How NZ became the world's albatross capital

Albatross are making their way back to Taiaroa Head. Photo: supplied
The Otago Peninsula is so inextricably linked to the northern royal albatross. Photo: supplied
Today marks the inaugural World Albatross Day.

New Zealand is considered the world's albatross capital with 17 species found throughout its waters and territories, and 11 species breed here.

Dunedin's Otago Peninsula is also home to the world's only mainland royal albatross breeding colony at Taiaroa Head.

The Otago Peninsula is so inextricably linked to the northern royal albatross, or toroa, it is hard to believe the colony's existence is not only relatively recent but the product of the threat of war.

Otago Peninsula Trust's ecotourism manager Hoani Langsbury said it had only been home to the birds since about 1900.

"Prior to that, this was probably the most significant Pā site to Ngāi Tahu on the East Coast of the South Island. Anything up to 400 people were living here so that high density of humans on the headland probably kept those breeding birds away.

"It was actually the late 1880s when we thought that the Russians might come invade the country that they militarised the headland and by doing that they created all the flat areas that were required for the birds to nest on," he said.

The first chicks were observed being fledged in the late 1930s, and since then numbers had grown steadily with the population at the colony now estimated at 200 adults.

"Our best fledging is usually around 27 but if you look at when Lance Richdale was here and saw the first chick fledge, in that season there were one or two. So considering that's grown to 23 or 24 now on average it hasn't really been a lot of time. Only about 80 years to see that growth," Langsbury said.

"Like most New Zealand species they're long-lived, they don't start breeding until they're seven or eight years of age and they'll produce a chick every second year.

"Grandma was our oldest bird at just over 60, but normally an albatross here gets into its late 20s before it disappears for whatever reason that might be."

The Royal Albatross Centre's marketing manager, Sophie Barker, said albatross - though not real ones - would be invading Dunedin's Octagon today to mark World Albatross Day and as a way of bringing the Royal Albatross Centre to the people, because too often the people of Dunedin would not travel to the albatross.

"Some people think it's a long way out of town but in reality it's only 45 minutes and everyone should come and see the albatross," she said.

"They are amazing and they are our city's icon. We've got special locals' deals, so now is the time to seize the moment and come out and see these giant fluffy chicks."

The remarkable birds, with a 3m wingspan, could travel close to 2000km in a day.

But despite the distance covered, mostly over the hostile oceans of the world, Department of Conservation wildlife ranger Sharyn Broni said humans remained the biggest threat.

"We've been finding more and more small parts of plastic being regurgitated by the chicks before they fledge," she said.

"It smells like fish once it's in the ocean. Algae grows on it and then they think it's fish and feed it," she said.

There are only 20,000 northern royal albatross throughout the world, and they are considered an endangered species.

But all 22 species of albatross are listed as some level of concern by International Union for Conservation of Nature.

A light-mantled sooty albatross died in Wellington at the weekend due to a blockage in its stomach from plastic.

But plastic is not the only threat to albatross with five, including four Antipodean albatross, caught by a fishing boat in March.

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Mankind can destroy but can also save. We have to have the will to make change.

 

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