story by Christopher Pala
photo by Monte Costa
After a six-year hiatus, Midway is accepting visitors again—but just forty at a time. It’s the largest of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which were designated a national monument two years ago, and it’s the only one you will ever be able to visit. Located midway between America and Japan, Midway was the site of the famous battle that just ten months after Pearl Harbor reversed the tide of the war in the Pacific. There are still numerous buildings dating from that period and even some from earlier times, when Pan Am’s luxurious Clipper seaplanes stopped overnight on their hopscotch journeys across the Pacific. The island is surrounded by picture-perfect white beaches shading off into intense blue-green water, but that’s not why you want to go there. It’s worth the $5,000-per-week price tag from Honolulu because it is the ultimate birding experience.
During the winter-spring breeding season, there are 1.8 million birds on less than 600 acres of land, a density of more than 3,000 birds per acre. “I’ve been to the Galapagos,” says John Klavitter, the island’s chief scientist, “and the diversity of animals there is amazing. But Midway wins hands-down in terms of abundance.”
Ruling the roost are the 1.5 million or so Laysan albatrosses, the most common albatross in the Northern Hemisphere, nesting on the ground. They are superb fliers at sea but atrocious navigators on land. This writer, standing at the top of a low hill taking pictures, was knocked down by a crash-landing Laysan (the albatross was none the worse). The 15,000 angelic red-tailed tropic birds will hover a few feet from your face, but they won’t touch you. There are also 135,000 sooty terns nesting in the ironwood trees, 100,000 petrels nesting in ground burrows and, striking a visually discordant but musically exquisite note, several hundred canaries, introduced in the 19th century. Even with so many birds, there is a strange calm as one walks among the albatrosses: The chicks know that for the parents to find them after foraging at sea for hundreds of miles, they need to stay within a few yards of where they were born. HH
Only the nonprofit Oceanic Society (1-800-326-7491) organizes tours of the island.