Albatrosses are the largest of the seabirds. They are most frequently seen in the oceans of the southern hemisphere south of about 30° latitude, and in the northern hemisphere in the north Pacific Ocean. They come ashore only to breed, usually on remote islands, and this lifestyle has meant that until recently little was known about them and their travels across the world.
Albatrosses belong to the Procellariiformes, or petrels, a distinctive group of marine birds readily identified by their nostrils being sheathed in prominent horny tubes arising near the base of the bill. Other features of petrels are the hooked beak tip, long legs, webbed feet for swimming, and a thick coat of feathers with insulation usually augmented by a layer of fat below the skin. Like other seabirds they swallow salt water when feeding, so they have a salt gland above each eye. This removes excess salt from their bloodstream. The salty solution then drains from the tubes along their bill.
Māori noted the salty ‘tears’ rolling down the bill of the albatross. In legend, these tears expressed the bird’s longing for its oceanic home. Roimata toroa or albatross tears are the subject of various songs and sayings, and are depicted in woven tukutuku patterns on the walls of some meeting houses.
Great size is the most obvious feature of albatrosses. The largest is the southern royal albatross, the male weighs 10.3 kilograms and has a wing span of up to 3.45 metres. The smallest is the yellow-nosed albatross, at about 2.1 kilograms and with a wing span of 1.9 metres. The long, narrow wings of albatrosses are highly developed for gliding, a mode of flight that enables them to cover vast distances with little energy expenditure. Most adults have a white body with dark upper wings and tail. However, adults of at least four species have mainly sooty or dark-brown plumage.
For a long time it was widely accepted that there were 13 species of albatross. More recently, up to 24 species have been suggested, although only 20 or 22 of these are likely to be agreed upon. They fit into four groups or genera:
The great albatrosses, mollymawks, and sooty albatrosses occur in the oceans of the southern hemisphere, although individual mollymawks sometimes stray into the North Atlantic, where they may be reported ashore in the same locality year after year. The Galapagos albatross breeds only on the Galapagos Islands and travels over a small area of ocean between these islands and the coasts of Ecuador and Peru. Laysan and black-footed albatrosses are both birds of the north Pacific Ocean, with most breeding on the Hawaiian islands during the northern winter. The short-tailed (or Steller’s) albatross occurs in the north Pacific and breeds on islands off Japan.
New Zealand has a particularly high diversity of albatrosses, with 11 of the world’s 22 species (and 13 out of 24 forms) of the great albatrosses, mollymawks and sooty albatrosses breeding there. Nine of these forms breed nowhere else. Several other species have been recorded as visitors or vagrants to the region.
Almost all New Zealand’s albatrosses breed on subantarctic islands and the Chatham group, but there is a small colony of just 20 pairs of Buller's albatrosses on the Three Kings Islands, north of the North Island. Most subantarctic islands support several species of albatross, for example, Campbell Island has six.
The only mainland breeding colony is new. In 1914, northern royal albatrosses were noticed visiting Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula. The first egg was laid in 1920, but disturbance from predators and people meant that not until 1938 did a chick survive to fledge. This success was thanks to ornithologist Lance Richdale’s dedicated protection and campaigns. In 2005-06 there were 17 nests and more than 65 birds, and predator protection and visitor facilities now give the birds and the public a good experience. This is one of most accessible albatross colonies in the world for people to visit.
Grandma, a northern royal albatross, raised chicks at Taiaroa Head for 50 years and reached the record age of at least 61.
Toroa (albatross) eggs and chicks were an important food for Moriori living on the Chatham Islands. To reach colonies on wave-hammered rocky islets, they made wash-through rafts from bundles of lightweight reeds and inflated kelp bladders.
On the mainland, albatross bones found in middens indicate that Māori ate the birds. The absence of chick bones indicates there were no mainland colonies at that time. Adult birds were caught while feeding at sea – then, as now, they were rarely found ashore on the mainland.
To Māori, albatrosses represented beauty and power. Wearing albatross feathers or bone pendants conferred these qualities on the wearer, usually a person of rank. Garlands of feathers sometimes adorned the prow of waka taua (war canoes). Albatrosses are depicted in cave drawings and in meeting houses.
The characteristic features of albatrosses’ life history include delayed age of maturity and low reproductive rate. Albatrosses are long-lived seabirds. The oldest known was a female northern royal albatross that was over 60 years old when she ceased returning to her nest at Taiaroa Head. The smaller albatrosses, or mollymawks, also have long lives, with a female Buller’s albatross breeding at the Snares Islands when over 50 years old.
Most albatrosses breed in colonies on remote islands free from mammalian predators. Some build substantial nests that are used for many seasons, and pairs often remain together for many years. An unusual feature of the breeding system is that the great albatrosses (wanderers and royals), the grey-headed albatross and the two sooty albatrosses breed every two years, but the others usually breed every year. For the great albatrosses at least, biennial breeding is related to the fact that these birds take too long from egg-laying to fledging to breed every year.
A northern royal albatross egg weighs half a kilogram, and is incubated for 79 days. From when the chick makes the first hole in the shell, it can take several days to hatch completely.
At each breeding, a single white egg is laid and both parents share in its incubation, which takes 60 to 79 days, depending on the species. Once the egg hatches the chick is brooded or guarded by a parent while the other gathers food for it. After about 21 days, or longer for larger species, the chick is capable of defending itself at the nest and can maintain its body temperature, which means that both parents are free to go to sea to gather food. The parents feed the chick by regurgitating the food directly into its open beak, which is placed crosswise as a funnel inside the beak of the parent.
When hatched, the chicks are covered in loose down. As they grow, this is replaced by feathers, and they are fully feathered before they make their first flight. Once they fly, fledglings must learn to feed and fend for themselves without any parental assistance. Chicks fledge at four to five months for mollymawks, and eight or nine months for great albatrosses. Once they make their first flight, fledgling albatrosses disperse widely over the sea and may remain continuously at sea for several years. Subsequently, most return to their original colony to prospect for a nest site and to find a partner. This process may take several years, and so some albatrosses do not begin breeding until they are over 10 years old.
Albatrosses are long-distance travellers. Normally, they fly by dynamic soaring, using the gradient in wind speed that exists between the sea surface and higher up. They also take advantage of the curtain of wind deflected up from the windward face of a wave – so-called slope soaring. Both methods of flight are fast and energy efficient, allowing albatrosses to cover long distances without the need to feed continuously.
Albatrosses are among the top predators and scavengers of the oceans. The food available at the surface consists mainly of crustaceans, squid, fish and carrion. Squid is usually the most important food, but in some areas shoaling fish and discards from fishing activities make up a large proportion of their diet. It is not uncommon to see large numbers of a variety of albatrosses around the stern of a fishing boat.
Albatrosses usually seize their prey from the surface of the sea, although they sometimes plunge from a few metres and use their half-opened wings to swim briefly below the surface. Small fish such as pilchards may be swallowed while the birds are in flight, but for larger prey albatrosses land on the sea before swallowing.
Northern royal albatrosses have been tracked using satellite transmitters. After breeding, they disperse east from Taiaroa Head and the Chatham Islands to locations off Chile, and then off Argentina and Uruguay in South Atlantic waters, where they remain until near the start of the next breeding season. To return to New Zealand to breed, the birds migrate rapidly eastwards below South Africa and Australia, travelling with the prevailing winds and circumnavigating the southern hemisphere.
During their lifetime albatrosses cover vast distances over large areas of ocean in search of food. When breeding, they are more restricted in their choice of feeding area as they have to return to their nest. Even so, breeding albatrosses forage considerable distances over well-defined areas of ocean, which vary depending upon the stage of the breeding cycle.
For example, four distinct patterns of foraging area were identified for Buller’s albatrosses at the Snares Islands. During incubation, the off-duty parent made trips averaging 12 days, ranging as far as 1,500 kilometres over the Tasman Sea or 750 kilometres along the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. After the eggs had hatched, while the chick was guarded, the adults made daily trips extending about 200 kilometres east of the Snares. When the chick was large enough to be left alone at the nest, the parents alternated between short trips (1–2 days, 200 kilometres) east of the Snares to long trips (5–6 days, 780 kilometres) along the east coast of the South Island. Finally, when the chick was within a few weeks of fledging, female parents switched to feeding off the west coast of the South Island (trips of 4–5 days and 650 kilometres) and male parents resorted to trips of about 2 days and 300 kilometres around Stewart Island.
After breeding, adults travel even longer distances. For example, Antipodean, Buller’s, Salvin’s and Chatham Island albatrosses cross the Pacific Ocean to forage off the coast of Chile and Peru. Southern and northern royal albatrosses travel even further, to feed off the coast of Argentina in the South Atlantic Ocean. Less is known about the movements of young birds in the years before they breed.
The Antipodes Islands and the Auckland Islands each have a distinct form of wandering albatross, both unique to New Zealand. There are about 9,000 pairs of Antipodean wandering albatrosses (Diomedea antipodensis) that breed on the Antipodes, as well as a few pairs on Campbell Island and the Chatham Islands. Some 12,500 pairs of Auckland wandering albatrosses (Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni) breed on the Auckland Islands. Because great albatrosses breed every second year, only about half these numbers are on the islands in a given year. They eat squid, fish, octopus and crustaceans such as krill, and tend to feed over deep oceanic waters.
Both forms have dark-brown and white plumage, including a brown cap. They become whiter as they grow older, and Auckland wanderers have more white than Antipodeans at a given age. They have fine speckling on the breast that fades with age. Their bill is very large and pink.
When a royal or wandering albatross returns from foraging to take its turn on the nest, it calls out to its mate on approach. Once it has landed, the two usually sit together for some time, intermittently preening each other and cooing, until the one on the nest heaves itself off and allows the other to take its place. More preening and sitting together takes place before the bird that has been fasting for up to two weeks eventually goes to sea to feed.
Both royal albatross species breed only in New Zealand, but spend much of their non-breeding time off the coasts of South America. Like wandering albatrosses, they breed every two years.
Southern royal albatrosses (Diomedea epomophora) are the largest albatrosses. They have a breeding population of 14,000 pairs, almost all of which breed on Campbell Island, apart from 100 or more pairs on the Auckland Islands.
Most northern royal albatrosses (Diomedea sanfordi), about 6,500–7,000 pairs, breed on some of the remote islets of the Chatham Islands, but they are better known for the mainland colony of fewer than 30 pairs at Taiaroa Head, near Dunedin.
Their main foods are squid, fish, krill and salps. They feed over continental waters, especially along the break between the continental shelf and slope.
Both species have a large, yellow-pink bill with a black line along the upper cutting edge that differentiates them from wandering albatrosses. From above, their wings are black in early years, then with age the southern royal develops expanding areas of white, starting from the front edge, while the northern royal’s upper-wing surface remains mainly black. The black flecks on the white body disappear as they grow older, and males are whiter than females. Underneath, the body is completely white, and underwings are white with black margins and tips.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 (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.
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.
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