Notes on the Birds of Palmyra

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Notes on the Birds of Palmyra


This account by ornithologist Dr. Frank Richardson, describes the observed bird species and behaviors during a short visit to Palmyra in 1953. Dr. Richardson was part of a 45 member team, led by investor Richard Kimball, to evaluate Palmyra as a recreational resort.

While not the first evaluation of its kind, nor the last, it was by far the most extensive, producing a series of detailed reports describing the state of Palmyra at the time and its history of to that point.

Interestingly, Dr. Richardson also draws a connection between the health of the bird and crab populations, something that would be born out by the recent rat eradication program.


Frank Richardson


University of Hawaii Manoa Library






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By Frank Richardson (Bishop Museum)

On September 18 and 19, 1953, I was fortunate to be one of the guests of Mr. Richard Kimball on a special flight to Palmyra, some 1,000 miles south of Oahu. Palmyra is a fairly typical flat coral atoll. It is about three miles long and consists of an irregular ring of small islands, sometimes separated by channels, enclosing a large central lagoon. Mr. Kimball and others are interested in developing Palmyra recreationally and commercially, although how soon and to what extent this may be possible cannot now be said. The limited bird observations possible on this trip, barely more than half a day on the island, may not even have disclosed all of the species of birds present, but birds were seen in sufficient variety and numbers to clearly show that they would provide an important source for pleasure or study for visitors to the island, and a significant source of information as to the location of fish for sport or commercial fishermen. The most numerous birds on Palmyra are seabirds of which the following species were observed:

Brown Booby (Sula loucogaster) Fairly common—several dozen seen. Nesting on ground next to lagoon. All had eggs, which is of particular interest for this time of year.
Red-footed Booby (Sula sula) Quite common--several hundred seen. Nesting in low trees both by lagoon and ocean. Young were well-grown or flying.
Frigate Bird (Fregata minor) Comton—over a hundred seen. Not seen to be nesting.
White tern (Gygis alba) Quite common--several hundred seen. Beginning to nest in large trees of eastern part of island. One fresh egg found. The beautiful white or fairy tern should always be a special attraction of Palmyra for it can be readily and closely observed in a striking forest setting.
White-cardped Noddy Tern (Anous minutus) Fairly comon—over a hundred seen. This almost black tern provides strong contrast to the white tern and, like it, nests in trues, including coconut trees next the habitations. I am tentatively assuming this was the tern seen but did not collect it. It seemed clearlydistinguishable from the common Noddy tern but similar to the Hawaii an Noddy.
Sooty Tern (Sterna fuscata) Apparently a colony of these terns, or wide-awakes, could be heard cross the lagoon dock, but time did not permit locating them.

Besides the sea birds, several species of shore birds were seen:

Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis) Over 40 were seen--perhaps an unusually large number of this species.
Wandering Tattier (Heteroscelus incanus) Over 40 seen along both lagoon and ocean shores.
Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria into res) About 20 seen on ocean shore and reef.
Golden plover (Pluvialis domlnica Six seen on airplane runway

Except for the mynah, one of which was seen and some 12 of which are known to have been liberated on Palmyra several years ago, no land land birds occur or have been native to the island. This is true in spite of the names of some parts of Palmyra as Whippoorwill, and Quail Islands.

I feel that no land birds should be introduced to Palmyra, The results of such introductions can never be entirely predictable and so are potentially dangerous to the birds already present. Even the mynah has not been an unqualified success in other places, as on Oahu, and its introduction on Palmyra is of questionable wisdom.

Even more strongly, I should recommend that parts of Palmyra be set aside as bird reservations if a number of people come to live on the island. Some species of birds, as of terns and boobies, may leave islands for an indeterminate number of years if their nesting areas are visited with frequency, or otherwise disturbed. The sea birds of Palmyra are probably present-and some nesting goes on-the year round. Consequently, I think it would be very desirable if all or most cf the eastern third of Palmyra, east of the north-south causeway, and certain islands near the center of the lagoon, or in the southwest region where Sooty Terns and Brown Boobies nest, be set aside as bird reservations and only infrequent visiting allowed. The birds in such areas could usually be well observed from the edges of the areas, and the protection of the birds would insure that they would continue to be present, even if not nesting, in many other parts of the island. It could be mentioned, too, that such bird reservations would also protect the amazing edible coconut crab, which has already been dangerously reduced in numbers, but could be encouraged to increase so that it could be a dependable source of feed and interest.

Editor's note: Here is a spot where conservation, if planned and undertaken now, and adhered to in the future, would save valuable creatures. One small spot where there is yet time. Let us hope that a successful effort will be made to save a part of Palmyra, let it remain as it is and has been.

BISHOP MUSEUM FELLOW, 1953/1954: Dr. Frank Richardson and The Hawaii Audubon Society congratulates itself in having the friendly interest and help of a sojourning ornithologist, Dr. Frank Richardson, who has a fellowship at Bernice P. Bishop museum this year. Dr. Richardson is no stranger to Hawaii, having been born here! His higher education was gained in California, and he has taught in Nevada. In 1947-1948 he was exchange professor at the University of Hawaii. To be on the side lines and observe what he does this year is going to be most interesting for us who are but amateurs. Already we feel we know him well, and grateful for the chance of this stimulating contact.

NOTE: Age of birds. Has any one of you wondered about the age of birds? A note in BIRD-BANDING (24:20, 1953) by O. L. Austin, reports that a common tern was found on Cape Cod, killed by an owl, "marked as an adult on 26 July 1929", making it "at least 23 years old." (From IBIS, 95:712, 1953)


Frank Richardson, “Notes on the Birds of Palmyra,” Palmyra Archive, accessed September 18, 2020,


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