Not strictly for the birds

The clifftop viewing area at Taiaroa Head. PHOTOS: CLARE FRASER
The clifftop viewing area at Taiaroa Head. PHOTOS: CLARE FRASER
Hands up who’s never been to the albatross colony. It took Clare Fraser 50-plus years to go, but now’s a great time as there are far fewer tourists but just as many birds! And it turns out albatrosses aren’t the only birds to see.

Two walks start from the car park, both a couple of hundred metres long.

The clifftop walk follows a sloped concrete path. That might sound tame but depending on timing, you might be walking through scores of sitting seagulls. It’s loud, a bit messy and pretty stinky, but it’s intense and quite a trip. Remember: this is their place and we’re the visitors, so walk gently to see them at their best.

Taiaroa Head is home to the second largest red-billed seagull breeding colony in New Zealand. Sadly, they are a species in nationwide decline, something that isn’t obvious as these are the birds we might know from the tip and the beach. In recent decades, predation has taken its toll and climate change is thought to be limiting supply of their main food source, krill. The Otago Peninsula population is doing well, though, due to predator trapping. Black-backed gulls thrive here, too.

The view from the viewing area.
The view from the viewing area.
If you’re very lucky, the star of the show, northern royal albatross/toroa might be glimpsed in the distance. Really though, they’re best seen from a guided tour to the headland. It costs but what better time to support local tourism, with a healthy whack going to conservation, too.

There’s a visit to a jail and a massive gun, plus the site of what’s considered to be the most important fortified pa site in pre-European southern Aotearoa.

Tour guide Milorad Popovir opens the disappearing gun.
Tour guide Milorad Popovir opens the disappearing gun.

Why, though, is this the only mainland breeding colony of northern royal albatross in the world? It’s close to where they forage in the subcontinental shelf about 20km off the coast. And the prevailing winds bring them here.

Toroa have a wingspan of up to 3m, which allows them to glide for days: chicks leave Taiaroa Head and reach waters near Chile in 10-12 days, not coming back to start their adult life until five years later.

A visitor stops to photograph an albatross during the tour.
A visitor stops to photograph an albatross during the tour.
Otago shags also nest on the cliffs below the observatory. They look like Stewart Island shags but are a completely separate species and can be found between the Catlins and Oamaru. It was only in 2016 that a three-year study by an international team led by the University of Otago proved that Otago had its own species of shag.

The disappearing gun was mounted in 1889 as part of fortifications to protect New Zealand’s largest and most prosperous city from Russian expansion. It’s in full working order. It rotates 360 degrees and fires at different angles after which it retreats quickly and discretely into the hillside, location unrevealed.

A red-billed seagull in full voice.
A red-billed seagull in full voice.
Shells weigh 45kg and test shots could be heard from Dunedin. The gun was only ever fired in peace, but workers in the circular concrete bunker lost their hearing and there were suspected brain injuries.

The headland’s original human use was as a pa, set in forest. It’s a prime spot from which to travel the coastline and access inland areas so was a central hub for a long time. As various newcomers arrived from the North Island, it was the scene of pivotal tensions and incidents but eventually became firmly Kai Tahu against a background of formalised peace-making arrangements with northern sub-tribes. Its traditional name is Pukekura.

A juvenile red-billed seagull rests near the clifftop walk.
A juvenile red-billed seagull rests near the clifftop walk.
Back at the car park, there’s another short walk down to Pilot’s Beach. It goes only as far as a viewing platform because some visitors (a polite term) were pulling little blue penguins out of their burrows to act as a selfie accessory. Others were touching them. Others were throwing stones.

Sometimes the path is closed for scientific research on colony trends. Things are looking positive for the little blue penguins, with a really good breeding season this year. Although Pilots Beach is managed by the Pukekura Trust, a phone call to the albatross centre will let you know whether the walk to the beach is open.

 

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