By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
I recently cataloged the field notes of Alexander Wetmore, an ornithologist and the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. His field notes are part of Smithsonian Institution Archives collection RU7006. They are particularly enjoyable because of well documented research efforts, and (thank you Alexander Wetmore) legible handwriting. The latest find is the Tanager expedition of 1923, a joint project of the U.S. Navy, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, and U.S. Department Agriculture (USDA), Bureau of Biological Survey. The Naval Vessel USS Tanager provided transport for scientists who studied wildlife and vegetation in the Hawaiian and Wake Islands. The expedition is documented in more than 10 folders of correspondence, photographs, memoranda, field notes, journals, reports, articles, personnel lists, supply requests and memorabilia.
The islands visited during this expedition are northwest portion of the Hawaiian island chain. They are low-slung, often barely above sea-level, and important destinations for birds of the Pacific. While working my way through the materials I found references to two islands that caught my eye, Laysan and Johnston Island.
The stories of Laysan and Johnston Islands (for the purposes of this blog) begin with the presence of so many birds on such small islands. The repeated visits meant a substantial concentration of guano, bird excrement, dried and bleached by the sun, leaving behind material high in phosphates and ammonia, that could be used as fertilizer. In the nineteenth to early twentieth century companies would send out personnel to collect and process the material.
Johnston Island and Laysan Island were both sites where guano was commercially extracted. Unfortunately both islands suffered for this attention, which left them in sad condition by 1923, as documented in expedition photographs. Johnston Island became a popular destination for feather poachers, which dramatically decreased the population of birds. Donald Dickey, the expedition photographer, took images of the buildings and equipment poachers left behind.
Structures previously used by feather poachers, 1923
Laysan Island’s fate was a bit more extreme. I found the full extent of the story in an article Wetmore wrote and was partially published by the National Geographic Magazine. In 1902 the foreman of the guano processing center brought a few rabbits to the island for food and as a distraction for his children. The three rabbits multiplied (as rabbits will), but the population was kept in check until the guano industry left. Without humans, numbers soared. By 1913, the population was out of control. The Biological Survey attempted to eradicate them, killing several thousand, but was unable to complete the work at the time. As Wetmore stated in the article, a world war and other events prevented monitoring of the island. By the expedition’s visit in 1923, the island was in terrible condition. Scant vegetation was left, and the surviving wildlife was struggling. Donald Dickey’s Journal described how a lack of vegetation allowed any substantial wind to make life unbearable from blowing sand. The Biological Survey sent staff with the expedition to complete the removal, which took more than a month to complete.
The islands were characteristic of damage documented throughout the expedition; rabbits had been introduced to several of the islands. Luckily, this story does have a happy ending. As part of the Tanager expedition, Wetmore was assessing the islands' potential as a possible bird refuge. Johnston Island gained this status in 1926. In 2009, both islands became part of the newly established Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.