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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.