12 May 2016

Dunedin's royal albatrosses and #royalcam

From Our Changing World, 9:46 pm on 12 May 2016
Chick and adult albatross at sunset.

You're on candid nestcam! The #royalcam chick and one of its parents. Photo: Department of Conservation

Lyndon Perriman has spent more than half of his life working alongside the royal albatrosses that make Taiaroa Head, at the tip of Otago Peninsula, their home.

The Department of Conservation ranger has helped raise hundreds of albatross chicks, and seen those chicks return as adults to raise families of their own.

Royal albatrosses are long-lived, usually 30-or-so years, but Lyndon says there is one 45-year-old male bird – just older than himself – who is still going strong, and is back this year raising another chick.

Lyndon Perriman standing in front of harbour view.

Lyndon Perriman and the view down Otago Harbour from the Taiaroa Head albatross colony. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Lyndon says it has been a typical summer in the royal albatross colony. There are 26 chicks, which hatched around late January, and are now large “white fluffy bundles” that weigh more than their hard-working parents.

Otago Peninsula Trust’s manager Hoani Lansbury says that the royal albatrosses are a popular tourist attraction, with 70-80,000 visitors a year joining an albatross tour which takes them up to a small observatory for a view of birds in the colony.

Three still frames taken from the nest cam, showing various albatrosses

In these photos taken from the live web stream the #royalcam chick is joined by both its parents (top photo), a visiting adolescent (centre) and by DOC rangers for its weekly weighing (bottom). Photo: Department of Conservation

#royalcam

What’s been different about this year is that one of the royal albatross, chicks in particular, is very much in the public gaze, with a worldwide audience tuning into a webcam to find out what it’s up to.

#royalcam went online at the end of January when the chick was just a few days old. People tuning in have seen the chick develop from a tiny white powderpuff, guarded around the clock by its parents, to a large chick beginning to develop its feathers and spending most of the time on its own, expect for a short visit every 3-4 days by its parents, dropping by to deliver a quick feed.

“People can follow that chick for the eight months that it’s in the colony,” says Lyndon. “Hopefully one day they might see it taking that first leap of faith as it flies off out into the southern oceans.”

Sophie Barker is marketing manager at the Otago Peninsula Trust, and she says that the nestcam is a great success.

“People just love seeing what the albatross get up to,” says Sophie. “And the web cam is teaching people how to love albatross. Previously they’ve been a huge bird with a great wingspan, but when they see the chicks and the love that the parents have for their chicks I think it’s bringing an emotional response through which is fantastic for the albatross.”

A boat passes by in the distance, and three white albatross chicks are visible in the grass.

Three white royal albatross chicks stand out in this view from the observatory across the albatross colony, above the entrance to Otago Harbour. The #royalcam chick (and camera) are at the right. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Naming competition

Albatross chick flexing its wings and looking like a large rabbit head

Is it a rabbit? Is it an albatross chick? Nestcam watchers have delighted in taking frame grabs from #royalcam that show the chick in unusual poses. Photo: Department of Conservation

DOC is currently running a competition to name the #royalcam chick.

“We’re looking for a name that reflects the chick’s personality and its importance as a taonga species,” says DOC Threatened Species Ambassador Nicola Toki.

The naming competition closes on 27 May.

Royal albatross facts

Royal albatrosses began breeding at Taiaroa Head about 100 years ago. The population now numbers about 250 birds.

These giant seabirds have a wing span of 3 metres.

The main population of northern royal albatrosses breeds at the Chatham Islands. This is the only mainland breeding population of albatrosses in the southern hemisphere.

Royal albatrosses are long-lived – most of them live to around 30 years, and one exceptional bird – Grandma – lived to more than 60 years.

Breeding adult albatrosses feed at sea around the Chatham Rise and Chatham Islands.

Juveniles and non-breeding albatrosses fly across the Pacific and feed in waters near South America.

Royal albatrosses breed every second year, and raise a single chick.

When the chicks fledge and leave the colony they won’t touch land again until they are 4-7 years old, when they return to Taiaroa Head to breed.

Three-quarters of the chicks that successfully fledge survive their first years at sea and return to the colony.

The rangers at Taiaroa Head weigh the chicks every week, and give them extra food if their weight is low. They also look after eggs that are about to hatch to make sure that an introduced fly that lays live maggots isn’t a problem. On hot days, they use a watering system to cool down the birds, as in the past some adults have died from heat stress.

Albatrosses are not the only seabirds breeding at Taiaroa Head – it is also home to thriving colonies of Otago shags, spotted shags and red-billed gulls.

Silhouetttes of birds with outstretched wings showing that albatross wings are longer than a person's outstretched hands

How big is that bird? A size guide to the length of albatross wings, at the Royal Albatross Visitor Centre. Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

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