Laysan Duck Midway Translocation Team

Laysan Duck Translocation Team, in partLaysan Duck

    Left: Laysan Duck Translocation Team, in part.  Standing: Michelle Reynolds,

    Mark Vekasy, Holly Freifeld, John Klavitter, Leona Laniawe, Greg Schubert,

    Thierry Work, Nigel Jarrett.  Seated: Jimmy Bredeen, Annie Marshall.  

    Right: Laysan Duck. Photo by Jimmy Breeden, USGS.

The Laysan Duck Midway Translocation Team is dedicated to the conservation and recovery of the endangered Laysan duck (Anas laysanensis), also known as the Laysan teal, through their efforts to establish a population of ducks on Midway Island. 


The Laysan duck was included in the original Endangered Species List of 1967 because of its small population size, limited distribution, and dependency on a fragile island ecosystem.  Endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, by the mid-1800’s only one small population of the species remained on the small, low-lying island of Laysan in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  By 1911, various events had reduced the total species population to only 11 individuals.  Following management actions, including the eradication of introduced rabbits that had entirely devegetated the island, this population eventually increased to approximately 500 birds. Viability models for the Laysan duck predict a high risk of extinction due to catastrophic, environmental, genetic, and demographic stochasticity.  The degree of risk was clearly demonstrated by the species’ near elimination once again in 1993, when the population dropped to just 50 birds due to drought and disease.  The single population on Laysan now numbers near 550 birds but has remained highly isolated and vulnerable to extinction through events such as hurricanes, tsunamis, and sea level rise in response to climate change (the highest point of the island is only 12 meters above sea level), as well as threatened by the potential introduction of alien species, especially mammalian predators.  The Laysan duck is considered to be one of the most critically endangered waterfowl in the world.


The Laysan duck translocation team is made up of the following individuals and groups:


Holly Freifeld (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office)

Michelle Reynolds (U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) -Biological Resources Discipline (BRD))

Jimmy Breeden (USGS - BRD)

Barry Christensen (USFWS, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Refuge Manager)

Jennifer Dhundale (USFWS Volunteer, Laysan Island)

Beth Flint (USFWS, Pacific/Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex)

Friends of Midway Atoll

Nigel Jarrett (The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, England)

Mike Johnson (USFWS, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Assistant Refuge Manager)

Jim Kelly (USFWS Biological Science Technician)

John Klavitter (USFWS, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge)

Kelly Kozar (USGS - BRD)

Stefan Kropidlowski (USFWS Biological Science Technician)

Leona Laniawe (USGS - BRD)

Eric Lund (USFWS Volunteer, Laysan Island)

Annie Marshall (USFWS, Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office)

Sally Marston (USFWS Biological Science Technician, Laysan Island)

Mark McDonald (USFWS Volunteer, Laysan Island)

Don Palawski (USFWS, Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Project Leader)

Kevin Payne (USFWS Biological Science Technician, Laysan Island)

Cindy Rehkemper (UFWS, Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Laysan Island)

George Ritchotte (USGS - BRD)

Nick Shema (USGS Facilities Manager)

Jonathan Shore (USFWS Biological Science Technician)

Chris Swenson (USFWS, Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office)

Carissa Turner (USFWS Volunteer, Laysan Island)

Jeff Walters (Virginia Polytechnic and State University)

LeeAnn Woodward (USFWS, Pacific/Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex)

Rebecca Woodward (The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, England)

Mark Vekasy (USGS - BRD)

Eric VanderWerf (USFWS, Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office)

Thierry Work (USGS - BRD, National Wildlife Health Research Center)

Marilet Zablan (USFWS, Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office)


This team has overcome quite remarkable logistical challenges to operate effectively in the most remote island chain in the world.  The team has shown extraordinary organizational skills in orchestrating the efforts of numerous staff and volunteers from multiple agencies and locations to carry out the habitat enhancement and aviary construction work on Midway; to capture and successfully transport Laysan ducks on a 2-day, 400 mile journey by boat across the Pacific Ocean; and to release and monitor the ducks on Sand and Eastern Islands.  In addition to the skills involved in overcoming these logistical hurdles, the players were instrumental in successfully working to secure the funding needed for this very expensive project (again due to the remote nature of the location).  All of the team members have shown outstanding leadership skills in terms of working effectively and selflessly as a team to achieve the recovery goals for the Laysan duck, and have clearly demonstrated the positive impact of partnerships in action for conservation.


Through research, dedication, perseverance, countless hours of field work, and the application of best available science and adaptive management practices, this team presents an outstanding example of the strength of partnerships and collaboration in effecting one of the most positive success stories in endangered species recovery today.  Within 3 short years, this team has successfully established an additional breeding population of Laysan ducks on two different islands at Midway Atoll, and are now at work preparing for the translocation and establishment of a third population on yet another island – and they have accomplished all of this whilst overcoming the challenges of working in the most remote island system in the world.  The creation of additional breeding populations has greatly reduced the chance of extinction of the Laysan duck, and the team’s continuing efforts toward further reintroducing the species, expanding its range and increasing its population size, has set the species on the road to recovery.


The highest priority recovery action for the Laysan duck was the establishment of additional populations on other islands.  Population viability modeling compared various management scenarios and indicated that the Laysan duck’s best chance of long-term viability relied on multiple breeding populations on a combination of large and small islands throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. Planning for translocations began in earnest in 2003.  The team initially identified 20 islands that could serve as potential translocation sites.  The islands were visited and evaluated for their potential suitability based on a suite of 12 biological characteristics and non-biological factors, including island size, elevation, cover, prey base, habitat quality, presence of predators, logistical feasibility, infrastructure, and land management.  Following the site visits, the team went through a rigorous assessment process and developed a series of decision matrices to pare down the list and prioritize the remaining possible translocation sites.  This process is detailed in the Draft Revised Recovery Plan for the Laysan Duck (August 2004).


Midway Atoll, part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, was chosen as the most promising site for the initial translocation.  Eighteen months of extensive habitat restoration and modification was required to prepare for the arrival of the ducks,  Refuge staff, working with staff from other Fish and Wildlife Service offices, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and many volunteers, excavated 9 shallow freshwater seeps; removed non-native plants; planted native vegetation to provide cover, forage, and nesting habitat; and constructed 16 holding aviaries to provide for a “soft-release” of the translocated ducks.  The effort logged over 10,000 volunteer hours.  Meanwhile back at Laysan, biologists had been closely monitoring a group of juvenile ducks to select the best candidates for translocation, based on brood identification (avoiding siblings to maximize genetic representation), body condition, and overall health.  In October 2004, 20 carefully selected Laysan ducks were captured and transported by boat under close veterinary supervision 400 miles to the release sites prepared at Sand and Eastern Islands at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.  Six of the 7 females nested within the first year, fledging 12 young.  This was an excellent sign, as on Laysan the ducks normally do not begin reproduction until they are at least 2 years old.  The lessons learned from the first translocation allowed for another successful translocation in October 2005, in which 22 ducks were transported to Midway.  Of the 42 ducks translocated thus far, 38 survive (90% survivorship approx. 2 years).  Of 29 ducklings fledged as of August 2006, 27 survive (93% survivorship approx. 3 months post-fledge).  In 2006 alone, 35 nests had been found on Sand and Eastern Islands as of August 1.  The translocation efforts have been remarkably successful in terms of both productivity and survivorship -- so successful that the team is now collaborating in preparation for the establishment of a third population of Laysan ducks, most likely on the island of Lisianski.


This work has contributed to the development of methods for the safe and effective translocation of a critically endangered species.  Within just 3 years, the Laysan duck has gone from one highly vulnerable population restricted to a single island to three breeding subpopulations on three different islands.  The total Midway Laysan duck population (as of August 1, 2006) now stands at 65 (51 on Sand Island and 14 on Eastern Island), not including ducklings that had not yet fledged at the time of the count.  As described above, both productivity and survivorship have been remarkably high, and the fact that the ducks nested within their first year was a promising sign of success.  The habitat restoration and improvement efforts appear to have been highly effective, as Laysan ducks on Midway are producing clutches that are twice as large as those observed on Laysan, most likely reflecting the availability of abundant resources for the birds.  In addition to observations of breeding behavior and productivity, the ducks are monitored using radio transmitters to study habitat preferences, dispersal distances, and other behaviors.  The ducks are now moving independently between Sand and Eastern Islands. 


The data from Midway will be evaluated and utilized to further refine translocation methods for the establishment of additional populations on other islands.  Up to this point, all research on the Laysan duck had been limited to the island of Laysan, which, being dominated by a hypersaline lagoon, represents a harsh and relatively unique ecosystem.  The knowledge gained from the Midway population is therefore particularly valuable to inform future endeavors, as future release sites are far more likely to be similar to Midway in terms of biological and physical characteristics.


The successful translocation and establishment of the Laysan duck on Midway has provided material for many excellent stories in the public news media.  In addition to generally raising public awareness about the plight of endangered species, perhaps the greatest benefit of the Laysan duck’s success story is that it clearly demonstrates how the Endangered Species Act can work to bring a species back from the brink of extinction.  It is also a compelling story in terms of clearly demonstrating the power of collaboration and effective partnerships in recovery efforts.


The Laysan duck translocations have been the result of highly cooperative and coordinated efforts between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Ecological Services; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Refuges; U.S. Geological Survey – Biological Resources Discipline, Pacific Ecosystem Research Center; U.S. Geological Survey –National Wildlife Health Research Center, Honolulu Field Station; The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, England; and Friends of Midway Atoll.



Laysan Island 2004 Partial Translocation Lake Crew.  Michelle Reynolds, Mark Vekasy, Eric Lund, Mark McDonald, Leona Laniawe, Kelly Kozar.

(Photo by Cindy Rehkemper, USFWS)

Laysan Island 2005.  "The Duck Catchers": Jimmy Breeden, Mark Vekasy, Michelle Reynolds, and John Klavitter.

(Photo by Jonathan Shore, USFWS)

Mark Vekasy and John Klavitter attach a radio transmitter to a Laysan duck.

Mark Vekasy (l) and John Klavitter attach a radio transmitter to a Laysan duck.

(Photo by Michelle Reynolds, USGS)


Laysan duck hen and ducklings (26 days old) on Midway

Laysan duck hen and ducklings (26 days old) on Midway. 

(Photo by John Klavitter, USFWS)



Laysan duck male and female on Midway. 

Laysan duck male and female on Midway. 

(Photo by John Klavitter, USFWS)


Laysan duck hen leading young ducklings

Laysan duck hen leading young ducklings. 

(Photo by Michelle Reynolds, USGS)


Capturing and marking ducks by night on Laysan Island.

Jimmy Breeden (l) and Michelle Reynolds capture, mark, and identify ducks at night on Laysan Island. 

(Photo by Jonathan Shore, USFWS)



Leona Laniawe releases a translocated Laysan duck on Midway

USGS biologist Leona Laniawe releases a translocated Laysan duck on Midway. 

(Photo by John Klavitter, USFWS)