Field Notes of Robert Standen

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Field Notes of Robert Standen


This excerpt comes from the field notes of researcher Robert Standen, who was part of the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, created by the Smithsonian. For several days during September of 1964, Standen worked on Palmyra to catalogue bird populations through banding and observation.

The account gives an intimate picture of the state of the atoll and how its wildlife was both recovering, and dealing with new threats left by the navy, such as rats and crumbling constructions.


Robert Standen





Public Domain



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Palmyra is from Page 55 - 62

Began watch at 0700 today. We were about 25 miles due west of Palmyra. Boobies were the bird for today - mostly red foots but a few browns. No marked boobies. Chased 2 ???? flocks and fished the schools of fish for yellow fin tuna.

Caught about 78 of them and helped take blood samples. Palmyra was in sight by 0930 and we docked in side a quiet lagoon at 1340 hrs. Red footed boobies were seen nesting ???? in the scaevola as we came in.

After docking I went ashore to look the site over. The US Air force used to be here until ’62, I understand. There are still tents and things here that haven’t been left alone for that long.

Presently there are no inhabitants whatsoever on Palmyra Atoll. It must be one of those little inhabited parts of Honolulu. Thats right - according to the book I have Palmyra is part of the city and county of Honolulu. There is an old air strip on the island. On my first walk over there I saw some plover and curlew. My knowledge of shorebirds is not very good and I wasn’t sure about these birds either. I decided to try and collect the ones I wasn’t sure about. I went the half mile back to the ship and got the "long Tom” shot gun I’ve been using and some ammunition. Also took the camera and binoculars loaded in this manner and wearing a pair of gym shorts and “T” shirt I again set out for the…

pg. 56

runway. Mr. Haloway was already over there and I had told him that I would be doing some shooting. It was very hot and my legs were already beginning to burn. My head was also very hot so I got some scaevola leaves and an old strip of canvas and made myself a hat. It worked quite well and kept me very cool. I took the gun and hid in a scaevola bush at the edge of the runway. I waited about 15 minutes but the shore birds would not land or come near - so I took the gun and binoculars and started down the runway staying in the about the middle of it. After I had walked a ways I came upon some plover flying near the edge of the runway. I fired at one and it fell into a bush, I thought. Anyway I never found it. I had only 2 shells with me and now only one was left so I started back to the end of the runway where I left the ammo to get some more. Down the way I saw a curlew take off and come flying my way at about 50 yds. I let fly with the “long Tom” 3” shell and the bird bit the dust. I carried it back to the ammo and packed it in scaevola leaves and put it in the shade.

Then I set out again to try for one of the plover. It wasn’t hard. I just waited until I scared them up and followed them with the binoculars until they lit. Then I would creep up on them - not too close because with…

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the “long Tom” 50 yds is close enough. Then I would check with the binoculars to see if the bird was still there. Then I just shoot and pick up the bird. If I’m lucky - and today I was. Two shots and I had a male and female American Glade Plover. The curlew is the Bristle Thighed Curlew.

I brought the birds back to the ship and ??ed them and put them in the freezer. I didn’t bring any saw-dust so I haven’t done any skinning yet. If I can get some corn meal from the cook perhaps I’ll give it a try. I wasn’t sure if I should collect the shorebirds or not but since it satisfied my own mind to know what they were - for sure - I’m glad I did. I don’t enjoy killing bird that much - especially something as pretty as a shorebird. But only this morning I thought I saw a plover out at sea. I’ve never seen one at sea before in fact the only ones I’ve seen are around the zoo last week in Hawaii-oahu. They are easy to recognize on the ground but in flight its a different story. Now I can be almost positive that the bird I saw this morning was a plover and I can prove it.

There is a sooty tern colony nesting about half way down the runway. The chicks vary from eggs (chicks??) to birds almost ready to fly but not flying yet. I’m not sure of the size of the colony - I've never made any…

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estimates of colony size. I’d say this one has about 2000 adults. These birds are not at all well represented at sea around the island. I saw very few terns both yesterday and today - so was surprised to see all the Sootie when i got here.

Palmyra Atoll itself is very beautiful place. It gets lots of rain and the coconut palms flourish - as do the cosurim?? trees and scaevola. The runway is 6000 ft long and still quite usable. A private developer bought the island in hopes of turning it into a tropical paradise for tourists. Since all goods must be brought from Hawaii - at distance of about 1000 miles the costs were just too high. There is no need for this place. It is not on a travel route anywhere and does not supply anyone with anything. So here it sits everything that was once here is now falling and and in a few more years there will be nothing left. The runway will soon be ?? over with vegitation.

So much for today. Tomorrow we leave and ?? down the chain to Christmas Island but that will take a couple of days at least. Went out tonight and checked the terns for bands. Did not find one with a band and I checked about 300 adults.

pg 59

Up at 7:30AM today. Captain ?? plans to stay here until sometime after lunch. I took off to explore some of the other parts of the atoll. There are common noddies nesting in many of the coconut palms. I also noted some Ruddy Turnstones flying about the lagoon this morning. The island is much grown over since the Air Force left. All the old roads are somewhat hard to follow. Off the roads the vegetation is very thick and hard to gets through except near the shore where the coconut palms predominate and it is fairly easy going beneath them. One must be careful, however, because the rats get up in the palms and eat the coconuts while they are still on the tree. This means that a coconut can fall off a tree almost anytime. I was about 20 feet away today when one fell from about 40 ft up and smashed on the ground. Although it was still green it had a large hole in it where a rat had been eating it. As I looked over the area beneath the trees i noticed that about 90% of the coconuts lying on the ground (there were hundreds in the small 20ft sq area) had similar holes in them.

I worked my way along the northern shore and noticed many curlew plover. There were also many small striped fish in the water…

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(about 4 inches) and a larger variety (from 10-20”) white with large dark eyes and large dorsal fin. Washed up on the shore of the island was a type of seaweed and at certain places it collects in greater abundance than in others. Here it will form a smell that’s not the best. The north side of the island is protected by a reef about 1/8 to 1/4 mile offshore. At various points along the shore are the remains of bunkers and pill boxes from WWII. At one point I climbed an old radio antennae about 150-200 feet high and took a picture. A higher antenna made out of steel and badly rusted, I didn’t dare to climb. I climbed down in one of the bunkers and found a giant coconut crab. About noon the chief engineer and I went over and caught it. It must have weighed 10 lbs and was about 20 inches long and a foot wide.

A few fairy terns kept circling about my head as I walked around. There were also some frigate birds hanging high in the sky.

At 1320 hr we cast off and set to sea. The rest of the afternoon we sailed around Palmyra and about 1800, after making the circuit, we headed for Washington Island - about 50 miles to the SE. Since we were in sight of palmyra for the whole day it was impossible to…

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keep complete records of all the birds seen. There were simply too many and it was hard to tell if I was counting them twice.


Robert Standen, “Field Notes of Robert Standen,” Palmyra Archive, accessed October 28, 2020,


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