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No-Fly Zone

The summer sun is beaming gloriously down on this remote speck of Pacific Ocean paradise--and there are chicks everywhere.

They’re under every tree, atop every dune, in every field and on every trail.

The more you check them out, the more you want to pick them up . . . and toss them off the island because it really is time for them to go.

They are albatross chicks, the latest crop of gooney birds, and the goofiest bunch of gooneys you ever saw. Tens of thousands are hatched here each winter and by early summer, they’re all having really bad hair days.

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Although their thick coats of down are mostly gone, some of it remains on their heads. So they’re sporting Mohawks and Samurai top-knots. Some look like Einstein, others like Beethoven. Male-pattern baldness is epidemic.

The same chicks are outside your door every morning. You have to step around them to get where you’re going.

Young gooneys, as albatross commonly are called, rarely stray far from where they were hatched, which is right on the ground, because when Mom or Pop comes back with some tasty squid, they want to make sure they get some.

Trouble is, fewer parents are coming back as the clock ticks deeper into summer. It’s their way of kicking their babies--by now as big as the grown-ups--out of the nest.

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Some catch on quickly, opening their wings into the breeze and learning to soar as only an albatross can, swiftly and gracefully, without much difficulty. They end up at sea, where they forage for squid and fish for two years or more, not returning to breed for eight or nine.

Others aren’t as fortunate. Their first flights are short ones, straight into Midway’s sprawling lagoon. Those with lots of down absorb water like sponges. They become sitting ducks, er, gooneys, easy prey for tiger sharks. According to one study, nearly 10% of Midway’s fledglings are eaten by sharks.

Then there are those that do not successfully fledge--an estimated 36%. The summer sun beams down cruelly on these poor birds. They just sit there, day after day, wilting, ultimately succumbing to hunger and dehydration.

You don’t see too many of the dead ones. They’re picked up at first light, so the island is spiffy for tourists. But you do see, each afternoon across the island, a thick column of black smoke billowing into the beautiful blue sky. Up to 1,000 dead chicks a day are incinerated in July. If only they had learned to fly. . . .

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“It is fly or die,” says Heidi Auman, a resident biologist and an albatross expert. “We do get guests who are not used to national wildlife refuges. They get upset and say, ‘Can’t you help that starving bird? Can’t you feed it some squid?’ And then we have to tell them, ‘This is not Disneyland. Mother Nature takes its course here and it’s survival of the fittest. It has to be that way.’ ”

*

Four years have passed since this former U.S. Navy base--the focal point of perhaps the most important battle in U.S. naval history--went public.

More than 50 years after the Battle of Midway, which turned the tide against the Japanese in the Pacific theater during World War II, the island “traded guns for gooneys,” as they say.

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Midway, an ancient coral atoll 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu, is a wildlife refuge now. The Navy is gone and human impact is strictly regulated. It’s only through unique cooperation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a private company, Midway Phoenix Corp. of Cartersville, Ga., that tourists are allowed at all.

Midway Phoenix maintains the infrastructure and airstrip, and realizes most of the profits gained through tourism. This enables Fish and Wildlife to maintain a refuge headquarters--and a means to get people and supplies in and out--that it otherwise could not afford.

It’s hardly an ideal situation and the partnership is a delicate one. Only 100 visitors are allowed at a time. They stay in renovated barracks, complete with TVs, phones and air conditioning.

There is a resident human population of nearly 200, many of them foreign nationals--Filipinos, Sri Lankans and Thais--who were kept on after the Navy pullout to perform a variety of chores, including picking up dead gooneys.

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Many of the visitors are fishermen. Their trips cost a lot--the amount varies, depending on the package--but hooking things within the five-mile ring of coral surrounding Midway’s 25-square-mile lagoon does not sit well with many in the atoll’s scientific community, despite a strict catch-and-release policy.

Scuba divers come to kick their way through spectacularly wild and clear water, but in this water are federally endangered Hawaiian monk seals and threatened green sea turtles, along with a resident population of Hawaiian spinner dolphins.

There are many here who say the boats ferrying fishermen and divers disturb these animals. The fishermen and divers shrug off such claims, saying those making them are overzealous.

Natural history tours bring in another type of clientele, mostly college professors, students and ecology buffs, here merely to study and observe the wildlife.

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Whether the different user groups like or respect one another, they seem to get along well enough, which is good, considering that they’re sharing an island not much bigger than the neighborhood country club. And in the grand scheme, all they’re really doing is playing through.

The two small islands that make up Midway Atoll truly are for the birds. An estimated 2 million nest on the shores of Sand and Eastern islands. That’s a sea of seabirds, flooding about 2 1/2 square miles of real estate.

Snowy white terns--also called fairy terns--flutter around by the thousands, usually in pairs. Like albatrosses, they have no natural land-based predators. They do not fear man and seem as curious about you as you are about them.

They lay their eggs anywhere they please. Shane Sinclair, a Midway Sportfishing and Diving captain, found an egg on the bench outside his room in the spring. He left it alone, watched it hatch and recently watched the young tern take wing.

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In all, 15 species of seabirds nest on Midway, among them Bonin petrels, red-footed boobies, great frigate birds and wedge-tailed shearwaters.

Then there is the albatross, larger than life.

With wingspans of six feet or more, they arrive like a swarm of locusts each fall. Midway is home to the world’s largest colony of Laysan albatross. About 400,000 nesting pairs--more than 70% of the world’s breeding population--get together on Sand and Eastern islands. They are joined by 17,000 nesting pairs of black-footed albatross.

The courtship ritual among first-time breeders, a bizarre song-and-dance routine, is out of this world. Eggs are laid in November, hatched in January and fledging begins in late June and lasts through July.

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During peak periods, when parents, juveniles and chicks are all here, more than a million albatrosses are milling around. It’s impossible to walk a straight line without bumping into one. Getting around with a bike or a golf cart is a tricky proposition indeed. Some road kill invariably occurs, the birds ending up either in the lab for study or as fuel for the gooney bird fire.

Remarkably, Midway is not coated with gooney bird poop. The birds of Midway seem to take care of business mostly at sea, and periodic rains help keep things clean.

“It’s so . . . surreal here,” says an aptly named Jonathan Bird, a Boston photographer, after his first few days away from civilization. “It’s like I stepped into some bizarre painting and I’m actually living in that painting.”

There is only a brief period, from early August to early October, when all the albatrosses are at sea, and then it’s as if Midway has lost its soul.

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Says Auman, “We humans are generally breathing a huge sigh of relief to have our lawns and peace back again, as well as our streets. But within a month or so, it is obvious that an important part of the island’s personality is missing, and most of us start to miss their company.”

*

In the relative cool of the morning, one of the chicks decides it’s finally time to fly. The bird waddles down a gentle incline, spreads its wings and gathers some air beneath its wings.

But just as it begins to pick up speed, it plows into another chick, which immediately gathers its composure and looks around, as if to see if anyone is watching.

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Someone is, and he can’t help but laugh, while at the same time feeling a little sad. These birds need help, not to mention haircuts, he says to himself.

Across the island, another albatross chick takes wing, makes it about 200 feet before landing in the lagoon. A 10-foot tiger shark is hot on its tail, but the bird senses the danger and takes to the air in the nick of time. Uplifting? You betcha!

Meanwhile, it’s getting hot back on the island, and one man has seen enough. George Harris, a fisherman from Alameda, Calif., decides to play God for a while. He picks up a hose outside Charlie barracks and proceeds to drench a dozen or so severely dehydrated albatross chicks.

They seem to enjoy a long overdue shower, although it turns a bad hair day into a total nightmare.

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“What are you doing?” a friend asks.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” he responds. “I’m watering gooneys. Look at ‘em. They love it!”

If only he’d had some squid.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Midway Atoll: How to Get There, Where to Stay and What to Do

Midway Atoll, 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu, is serviced only by Aloha Airlines, via Honolulu International. Prices at Midway vary, depending on the type of trip and package. Rooms start at $112 a person, double occupancy, and that includes meals.

Destination Midway in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii arranges fishing, diving and natural history trips. Its number is (808) 325-5000. Its Web site is https://www.fishdive.com. Oceanic Society Expeditions in San Francisco offers ecotourism trips that involve some hands-on work with the flora and fauna. It can be reached at (800) 326-7491 or at https://www.oceanic-society.org. Midway Phoenix in Cartersville, Ga., can be reached at (888) 643-9291 or at https://www.midwayisland.com.


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