Name that Species: Diomedea sanfordi

Recent southern meanderings with some visiting friends from the States brought me to a memorable place: Taiaroa Head, at the very tip of the Otago Peninsula. This headland is gorgeous— green rocky cliffs above a deep blue ocean— but is notable especially for one specific resident. The albatross. The headland boasts the world’s only mainland albatross breeding colony. And, okay, calling Taiaroa Head “the mainland” seems a bit of a stretch, given that it’s linked to the rest of the South Island by only a slim bridge of rock between Pacific Ocean and Otago Harbor (even Captain Cook thought the peninsula was an independent island), but we’ll accept it for the sake of the superlative.

A tour of the headland takes you to an observation deck IMG_5661from which you can peer out at the nests of these birds scattered across the grassy hills. It’s August, which means overgrown chicks (10 kilos!) sit heavy in the grass, occasionally stretching and testing their developing wings. Adults, meanwhile, spend most of their time at sea. They return occasionally throughout the day to regurgitate a scavenged squid or two into the chicks waiting maws. (Incidentally, watching the albatross feed its chick provides an interesting chance to consider the mechanics of regurgitative feeding. To avoid stabbing each other, the birds cross bills at a right angle, the adult bill perpendicular to the waiting chick’s. It’s an impressive feat of anatomy.)
IMG_5636The albatross species in question is the Northern Royal Albatross, or taroa, or Diomedea sanfordi. Northern Royals are a fairly recent arrival to Taiaroa Head. The majority of the known Northern Royal albatross population breeds in colonies on the Chathams, islands to which they return loyally year after year. It’s unclear why certain Chatham Island pairs first made the switch to Taiaroa Head, but the currently accepted explanations cite competition for space and food in the original nesting grounds. Regardless of the reason for the move, Taiaroa Head proved to be a successful choice, offering (mostly) predator-free conditions for the unsupervised chicks and gusty winds that are necessary to allow adults to take to the wing.

And speaking of wings: it would be a discredit to the ‘tross not to spend some time admiring their impressive wingspans. The largest species of this group, the evocatively named “Wandering Albatross”, boasts the longest wingspan of any living bird, measuring 3.5 meters. Our Northern Royals are slightly smaller, spanning about 3 meters from tip to tip. During flight, these long wings are held curved but rigid, creating a stable platform that allows the albatross to glide and soar for days on end. Upon landing, the wings hinge at wrist and elbow, bifolding to tuck in neatly alongside the body— watching this is like seeing a performance of anatomical origami.

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After delivering a meal to the chick , the adult unfolds those long wings and takes to the skies again. In September, the chicks will join them for their first flight. Their feet won’t touch land again for the next four years of life.  When they reach maturity, they’ll return to Taiaroa Head, find a mate, raise a chick, and continue the cycle.

And humans will crouch in hidden observation rooms to watch them with delight in their eyes.

Until next time,

E.

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