September 16th: A Visit to Tern Island
Written By Dan Suthers September 17-18, 2004
While the divers dispersed to various sites around the French Frigate Shoals (see related article), the education team went to Tern Island. The photographers needed images and video of sea birds, for which this is certainly the place.
Tern Island is an elongated island covered mostly by a coral aircraft runway and several buildings. The runway was first constructed to use Tern Island as a refueling stop during World War II, and is now used approximately once a month for supply of the field station. Between the runway and the water on each side is scrub and small brush, where tens of thousands of nesting seabirds make their annual home.
Recall that abaord the Hi`ialakai we were carrying fish for Hawaiian Monk Seals at Tern Island. The French Frigate Shoals are the home of the largest sub-population of this endangered species. A "Second Chance Program" is underway to increase pup survival by feeding them during the critical period of their life when they are already weaned (so can feed themselves) but are underweight ("failure to thrive"). A U.S. Fish and Wildlife boat was scheduled to come out to the Hi`ialakai and pick up the fish, along with other gear being delivered. This would take several trips, and there was room for us on the first and last trips.
The first things I noticed even before landing on Tern island were the smell of guano and the sound of birds. Tern Island is covered with birds. As soon as I got on shore, the lack of ground motion was also noticeable!
While resident staff unloaded the boat, David and Susan loaded their camera equipment on what looked like a golf cart and headed down to the other end of the runway to photograph and videotape nesting seabirds. Happy to actually have some open space to walk about, I wandered down the runway photographing birds along the way. I was constantly followed by birds investigating me and in some cases trying to scare me away by flying very close over my head. The sooty tern pictured was a few inches from my camera lens. Along the way I observed numerous species of seabirds nesting or resting in close proximity to each other. I'll describe the birds in a separate article.
Later I took a pathway to a beach that was pointed out to me by staff. There were two monk seals resting there: as soon as I noticed them I took a photograph and left. (The photo was taken with a telephoto lens: I was not as close as it looks. It is illegal to approach or disturb a Monk Seal).
After a few hours of ornithological bliss, we returned to "downtown Tern Island" to chat with the staff and catch our boat home. Some staff on Tern Island are responsible for managing the National Wildlife Refuge (including care for monk seal pups and turtle hatchlings), while other staff conduct research. Population and habitat monitoring studies are undertaken to answer basic management questions. Special Use Permits are also issued to outside researchers to do biological research, especially that which helps solve conservation problems. I hope to write more about this research in a feature article.
Tonight, David and Susan are hard at work in the wet lab photographing animals gathered for them by the divers, while I write in the dry lab. The towboard team has completed preparing their cameras for tomorrow, and night operations will not be conducted tonight due to some technical issues being worked out.
See also these related NOWRAMP 2002 journal entries:
9/12/02 U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Field Station on Tern Island by Scott Kikiloi
9/11/02 French Frigate Shoals, Day 1, Tern Island by Carlos Eyles
9/8/02 A Tern for the Better by Mark Heckman