Story: Albatrosses

Page 5. New Zealand’s smaller albatrosses

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Mollymawks

The Thalassarche albatrosses, sometimes known as mollymawks, are considerably smaller than the great albatrosses. Of the world’s nine species, only two do not breed in New Zealand.

From above, mollymawks are dark across their entire wingspan, their dark wings joined by a dark band across their back. The undersides of mollymawks’ bodies are white or very pale, apart from colour in the throat area in some species.

Most mollymawks breed annually, laying one egg on a pedestal nest if enough soil is available. Mollymawk colonies are densely packed, usually located on elevated cliff platforms above the sea from where they can launch themselves readily.

Shy mollymawks

Shy mollymawks or albatrosses (Thalassarche cauta steadi), also known as white-capped albatrosses, are the most abundant albatross in the New Zealand region, with 70,000–80,000 breeding pairs on the Auckland Islands. Another 20 pairs breed on Bollons Island in the Antipodes group. They have a white head with pale grey cheeks and dark eyes, and a grey bill with pale yellow top and brighter yellow tip. Wings are black on top, white with a fine black margin underneath.

Another shy albatross subspecies is found on islands near Tasmania.

Salvin’s albatrosses

Salvin’s albatrosses or mollymawks (Thalassarche salvini) are next most abundant, with 30,700 pairs breeding on the Bounty Islands and 1,210 pairs on the Snares Western Chain. Nearly all breed in New Zealand, but four pairs are known to breed on the Crozet Islands in the south Indian Ocean.

Dipping numbers

In the past, albatrosses were hunted for their feathers and eggs, and were food for Māori, and for sealers and shipwrecked sailors. Currently, most species are recorded as incidental by-catch in various fisheries. This resulted in declines in the population of Campbell albatrosses during the 1980s and may be affecting the population of shy albatrosses on the Auckland Islands. A decline in numbers of grey-headed albatrosses breeding on Campbell Island since the 1940s appears to be related to natural phenomena.

Campbell albatrosses

Some 26,000 pairs of Campbell albatrosses (Thalassarche impavida), breed on Campbell Island. A small number of the similar black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) breeds on several New Zealand islands, as well as all around the southern ocean.

Grey-headed albatrosses

About 11,800 pairs of grey-headed albatrosses (Thalassarche chrysostoma) breed on Campbell Island, but as they breed every two years, only about half this number is present each year. As well as New Zealand, they breed on other islands all around the Southern Ocean.

Buller’s albatrosses

Buller’s albatrosses or mollymawks (Thalassarche bulleri) breed south, at The Snares (8,700 pairs) and Solander Islands (4,700 pairs), and 18,000 pairs of the northern form (Thalassarche bullerei platei) breeds on the Chatham Islands, east of the South Island. Interestingly, about 20 pairs of northern Buller’s albatrosses also breed a long way north, on Rosemary Rock, in the Three Kings group. Both forms only breed in New Zealand.

Chatham albatrosses

Chatham albatrosses (Thalassarche eremita) all breed on just one rocky island, Pyramid Rock, south of Pitt Island in the Chathams group. There are an estimated 4,575 pairs. They have a grey head and neck, and a pale yellow bill with a black thumb print on either side of the hooked tip.

Sooty albatross group

Light-mantled sooty albatrosses (Phoebetria palpebrata) breed on Campbell, Auckland and the Antipodes Islands, but little is known about their numbers. They also breed on other islands around the Southern Ocean. They raise one chick every second year.

Dark coloured birds with a white crescent around part of the eye and a stiff posture, they appear somewhat eerie, an impression accentuated by their haunting call. They are fast and elegant in flight, and pairs conduct courtship flights in sweeping synchronised loops, frequently swapping the lead as they bank to one side, then the other.

How to cite this page:

Paul Sagar, 'Albatrosses - New Zealand’s smaller albatrosses', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/albatrosses/page-5 (accessed 26 May 2019)

Story by Paul Sagar, published 12 Jun 2006, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015