By Lyndon Perriman, Head Ranger at Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve
Around the time of the First World War, albatross were recorded nesting at Taiaroa Head/Pukekura. Despite the area being used for intensive military preparation, albatross persisted with breeding attempts at this very tip of the Otago Peninsula. Nearly a century on, and with decades of hands-on assistance, the small colony has only recently reached a population of 200 birds.
Other seabird species flourished within the protected area and now nearly 10,000 seabirds reside near Taiaroa Head/Pukekura. However, it is the small number of northern royal albatross that the area is most famous for and in the latest Lonely Planet guide’s ‘1000 ultimate sights’, Albatross at Taiaroa Head rank as the third ”top ornithological sight” worldwide.
Royal albatross are a ‘long lived but slow to reproduce’ species. Eggs are laid in November (one egg per nest) and 10 months will pass before the chicks depart to spend their first 5-8 years at sea before returning to Taiaroa Head.
With tube nosed birds, including albatross, petrels and shearwaters, one of their distinct mechanisms of defence is to vomit when threatened, agitated or nervous. The issues surrounding chicks that vomit are immense. Firstly, it is their food that may need to sustain them for several days, secondly the stomach contents are oily and if those oils are spilt on the chick’s down or feathers they disrupt the natural water-proofing properties of the down/feathers and in turn their insulation properties. Thirdly, chicks that do vomit can accidentally inhale some liquids back into the lung cavities, often leading to infections.
We know that a chick will not survive to fledge if its health is compromised by these factors or by the loss of a parent (which will lead us to supplement its diet), so any handling of nervous chicks has to be minimised to avoid stress and other compromises to their health.
Weighing of chicks is our primary indicator of their health. During the current 2012/2013 season we have three chicks where we know that any handling would cause these birds to vomit. For these birds we are reliant on sightings of the parents at regular intervals (as from previous experience, any chick that has both parents returning regularly will be of a healthy weight).
The current season looks to be our second highest number of chicks fledged at Taiaroa Head. Staff here can’t celebrate for too long, as 2013/2014’s breeding birds start returning to nest just a few weeks after chicks from the previous season depart.