A Smooth Hand Off


August 20 – September 2
Michelle Wilcox

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Figure 1. A Millerbird receives a radio transmitter. Photo: Ryan Hagerty/US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Last week Laysan Island bid farewell to John Vetter, Millerbird Monitor for spring and summer 2012. He left a trove of information from his detailed observations of Millerbird behavior and reproduction that we will continue to build upon. The island welcomed not only 26 more translocated Nihoa Millerbirds, but me, Michelle Wilcox, the newest Millerbird Monitor for fall and winter, along with Robby Kohley who is here to help with translocation, post-translocation monitoring, and to train me on all things Millerbird-related. Robby first came to Laysan in September 2011 with Phase 1 of the Millerbird translocation project and monitored Millerbirds along with Cameron Rutt for the first six months after Millerbirds were released. I am very grateful for being able to tap into his wealth of knowledge and his history with this species.

We attached temporary radio transmitters to each of the newly released birds that will emit signals for 21-35 days and allow us to track the birds’ locations. Twenty-five of the birds have been re-sighted and are doing well and displaying interesting dispersal patterns. Some are moving to the edges of the current ‘core area’ of Millerbird activity in the northern part of the island, while others are carving out parcels in between the territories of males that have been here for a year. Some of the new birds are even exhibiting signs of early courtship behavior.  The twenty-sixth bird is a quiet female. We believe her transmitter is not working which means she will be much harder to find, but we hold high hopes of finding her during interactions she may have with other Millerbirds.

We have also been monitoring the six Millerbird nests that John had found in his last month on the island.  Two of the nests have produced a total of three fledglings, and four nests are in the nestling stage. This brings the grand total of chicks fledged thus far in 2012 to 20! This is fantastic news for the species and a huge success for the translocation project in general. There is still plenty of unoccupied habitat and there are plenty of insect food resources for all of these new birds to thrive and expand their population.

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Figure 2. Michelle Wilcox tracking Millerbirds. While Millerbirds eat flies, they clearly don’t eat enough! Photo: Chris Farmer/American Bird Conservancy

The island is an orchestra of bird song all through the night with Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Christmas Shearwaters doing their mating calls and Brown Noddy chicks begging for food. These three species are still producing chicks all over the island, whereas Bonin Petrels are just starting to arrive in small numbers. We see juvenile White Terns and Great Frigatebirds scattered around the island as well as a few Masked Boobies and Red-footed Boobies still waiting to be fed by adults. For all of these species Laysan Island is a rare breeding refuge free from mammalian predators, and for this reason tens of thousands of seabirds come here to nest.

Instead of Resight of the Week, I want to start a new series called Nature Sighting of the Week. This is going to be hard since I am new here and everything is wondrous and fascinating to me, but if I had to pick one from the past week, I would choose the Christmas Wrasse that came to visit me in the shallows of the camp beach on my first day on Laysan. This 8 inch fish is dressed in the most vivid blues, greens, and yellows that he looks like his colors have been enhanced for cinematic effect. It is as if he was saying, “Welcome to Laysan. If you are observant and patient enough we will put on quite a show for you!”

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