July 21, 2019

Albatross with a legacy

A giant of a bird called Grandma is a legend at the Royal Albatross Centre near the New Zealand city of Dunedin.  Although I visited the centre recently with the intention of possibly seeing the birthplace of some of the royal albatrosses observed in Tasmanian waters, I came away instead with a notebook full of facts on one long-lived individual. Not only did Grandma live to the age of 62, in her final year she managed to add to her long line of offspring spanning six decades.

Most albatrosses have one mate and live for around 40 years. Grandma, however, had five husbands, three of whom she outlived and one she married twice.

Having seen both the royal and the wandering albatrosses – the world’s two biggest seabirds with wingspans of more than three metres – off Tasmanian shores over the years I decided to make a detour from a road-trip through New Zealand’s Southern Alps last month to visit the world’s only mainland albatross colony, on the Otago Peninsula close to Dunedin.

I arrived not knowing quite what to expect. Mating and egg-laying takes place between September and December and although the single young take a year to fledge, I wondered if any of the 13 chicks reared at the colony this season would be in view, let alone parents spasmodically coming and going with food.

My fears about not seeing the species were soon allayed. No sooner had I sent off on the regular tour of the reserve, climbing to the “royal box” viewing hide on Taiarora Head, an adult albatross swept over my head, gliding out over Otago Harbour.

Among the tussocks of grass in the reserve, four over-sized chicks could be seen. They were seven-kilogram bundles of snowy white feathers, the chicks destined to grow to 12kg before trimming down to their parents’ weight of nine kilograms once they become established on the high seas.

At this time, the juvenile albatrosses will vanish for five years, never touching solid ground on their travels until returning to Taiaroa Head to find mates. And after these young birds finally breed they will vanish again, spending a further year, alone, at sea before returning to Dunedin to re-establish their bond with their mates. They only breed every second year.

The new birds at the albatross centre last month were clearly getting restless, walking short distance and flexing wings, gearing up for their maiden flight in September. Then juvenile birds will bounce around on unsteady wings before finally being carried aloft and out to sea.  Once airborne, there’s no turning back.

I was looking at a new generation of these magnificent birds, but my thoughts were with Grandma. While rearing her last chick, she vanished after setting off on a feeding foray, never to return. Luckily, rangers at the reserve intervened to feed the chick with the standard albatross meal of squid. And under the tender, loving care of human foster parents the chick finally sailed forth, to ensure Grandma’s legacy continued.

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