The Gooney Birds of Midway Island

I was an aircrewman in seaplane squadron VP 48 (Patrol Squadron Forty-Eight). As the time approached for our deployment to Iwakuni, Japan, story-telling in regard to the flight across the Pacific increased. Our seaplanes had reciprocal engines and due to their range, the trip meant that we would be island-hopping across the ocean. We would first fly from San Diego to San Francisco. Then, we would go to Hawaii, Kwajalein, Midway, Guam, and Iwakuni. From San Francisco on, they were all 10 to 12 hour flights.

vp48p5m_01_10may2002

Martin Marlin P5M-2

Some of the most interesting stories we heard, and certainly the funniest, were about the Gooney birds of Midway Island. A Gooney bird is an albatross with a 7 foot wing span that looks beautiful and graceful in the air but is so clumsy it looks like a clown when taking off or landing.

We got to San Francisco okay, spent the night, and then on to Hawaii for the next night. The 3rd day we got to Kwajalein with no problem. We got up the next morning on Kwaj and it had been raining and the sky was ugly. After breakfast, we went down to the pier and took a boat out to our plane which was tied to a buoy in the harbor. After filling up with gas and lunch supplies (and coffee, of course) we hung the JATO bottles (jet assisted take-off). With a full load of gas and rough seas we would need some help getting in the air. There was a coral reef that formed the outer edge of the harbor so that pretty much defined the limit of our take-off run. The sea was a little choppy but the pilots thought we could get off alright. The pilot increased the power and we started our run down the sea lane. The choppy seas were beating the devil out of us but we got up to speed and they fired the first pair of JATO bottles. This was supposed to put us up on the “step” where we were planing just as you do in a motor boat when your speed is sufficient to cause you to ride on the crest of the waves. Normally, that first pair of JATO bottles gets you up on the step and then, when you have enough speed, you fire the second pair of bottles to lift off.

The pilot fired the 2nd pair of bottles in an effort to get up on the step but it didn’t help. We didn’t have enough speed to fly but we were sure closing on that coral reef at a pretty good rate. Our pilot stayed with it as long as he could but had to give up and pull the power off and abort. We taxied back toward the pier and tied up to a buoy and waited for the boat to bring us four more JATO bottles. The pilot, co-pilot, and navigator had all been watching the wind and the currents as we made our first attempt at taking off and after discussing it, decided that with a slight change in heading we could get enough lift to get off all right. We hung the new JATO bottles taxied back out into the sea lane and this time, got into the air and headed for Midway.

In the middle of the day, we passed the half-way point, the “point of no return”, and Kwajalein Air Control had handed us off to Midway Air Control. We were at 10,000 feet and probably doing 140 knots, and as far as you could see in any direction there was nothing but the beautiful blue Pacific. All of a sudden, the starboard engine belched out some smoke and started making some weird noises. The pilots shut down the engine and feathered the prop as the navigator checked his numbers and calculated our position. As the rest of the crew went to their emergency positions, I fired up the radar and took a couple of sweeps with the antenna. I could see for about 120 miles and there wasn’t a ship in sight. Meanwhile, the pilot had sent a Mayday call and was now talking to Midway Air Control. The pilot gave our current position, heading, airspeed, altitude, and all that stuff. Midway acknowledged and said that they were launching a Grumman UF-1 Search and Rescue plane that will meet us and accompany us to Midway. The Grumman is a smaller seaplane than our Martin P5M but if we went down they could drop us additional life rafts or supplies. For them to make an open-sea landing was not a practical idea.

Grumman_UF-1_Albatross_USN_in_flight_1950s

Grumman UF-1 Albatross

The pilot gave the word to jettison some of the on-board equipment that we could do without and the crew heaved it out the port hatch. The next thing to go would have been our clothing and personal gear but fortunately it didn’t come to that.

It seemed like it took forever for the Grumman to meet up with us. Our navigator figured out what time I should be able to spot him on radar and sure enough…there he was. When he was close enough to eyeball, we were thrilled! The flight on in to Midway was without incident and we made a smooth single-engine landing.

Midway Island had been a waypoint for seaplanes for many years. There was a large concrete ramp extending into the water for launching and recovering the flying boats. They had and maintained several sets of wheels also. The P5M didn’t have landing gear or wheels. The wheels were designed with floats and at the time of recovery were towed by a boat out to the airplanes and attached by a simple pin and clamp device. Then, a cable was attached to the tail at the keel position and the plane was towed up the ramp backwards by a heavy tractor-like piece of equipment known as a Buddha.

We went through the recovery process and after being towed up the ramp our plane was parked on the apron nearby. We were finally in Gooney Bird Land and surrounded by hundreds or thousands of the creatures.

Gooney Bird Landing

Albatross/Gooney Bird About To Make A Crash Landing

(notice the look of terror on its face)

We were on Midway Island almost a month. Most of that time was spent waiting for the new engine and some associated parts that turned out to be faulty. Most of those days waiting for parts were spent either swimming or sitting in the shade of our plane’s wing and watching the gooney birds. They were so graceful once airborne but looked so ridiculous when taking off or landing. Naturally, they walked or ran like a duck, all spraddle-legged and freaky looking. They had to run several yards before getting enough speed and lift to get into the air. After watching them, we decided that the most successful take-offs were those where the bird making the take-off run, ran across a bump or hill or berm that caused enough of an up-draft to give them the lift needed to get airborne.

Landings were really a challenge. Every square foot of ground had a bird sitting on it so there was no clear “runway”. And, the birds always came in too fast. You just knew that any attempt to run on those ugly little feet wasn’t going to work. But, they would come swooping down, lower those feet, and start stepping on the heads of every bird in their path. This went on for several feet until they finally stumbled and crashed.

There were a few birds that could make a decent landing and we didn’t know if they were smarter or just lucky. The birds acted much like an airplane making a landing on a short runway. As they made their approach, they would pull their hose up and into a full stall and then take the power off slowly and settle to the ground. Beating the wings slowly allowed them to control the descent. I’m supplying a link to a video that shows one bird making a good landing as I have just described.

Words can’t do justice to the actions of the gooney birds. Watch the video that I’m providing the link for. There’s a lot of funny stuff on the Internet. Do a search on “Gooney Birds of Midway Island, Gooney Bird take-offs, Gooney Bird landings, etc.” and the results will give you some good laughs.

http://bgamall.hubpages.com/hub/Albatross-Gooney-Bird-Humor

Dave Thomas
October 24, 2014

 

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Angels, Cats, and Hummingbirds

We live about 1 1/2 to 2 miles west of Miramar Marine Corps Air Facility (MCAF). Miramar puts on an air show in October of each year and it’s now billed as the top air show in the country with this year’s attendance forecasted to be 700,000. The stars of the big show are the Blue Angels and their performances are amazing. We are lucky in that when they make a low pass at the Miramar runway it brings them straight down our main thoroughfare and we can see them from the front of the house or the patio

This year’s air show was to be held last weekend, October 3rd, 4th, and 5th. Last Tuesday, about 8:30 in the morning, the house starts shaking, the windows rattle, and the roaring noise is so loud you can’t hear the TV and Good Morning America! The Blue Angels are back in town and this time they are coming with seven FA-18’s and a giant C-130. The noise was deafening. Isabella, the cat, was going crazy as she rushed from one hiding place to the next trying to get away. As the planes made their low pass to say “hello” it was a reminder that Miramar was the home of the original Top Gun school and the place where the movie was made.

I really enjoy the Blue Angels but was concerned about Izzie, the cat. Wednesday and Thursday, as the Blue Angels practiced for their performance, she was running from one hiding place to the next and was totally freaked out. I tried to catch her and comfort her but wasn’t fast enough. Friday was the first day of the air show and the Blue Angels lifted off about 2:30 for their performance. When I heard the roar of their first pass coming at us, I jumped up and started calling Izzie. Apparently, she had put up with all she could stand. When I got to the bedroom, she dashed out from under the bed and ran to my feet and assumed the stance she takes when wanting to be picked up. I sat down on the bed and held her in my lap facing me. She sat with her front legs stiff as poles and stared me right in the eye. I started stroking her back and telling her over and over that it was going to be okay. To be “okay”, was a concept she had learned when we were dealing with the trash trucks. She had been going nuts when dealing with them and I told her over and over that she would be okay and finally she accepted the fact that the noise of the trucks wouldn’t hurt her and now she could care less.

We sat there as the Blue Angels went through their routine with me stroking Izzie’s back and telling her it was okay while she sat there all stiff-legged and stared at me and was ready to cut and run the second I flinched and acknowledged trouble. All of a sudden, the stiffness went out of her body and she seemed to relax as the Blue Angels finished their performance.

The next day, Saturday, at 2:30, here we go again. When I heard the roar coming, I jumped to my feet and went to find Izzie. She was in the bedroom again but this time she was stretched out full length and was sound asleep! I was amazed! I watched her as the planes made a couple more passes and the house shook and the windows rattled but she never moved a muscle. I know she was awake but she had conquered her fear. Sunday, the final day of the air show was good, too. Izzie went about her business without a second thought to the noise.

One of the best things about the Miramar Air Show has been the ability to get good pictures of the Blue Angels. On most of their runs they come in from the west so we can stand out on our patio and catch them coming in and snap pictures as they are coming right up the gut. We can also go out in our front yard and shoot them going away as they break into their fantastic routines like the star-burst pattern. Its fun either way but I prefer to catch them from the patio as they are coming “head on”.

I’ve gotten some good pictures in the past but this year things were different. I had a great camera but Kodak no longer supported the software and it didn’t work with Windows 7. I sold the camera on eBay and bought a lesser camera that I can carry in my shirt pocket.

The trees in our neighborhood have grown. Now, you can hear the Blue Angels coming but they crest the trees and you only have about 2 seconds to find them in the view finder and snap the shutter before they are gone. My eyesight has gotten worse and my reflexes are slower so I’m practically worthless. After 2 days of practice and 3 days of the air show, I didn’t have one decent picture. I gave up and went back to taking pictures of the humming birds as they came to visit our feeder. They are tiny little creatures and fast but they will hover and stay in one place long enough to get their picture.

Fortunately, Pat realized that I was failing in my assignment as an action photographer and she grabbed her i-phone and ran out into the front yard and got some Blue Angel pictures that she forwarded to my computer. Thanks to her, I’ve got a couple of pictures of the planes to go along with my humming birds.

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Dave Thomas
October 7, 2014

 

Izzie 8: Mis-Match

Over the years we had a couple of hummingbird feeders but hadn’t had much luck at attracting the birds. One of the many nice things about retirement is that you have time to try things for a second time if you had no success with them earlier. We had seen some hummingbirds checking out the flowers and bushes in our back yard. Pat was intrigued by them and decided to a buy a feeder and try it again. She went to Home Depot and looked at the units they had on display and asked questions of a lady working there. She received what we both thought was good and thoughtful advice. This lady suggested that Pat buy a feeder with a rim or perch around it so the hummingbirds could light and rest as they got their nectar. “After all”, she said, “the little birds get hot and tired, too”.

Pat bought a feeder and mixed up her first batch of nectar. Meanwhile, I found a couple of interesting web sites on the Internet and learned a few things about caring for the feeders, attracting birds, and other useful items. Pat hung up the feeder and we were in business.

The first three or four days were kind of slow. I guess it took the birds a little time to spot the feeder and spread the word. We had been sitting out on the patio a couple hours a day with our cat, Isabella, to keep her company. Izzie is an indoor cat and has never been outside on her own. To give her some outside time, which she really loves, we put a harness and leash on her and stay with her. We used to stake her out for 30 minutes to an hour at a time and check on her every 10 or 15 minutes to make sure she was okay and hadn’t tangled herself up. However, one day, Pat stepped out on the patio just as a big hawk came swooping over the fence to grab Izzie. If Pat hadn’t screamed and waved her arms we would be without a cat, now.

The feeder was attracting more visits each day. We found out quickly just how territorial and ornery these little birds are. If two of them show up at the same time, there is no sharing. Each tries to intimidate the other with aggressive moves and bluffing.

One morning Pat was working in the kitchen and heard a commotion at the patio door. Her view of the door was partially blocked by the cabinet so she moved over a little to see what was going on. There was Izzie standing on her hind legs and stretched out to full height with her front paws resting on the screen. On the other side of the screen and hovering nose-to-nose with Izzie was this cocky little humming bird. The point of this encounter seemed to be that the humming bird wanted to tease the cat. The little bird-brain had no idea that this cat dreamed of stalking birds and lizards and had actually backed down two dogs at once that thought they could invade her space. The bird was no piker either, showing no fear at all. He would buzz right up to Izzie’s nose and she would take a swing at him, striking the screen. I don’t know if the air currents generated by Izzie’s swing were pushing the bird back or if the bird’s extraordinary reflexes made it seem that way, but they seemed to be involved in a weird little boxing match. There was a lot of bobbing and weaving going on, with Izzie occasionally throwing an overhand right and the bird slipping it to perfection. They kept this going for a couple of minutes. It was a strange little dance performed by two strange little pugilists. When they got bored, they quit and went away. No harm, no foul, and nobody hurt!

Dave Thomas
September 16, 2014

 

The Roadrunner

I spent a month in Arizona with my Grandpa during the summer of 1950. Grandpa lived in Safford but had a farm in San Simon (San See-moan). The first time he took me to the farm, we were getting ready to spend the night. Grandpa told me that if I heard a pecking noise on the window at dawn not to worry about it. He said its just the roadrunner.This got my interest real fast because I was already a fan of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. Grandpa went on to explain that one night he had thrown out some table scraps for whatever birds or critters might show up. Later, he was sitting outside enjoying the coolness of the evening when a roadrunner appeared and began pecking at the scraps. Grandpa knew that they mostly eat snakes and small animals but the next day, when he was in town, he bought some mixed grain and corn. He normally woke up about dawn so he got in the habit of going out in the yard early and tossing out a handful of feed. The roadrunner seemed to like the handouts and could be seen in the yard every morning. One morning, Grandpa slept in. He was awakened by a pecking noise at the window and looked up to see the roadrunner sitting on the window ledge and doing the pecking. Grandpa got up and took a handful of feed and tossed it out into the yard. After that, if Grandpa didnt get the feed out there early enough, the roadrunner would be pecking at the window.

Ive always found it interesting to watch creatures as they process information, develop habits, and commit things to memory. Food is the driving force in their lives and obtaining it, the obsession. Grandpas roadrunner had learned that if there was a man at the house he would be getting something to eat. If the man doesnt show up at the pre-determined time, dawn, he can go peck on the window and get the man out there with some food. Hes going to keep an eye out for this guy and when he shows up hell be at the house every day at dawn because its easier than scrounging for the morning meal.

Dave Thomas
August 3, 2014

 

Is Anybody There?

Weve all heard the terms birdbrainand bird-brained. They are applied to people who are slow to think or are stupid. The terms are quite derogatory and can surely be applied to the birds themselves. However, Im not sure that these words can aptly be applied to parrots. I know that all parrot owners think their birds are brilliant and capable of thinking and saying wonderful things. Its like the parents of human babies coming to work and telling you of the meaningful things their 6-month old did the night before. Most of us have a tendency to roll our eyes and say Yowsure!Well, Pat and I have actually come to the belief that parrots can express real thoughts.

Our friends, John and Ollie were going on vacation and needed someone to birdsit their parrot, Highpockets. Their friend who normally took care of that was going to be out of town also. We knew that John had Highpockets over 25 years and would be quite worried about him so we agreed to let him stay with us. It worked out fine and over the years we took care of him a number of times.

The first time John brought Highpockets over he gave us a thorough briefing on how to take care of him. He concluded by telling us how he liked to whistle at girls, sometimes sang opera, and sometimes spoke Spanish. Yes, I know, this is where we all roll our eyes and say Yowsure!Proud parentsjust cant resist telling you all that cute stuff they believe to be true.

The first couple of days were pretty normal with no events to traumatize the parrot or us. Pat and I were watching TV in the living room with Highpockets sitting on his perch. Pat went to the kitchen and got some grapes she was chilling in the refrigerator. We were enjoying the grapes and both of us had commented on how good they were. I said I wonder if Highpockets likes grapes?Pat says I dont know?A few seconds later, Highpockets chimes in with I like grapes.We almost fell out of our chairs. To think that the parrot could actually process information and correctly respond to it just about blew our minds.

We had a dog named Herbie that loved to play with the kids. Herbie was half Airedale and looked it with that Airedale hair and he was smart as a whip. The kids would throw balls and sticks and he would fetch though once in a while he would grab the item and run off just so the kids would chase him. One day they were all out in the back yard playing. Russ threw a stick and Herbie was off like a streak of lightning to fetch it. I guess Herbie thought it would be more fun to run off with the stick so h he took off around the yard. Russ is running after him and yelling Stop, Herbie!Doug and Terri had joined in but they were yelling Run, Herbie!Meanwhile, Highpockets is on his perch in the living room and can see all the action in the back yard through the picture window. All the commotion gets Highpockets excited and he starts bouncing around on his perch and yelling Run, Herbie, run! Run, Herbie, run!

At first, we thought it was kind of cute, the way Highpockets was attracted to our daughter, Terri. Later, we decided his demeanor was that of a stalker or a dirty old man. When out of his cage he would follow her and he looked pretty sinister when he did it. He would walk along at an even pace with the tips of his wings crossed behind him and look just like a little old man with hands clasped behind his back. Terri would be trying to get away from him and if he succeeded in cornering her he would give out a fiendish little laugh. Highpockets scared the heck out of her and to make it worse he even bit her toes. Sometimes when Terri would go into the bathroom, Doug would get Highpockets  out of his cage and place him outside the bathroom door. When Terri opened the bathroom door to come out, her nemesis would be waiting there to confront her and would give out that fiendish laugh. That rotten bird was relentless and would stalk her until she would shut herself in her room or go outdoors. She hates parrots to this day.

Parrots make a lot of noise. At bed-time, you put a cover over their cage and being in the dark they will go to sleep and stay quiet until the next morning. Pat and I have always gotten up early so when Highpockets was visiting we would uncover his cage early in the morning. Some days he would sing and jabber at the top of his lungs and wake the kids up and drive us nuts in the process. One night before going to bed we talked about the noise problem and how nice it would be to get up and have a cup of coffee without listening to all of that. We decided that after getting up we would leave the cover on the cage and hope that Highpockets  would remain asleep and wed have some peace and quiet. The next morning, Pat and I woke up about the same time and got ready to go downstairs. We remind each other of our pact to stay quiet. We come down the stairs as quietly as we can and tip-toe across the living room. Just as we get to the kitchen door we hear this tentative little voice coming from the cage…”Is anybody there?

Okayyou can roll your eyes all you want. Pat and I are convinced that parrots can think and reason. Just thinking about it and remembering these incidents makes the world seem like a lot more fun.

Dave Thomas

8/19/2014

 

A Real Homing Pigeon

Our son, Doug, brought home a wounded pigeon. The poor bird had evidently been hit by a car and suffered a broken wing. The tip of the wing dragged the ground and it appeared to have been broken right at the joint. Doug was always bringing home creatures that needed some kind of help and he enjoyed doing what he could for them. He knew that if this pigeon couldn’t fly it was doomed and would either starve or be killed by a predator.

Doug was really determined to help this bird and his Mom, Pat, got caught up in his enthusiasm and wanted to help also. She scrounged around the kitchen and found some Popsicle sticks that could be used as splints. She and Doug manipulated the wing and got it into as normal a position as possible and, using the Popsicle sticks and gauze, bound it in place. Doug found a box and made a home for the pigeon on the patio where it would be safe and then he fixed it up with bowls for food and water.

What I haven’t told you yet is that this was the ugliest pigeon we had ever seen. It was white with black splotches all over. It was kind of like a Dalmatian but the spots weren’t as nicely done.

The pigeon lived in its patio home and did well as Doug kept it supplied with food and water and checked on it regularly. It walked around in its cage, dragging that wing tip, but looking pretty spry otherwise. I don’t remember how long it took for that wing to mend but one day he was ready to fly. After a couple of days of practice, it took off and didn’t return. We all felt pretty good. A wounded creature had been patched up and sent back to the wild.

Time passed and we thought no more about our pigeon guest. However, one day, Doug comes in and announces that the pigeon is back! It was an eye-opener for us to think that over a period of weeks or months this bird had remembered where he found safety and was fed and cared for and it made such an impression that he returned. Pat and I went out and sure enough, there is a spotted bird walking around on the patio with one wing tip dragging. Doug got food and water for him and he hung around for a few days and disappeared again. 2

We’ve all had to scratch our heads to remember but we think that over the next few months he returned twice more. Then, his bachelor days must have ended because the next time he came back, he brought his family with him. On that day, our patio seemed to be covered with pigeons though actually there were only 5 or 6 of them. They were all white with black spots and, strutting around right in the middle of them, was this guy with his wing tip dragging on the ground. Again, something about our place made him feel good enough to bring his family back with him. I don’t know how pigeons think or what motivates them (other than food) but we all thought this was pretty neat.

Dave Thomas (with help from Pat and Doug)
October 15, 2014