Midway Atoll’s “Bluebirds”

By Joe Van Os on May 18, 2011

It’s 1 PM. The sun is blazing directly overhead as shadows fall straight down, harsh, dark and deep—it’s time to take a siesta and put your camera away until later in the afternoon. Well, perhaps not on Midway!


In March and April, on those brilliant sunny days—when the water seems electric aqua blue—just after lunch, like clockwork, the spectacular aerial courtship display flights of hundreds of red-tailed tropicbirds attain full speed. Calling raucously and often flying “backwards” they perform marvelous aerobatics of hovering, gliding, swooping—their two red streaming tail feathers cocked from side to side. Then courting pairs fly in close tandem up and down the beach and out over the water. They do all of this at wonderfully close range and at a speed slow enough that photographing them on the wing is just like “shooting fish in a barrel.”

Too bad they do this at midday, you say, when the light is absolutely terrible! But the secret here is these birds fly with their own built-in flash—the brilliant white beach sand acts as a wonderful reflector, bouncing that bright sunlight up underneath them and lighting them up with an even coverage which is fantastic against the cobalt blue of the sky. They fly over the non-reflective vegetation and, almost immediately, they seem “unplugged.” Then they fly out over the sand and their flash unit has suddenly “recycled.”


But the most amazing sight of all is when the red-tailed tropicbirds—and the Laysan albatrosses and the white terns—head out over the ocean. Then the bounced blue reflection from that electric blue water lights up their white feathers with a rich turquoise hue and they become the “bluebirds of Midway”—an exciting addition to any day’s photography!

Related Tags:  albatross, atoll, laysan, midway, red-tailed, tropi