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A medium-sized manta ray glides along the ship channel.
©Franklin Viola

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Palmyra Puzzle — Page 2

North Beach. Alone. Watching birds. Watching clouds. Watching thoughts take form in fairy terns. The morning passes walking along this palm-studded coast. Not a footprint to be found. The roar of breaking waves beyond the reef is a constant, as are the relentless cries of sooty terns.

Pieces of the Palmyra puzzle are beginning to come together. The old adage that it takes three days to relax -- in this case, focus -- is true. I am just now getting over the tropical shock of beauty.

While Brooke, Jeff, and Yvon are off bonefishing, my eyes are open to birds. Palmyra is often the first land these seabirds touch after being thousands of miles at sea. Of the 29 species recorded here, my checklist for today's records:

Brown Booby
Masked Booby
Red-footed Booby
Sooty Tern
Fairy Tern
Brown Noddy
Black Noddy
Great Frigatebird
Pacific Golden Plover
Bristle-thighed Curlew

I begin my morning birdwalk on the runway, about as surreal as you can imagine. The plane that brought us here, a turbo-prop Gulfstream One, built in 1965, sits on a strip of gravel, literally at the end of the atoll, bordered by palms. From the nose of the plane to the other end of the runway is approximately 5000 feet. The last two hundred feet has been taken over by sooty terns. 750,000 was the latest spring count.

Call them sea swallows as they swarm above the runway. I cup my ears with my hands to get the full volume of their voices. Deafening. A broad, white brushstroke across their foreheads ending above the eyes is what distinguishes them from other terns. Like so many seabirds, they nest in dense colonies, laying their eggs directly on the ground in what ornithologists call "a scrape." Their perpetual screaming day and night has earned them the nickname "Wideawakes." The only lull I have noticed is an eerie hush an hour or so before dawn.

Not wanting to disturb them, I keep my distance; even so my presence makes them wary. Yesterday, when I got too close, one sooty placed her tiny webbed foot on top of her speckled egg in a protective gesture.

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