Laysan is the second largest land mass in the NWHI (1,015 acres) just behind Sand Island at Midway Atoll. It is about 1 mile wide and 1-1/2 miles long and shaped like a poi board. The island was formed from geologic forces pushing upward and by coral growth. It has fringing reefs and a hypersaline (very salty) lake in the middle of the island, the only lake in the island chain, and one of only five natural lakes in all of Hawai‘i.
The island's easy access and large number of seabirds made it a base for traders of guano (bird droppings used as fertilizer) and feather harvesters in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although the practices were declared illegal, poachers killed hundreds of thousands of birds and caused dramatic changes in the island's ecosystem. Remnants of guano piles remain from this era. Rabbits released in the early 1900s devastated the island's vegetation. These events caused a public outcry which led to the creation of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909.
Laysan has the fullest complement of all the bird species in the NWHI. Huge populations of seabirds nest and migratory shorebirds visit including Black-footed and Laysan albatross, Christmas and wedge-tailed shearwaters, and bristle-thighed curlews. Following the devegetation caused by rabbits, several land birds became extinct including the Laysan honeycreeper and millerbird, but two endemic land birds remain -- the hardy Laysan finch and Laysan duck. Of the 75 native invertebrate species found on Laysan, 15 are endemic.
Surrounding the lake, the beautiful encircling white sand beach is topped by dry coastal grasses. Sedges grow thick near the lake's edge. Over 30 kinds of plants live on Laysan. In addition to the koloa, the Laysan duck is Hawai`i's "other" native duck species. This striking endemic duck has developed a fascinating eating habit: it runs on mud flats while snapping at swarms of brine flies to retrieve its meal.
Much of the shoreline at Laysan is composed of upraised, old coral reef, and coral sand which over time has become cemented together to form rock. This creates a rocky intertidal habitat which is very rich and hosts numerous invertebrate species, algae, and juvenile fishes. Although the reef at Laysan is the smallest of the NWHI (145,334 acres), it is quite rich. Numerous sea turtles and monk seals appear on the island. Several species of Hawaiian surgeonfish and large schools of convict tangs are in the shallow, wave-washed waters around the island. Twenty-eight species of stony coral are reported, and branching corals are common. Most of the shallow water reef habitat is in a protected bay on the southwestern side of the island, while most other reef areas are in deeper waters.
Although a host of introduced species changed the "original fabric" of the island's ecology, this place has benefited from years of effort to "malama" (take care of) the island. Efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have eliminated pests, rats, rabbits, and weeds, and restored native vegetation. As a result, finch and duck populations are increasing. Laysan, the poster child for restorative island efforts, is considered one of the "crown jewels" of the NWHI.