If nature is to be believed then spring is near, because one of its harbingers, the Northern Royal albatrosses, flitted into its New Zealand home this month.
But the visit was only fleeting.
The fact that there had just been a wintry blast in Dunedin, where the albatross colony is situated, probably contributed to the brief visit in mid-August, says Nicola Vallance of the Department of Conservation.
“She landed for half an hour and took off again,” says Vallance.
Each summer 100 or so Northern Royal albatrosses return to Taiaroa Head to breed.
Each summer 100 or so Northern Royal albatrosses return to Taiaroa Head near Dunedin in the south of New Zealand’s South Island to breed. Last year 12 chicks hatched from 15 eggs, but 4 of those chicks have died. Adding to the difficulties last season was the fact three breeding birds did not return to Taiaroa Head.
Now the 8 albatross chicks born last season are preparing to leave their home to venture to the Southern Ocean where they will roam for several years.
“They are about to take off for the very first time and that means they are gone for four years,” says Vallance. “They basically wait for a windy day and they start raising their wings and trying them out — and realising they’ve grown wings [of] 3 metres. Then they cartwheel off the end of the cliff and take off.”
If they end up in the drink at the bottom of the cliff, as sometimes happens, they are rescued by DOC’s head ranger and put back on the cliff top for another go.
Meantime, adult Northern Royal birds are now set to return, whenever spring does decide to arrive, to start breeding again. The Northern Royals only breed every second year, and this summer should be a bumper crop, DOC hopes.
“This season is going to be a ripper, hopefully,” says Vallance. “We had 27 chicks fledge from 29 eggs last time these birds bred which was 2 years ago.”
The colony at Taiaroa Head, the only albatross breeding colony on a mainland, anywhere, was established back in the 1930s when a solitary pair came to set up home.
“It’s taken 70 years to get a hundred birds,” says Vallance.
According to DOC, albatrosses have the highest proportion of threatened species in any bird family, with 20 of the 24 albatross species classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Fourteen of the 24 albatross species breed in New Zealand, and nine breed only here, which means New Zealand has a major stake in albatross conservation.
The Northern Royal and the others are particularly under threat, say conservationists Forest and Bird, from longline fishing: “Throughout the Southern Ocean, albatrosses are being killed faster than they can replace themselves,” said Forest and Bird senior researcher Barry Weeber.
Part of DOC’s response to this threat has been to train New Zealand fishers on the most effective mitigation measures. The use of such measures now forms part of best practice fishing in New Zealand, says Janice Molloy, the convenor of the New Zealand-based group Southern Seabird Solutions. The group is taking its message to fishers from South America next year, having already held similar forums in Auckland and Hawaii.
Effective seabird mitigation is not just about physical changes to the vessel and how it operates, it also needs a change of attitude and culture amongst the fishers,” says Molloy.