U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service employees stationed at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge fared well as tsunami surges generated by Friday's 9.0-magnitude Japan earthquake washed over part of Sand Island and most of unpopulated Eastern Island. But the events appear to have exacted a heavy toll on albatrosses and other birds that nest on both islands.
Midway, which has the world's largest population of Laysan albatross, is a low-lying North Pacific atoll located about 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu, or about a third of the way between Honolulu and Japan. The tsunami could not have come at a worse time for albatross chicks, which are hatched in January and February and cannot fledge until mid-June or July.
Pete Leary, a USFWS employee who authors the Pete at Midway blog, has posted photos and some information. Damage assessments are still being made but Leary wrote about discovering that "tens of thousands of chicks were washed away" on Eastern Island.
Eastern Island was almost entirely "washed over" while Sand Island, which features coastal bluffs and elevated inland areas, experienced mostly coastal flooding after about a five-foot tidal surge.
On the boat trip to Eastern Island, Leary wrote, "We passed thousands of albatross adults and petrels that had been washed into the water and lost their ability to stay dry. Their feathers were messed up by being tumbled over the island and through the vegetation.
"We pulled some into the boat, but needed to get to Eastern Island, so we had to hope that most of them would paddle to shore."
On the bright side, a short-tailed albatross chick that hatched in January on Eastern Island apparently is OK. That's a huge relief for scientists and bird enthusiasts because it was the the first known short-tailed albatross hatchling outside of the islands surrounding Japan in recorded history. (The short-tailed albatross is an endangered species.)
Wrote Leary: "The short-tailed albatross chick must really be wondering what kind of place it lives in because it was washed away from the nest for the second time this year already. This time, it was about 40 yards away from the original nest. It was easy to spot because all the other chicks were washed away in a previous storm.
"I didn't want to pick the chick up, because it was already stressed and upset, but the parents may not have found it that far from the nest."
Leary unfurled a sheet of plastic and when the chick stepped onto it, he wrote, "I gave it a sled ride the 40 yards back to its nest."
Sadly, Leary and another biologist spent the days after the tsunami digging out hundreds of dead birds and even fish that had been swept ashore by the tsunami. Two sea turtles that had been swept inland were carried to the water and released. The atoll's Hawaiian monk seals, also endangered, apparently were unscathed.
Leary concluded, "Although we lost a lot of wildlife, all of the people who are here because of the wildlife are safe."
-- Pete Thomas
Images showing a beleaguered Laysan albatross chick and waterlogged albatrosses are courtesy of Pete Leary