Back in Midway just a month after my last trip, this time with Paveena. During my travels of the last year, I’ve had few inconvenient travel delays (the delay in Antarctica was a welcome one) or faced inclement weather so the odds were that something would give at some stage. Arriving in Oahu, we headed over to the east coast for a few days of R&R before our scheduled Midway charter flight. We stayed in the pleasant coastal town of Kailua, a mecca for water sports enthusiasts. After three days of eating, body surfing and touring the coast of Oahu, we were ready for some bird photography. However, on the morning of our departure for Midway, we were informed that the chartered prop plane had a mechanical problem and was currently stuck on Midway with a two day delay likely.
So followed two days of more eating, touring, beach going and even TV watching as both of us got progressively more bored. I took my camera with me on some of our North Shore excursions and did manage to capture this shot of fir trees which I have converted into monochrome and given it a funky, artistic twist. I like the image a lot and it is an indication of where I want more of my photography to head.
Arriving in Midway after a 4.5 hour flight, we were greeted with unseasonal cold, wet and windy conditions and while we did have a day and half of sunny weather, for the most part of our stay it was stormy with winds in the 30-40 mph range, punctuated with frequent, heavy squalls. All of this made photography more challenging but by no means impossible. Perhaps tougher, was bicycling against the wind, especially down the unsheltered runway.
On our first morning we had a few hours of relatively calm conditions. Before breakfast it was straight down to the “Albatross runway” for some take-off shots. I made a big effort to eliminate all distracting backgrounds when shooting this time around.
We followed this up with some flight photography of the albatrosses flying over Midway’s aquamarine coloured lagoon.
Although May and June are the peak months for White Tern hatchlings, the first chicks begin to appear in early to mid-April and for me this was a prime photographic objective: to locate and photograph the chicks and ideally the adults feeding the chicks with fish.
As I have written before, White Terns do not build nests. Rather they lay their eggs on tree branches, logs and rocks. This makes the eggs highly vulnerable to strong winds should the adults leave the egg unattended at any stage. Moreover, while the chicks have large, webbed feet with strong gripping powers, they too are also at risk in strong winds. This explains why most of the egg laying and chick rearing occurs in the middle of the year when winter storms have passed.
While looking for chicks, I found a newly hatched chick on the ground that had fallen from its tree branch perch some 20 feet above the ground. As there was no way for me to reach the branch, I instead placed the chick on a lower branch. However, despite being in full view of the adult, perched on the original branch higher up, the latter made no effort to fly to the lower branch. We watched from a distance with a mix of frustration and sadness as the adult remained on its high perch, newly caught fish in its bill, ignoring its chick 12 feet below it. It was hard to watch the increasingly dehydrated and hungry chick visibly fade as the day progressed. We hoped that perhaps nightfall would coax the adult to feed and shelter the chick but sadly when we returned the next morning after a night of high winds, cold temperatures and heavy rain, the chick had succumbed to the elements, hanging upside down from its perch. Perhaps aggravated by being a newly expecting mum, Paveena found the whole episode extremely distressing. Even I found it hard to watch as she removed the chick from the branch and buried it in the nearby sandy earth.
All species of avian chicks on Midway face various perils. For the Albatross chicks, I have documented previously the threat they face from inadvertent plastic material ingestion. In addition, their parents spend up to three weeks at a time away from them, foraging for food far out to sea in the Northern Pacific. Many of the chicks have nests on the ground in extremely unsheltered areas where they are at the full mercy of the prevailing elements. On this trip, we observed various Albatross chicks being repeatedly drenched by breaking waves over sea walls as well as chicks being sand blasted on the beach, their eyes full of gritty sand particles. When the weather is fine, even in the early months of the year, temperatures can rise well into the 80s. For those chicks out in the open, with no shade, dehydration is another risk. It is hard to say what this Laysan Albatross chick died from to but the little carcass offered a sad reminder of how perilous the early months are for Midway’s chicks.
After much looking I managed to find two healthy White Tern chicks in different locations with attendant adults. The adults would shelter the chicks by sitting on top them (gently off course) during the night. During the day, they would disappear out to sea for periods typically of 1-2 hours to forage for small fish and sand eels to feed to chicks. The latter have voracious appetites and are capable of swallowing fish the length of their own bodies. Although the backgrounds were less than ideal, I did manage to capture some of the interaction as well as some close-up shots of the adults carrying fish/eels.
On previous visits, I have photographed adult White Terns on the roots of a particularly attractive Ironwood (Casuarinas) tree. However, I have never been entirely satisfied with the images due to the placement of the Tern, the lighting conditions or the depth of field achieved so on this trip I repeatedly checked the tree. Late one afternoon, everything came together: flat light and a perfectly placed Tern. I set up the tripod, using a slow shutter speed (1/20th sec) in order to allow a relatively small aperture (f 14) so that all the tree roots would be in focus. Too many photographers get fixated on zooming in on their subject but when you find an animal juxtaposed on a beautiful or distinctive background, I will always want to give prominence to the latter in the image. Given the virtual absence of colour in the image, this picture was always destined for black & white conversion.
Not far from this tree is a particularly attractive Banyan tree. One of the lessons that I have learnt from underwater macro photography is the importance of backgrounds. When I am underwater with a macro rig, I will often hunt for a striking background and then wait for something to come along and either swim past it or plonk itself on the backdrop.
With plenty of Albatrosses near the Banyan tree, I knew it was only a matter of time before an albatross walked closely past the giant Banyan tree roots.
On one of the days the wind was really screaming with huge rollers crashing over the reef.
The wind was so strong that in exposed locations such as at a small peninsular called Bulky Dump, it was at times difficult to stand. However, the upside is that the windier the conditions, the more birds that take to the air. Albatrosses thrive in high winds, locking their long wings in place to glide and swoop effortlessly from the sky to the sea surface. This next image was taken when the sun momentarily broke through thick cloud cover. It captures the huge numbers of albatrosses in the air as well as the thundering surf spilling over the reef into the lagoon.
One of the animals that you will encounter in Midway is the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal. I have not taken many pictures of them over the years partly because they are mostly seen stretched out prostrate and asleep on the island’s beaches (i.e. not very interesting) and partly because there is a 150 ft radius limit to approaching the seals – designed to minimise disturbance.
On occasion however, I have come within this radius by accident. One morning, I came down some steps leading to one of the beaches and when I turned the corner, there was a seal not more than 30 ft away, fast asleep and yes, snoring loudly. I backed away carefully and took up a position behind some shrubbery where I could see it but it could not see me. Normally I would have left straight away but the dark brooding clouds in the background all screamed photo opportunity so I quickly snapped off a few pics. The seal did briefly open one eye and just as quickly went back to snoring.
Photography doesn’t have to end even when it is pouring rain. The new pro and semi-pro camera bodies and lenses are extremely weather resistant and indeed I have stopped bothering with rain coverings. My cameras have now been soaked and caked in snow several times, with no ill effect at all. When the rain descended on Midway, I tried to get a little more creative. Without captioning, viewers would probably have a hard time figuring out what these next two images are (just as intended!). In fact they are the backs of the heads of two Laysan Albatross chicks, taken from about 6 inches away while they were distracted as they faced into the teeth of a howling gale accompanied by squally showers.
Paveena and I were shown around the amazing hydroponic garden that the local Thai staff have set up. It now provides a good deal of the vegetables and fruit that is served up in the canteen every day. While under the covering mesh of the garden, the sun briefly broke through, which I noticed was creating some interesting shadows of White Terns resting on the mesh roof. I returned a little later with my camera.
One of the golden rules of landscape photography is to get something interesting into the foreground. While walking along Midway’s long northern beach, I came upon this washed up tree by the water’s edge. This next image was taken at dusk using 5 stops of graduated neutral density to balance the exposure between the ground and the sky and with the shutter left open for 20 seconds. This has had the effect of smoothing out the water, which was in fact quite turbulent.
On the last day we headed out to Bulky Dump again, a charcoal sky hanging over the breaking surf and with the smell of rain in the air. We concentrated on the Laysan Albatrosses as they went about their seemingly endless courtship dances and grooming rituals.
The Albatrosses have absolutely no fear of humans and are more curious than anything when in our presence. While I lay on the ground photographing the courting threesome in the previous image, this inquisitive individual noticed that neither of my ears were pierced, a predicament it set about trying to rectify.