elsewhere! The flying gray-backed terns, white terns and some of the Laysan albatross were made with that lens. Midway is a virtual aerial shooting gallery—you’d be hard pressed to go home without “killer” flight shots!

One of my favorite activities on Midway is to shoot “wave riders.” When conditions are right—which happens frequently—incredible cerulean blue waves break over the atoll reef. Both Laysan and black-footed albatrosses surf the face of the wave attaining lift and speed—creating amazing photo opportunities for images of these birds in their natural element. Albatrosses are built for flying and—juxtaposed against a crashing translucent wave—they are photogenically at their best! Many an afternoon was filled with “wave rider” photography this year.

Another favorite group activity is to photograph the “runway.” This is not the famous WWII Battle of Midway airplane runway, but a sandy albatross runway that emerges from between naupaka shrubs where these goofy “goony birds” scramble down the beach heading into the wind to achieve lift for flight. If the wind is strong they get off the ground easily. When there is little or no breeze they have many hilarious false starts and out-and-out crashes that can keep a group of photographers occupied (and laughing) for hours

Short-tailed albatrosses are extremely rare on Midway. This year was the first time a pair of endangered short-tailed albatrosses hatched a chick on Eastern Island—and every one of our groups got to see it. This chick survived the tsunami flood that washed it 40 yards from its nest, as well as a tidal surge in February that also topped its nest site. It’s obviously one tough little bird. One of our groups even had the good fortune to be onsite on Eastern Island when the adult male made an afternoon food delivery—from a distance, we made images of the short-tail feeding the chick during the short time it was there. The male, banded on Japan’s Torishima Island, is 24 years old, while the 8-year-old female—also banded on Torishima—still retains much of its juvenile plumage. The first two groups also photographed a third short-tail albatross (probably a male) that has frequented Sand Island over the past several years. Unmated at 8 years old, it characteristically leaves the island in mid-April—and this year was no exception.

The famous 60-year-old Laysan albatross named “Wisdom” was seen off and on during the month. Wisdom’s nest was close to our hotel, but mixed among the surrounding throng of similar-looking birds, it was hard to remember to look for this one specific adult! Because this bird and its mate have a chick they were actively feeding it. Laysan albatrosses routinely fly more than 1,000 miles—one way—to catch squid for the nestling. They can be gone for as long as a week, flying up to the Aleutians and then westward towards Japan before heading back to Midway with their oily meal offering. Then they may hang around on land for only an hour before repeating that amazing flight out to their hunting grounds!

Most groups were lucky enough to see one or two brown and/or northern masked boobies. At one time both of these species were relatively common nesters at Midway. However, since both make their nests on the ground they were severely impacted by the introduction of rats to the islands during WWII. Now, after a successful rat eradication program, a pair of masked boobies and two pairs of brown boobies have returned to nest on Eastern Island—our last group was lucky enough to locate and photograph both species! Also on Eastern Island, male great frigatebird courtship displays—with photogenic ballooning red gular pouches and alluring (apparently to female frigatebirds) woo-woo-woo calls attract females from over a wide area. Red-footed booby nests were abundant on Eastern Island as well.

From hovering white terns, nest-seeking wedge-tailed shearwaters and courting red-tailed tropicbirds—plus thousands of displaying albatrosses and fluttering petrels—we were never lacking in photo subjects. I doubt I’d be exaggerating when I state that more than a quarter million images were produced by our four groups—photography at Midway is that good! Our 2012 Midway trips in late March and early April are now open to enrollment. Don’t miss your chance to photograph one of the most spectacular wildlife refuges on Earth!

Related Tags:  albatross, hawaii, midway, national, refuge, wildlife