22 November 2019
The bus picks us up at our hotel on the outskirts of Dunedin. It’s pretty much full, maybe around 20 people, all intent on spending the afternoon and early evening birdwatching on the Otago Peninsula. Our first stop will be Taiaroa Head, site of a breeding colony of albatross and home to the Royal Albatross Centre.
Driving out along the peninsula we pass several wetland birding hotspots. It appears we’re the only people on this trip who’ve ever been birdwatching before, but the others are lapping it up.
It’s as if they’re seeing and thinking about birds for the first time. They crane their necks for a better view, and leap from their seats to take photos on their cell phones.
Mrs P and I wish we could stop for a while. Being confined to a slow moving bus and watching the action through the window is frustrating; maybe we should have driven ourselves out here instead? On the other hand it’s good to see other people – ordinary tourists, just out for an afternoon excursion – enjoying an activity that has meant the world to us for more than 30 years.
But they don’t all get it. The guide points out a Paradise Shelduck, a good looking bird that elicits murmurs of appreciation from several passengers. And then, out of the blue, one of them pipes up brightly “Do they taste good?”
Do they taste good? For god’s sake, I think to myself, we’ve come here to look at the birds, not to fantasise about eating them. What’s the matter with you woman, who the hell do you think you are, Gordon bloody Ramsey? But I say nothing of the sort, I’m English after all, we’re far too polite to point out to idiots the truth of their idiocy, so I just look away, seething silently.
But I needn’t worry, the other passengers have been enjoying the show, and can see that eating one of the cast would be out of order. The atmosphere is suddenly frosty and pretty soon the wretched woman apologises sheepishly, saying she wasn’t thinking. Too bloody right she wasn’t.
The Royal Albatross Centre is an impressive building, befitting of New Zealand’s first private charitable conservation trust. The Otago Peninsula Trust was established in 1967 for the purpose of protecting and enhancing peninsula flora and fauna. The albatross were then, and remain now, the stars of the show.
Albatross mostly breed on small, remote islands. Taiaora Head is the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross. Relatively speaking they are newcomers here, the first egg having been laid in around 1920.
However there was so much predation and human interference that it was not until 1938 that the first chick fledged. Efforts to protect them increased thereafter, and in 1951 a full-time field officer was appointed. Work at the colony has continued ever since, with the result that there are about 250 albatross on the Head.
On arrival we are ushered into an auditorium to see a film presentation on the Royal Albatross, which explains the lifecycle of these magnificent birds and outlines the threats they face. We learn that the adult birds have a wing span of 3 metres (nearly 10 feet) and weigh between 8 and 9 kilograms (18 to 20 lbs). Even more stunning, at seven months old a chick weighs in at between 10 and 12 kilograms (22 to 26 lbs) – it seems amazing they can ever take off.
Prospective albatross parents arrive at Taiaora Head in September to re-establish their pair bonds. Nests are built and eggs laid in November. Incubation lasts 11 weeks, with both parents sharing the duties. Eggs hatch in late January or February, with chicks taking around three days to force their way out of their shells.
Rearing the chicks takes several months, with parents sharing the feeding duties. The birds fledge in September, and will be absent between four and six years before hopefully returning to raise youngsters of their own. The parents take a well-deserved year off before coming back here to go through the whole process again.
Threats to breeding birds on Taiaora Head include introduced mammalian predators (rats, ferrets, stoats and feral cats), climatic extremes, fire and human disturbance. To limit the latter, the only public access is via small guided tours – like the one we are on – to an observatory at one section of the reserve.
So, having been given the lowdown on what we’re about to see, we are led from the Visitor Centre in a group, up a steep slope towards the observatory. On the way we pass clusters of Red-billed Gulls, some just metres from the path. There are reckoned to be around 4,000 at Taiaora Head, and they seem unconcerned by the constant stream of visitors walking to and from the observatory. Mrs P and I are pleased to see them, and also delighted that so many people are plainly enjoying getting close to nature.
The observatory is a large, purpose-built bird hide, with room for perhaps 20 visitors at a time. The windows don’t open, which is frustrating from a photography point of view but absolutely right and proper: this place is all about the birds, and their welfare – including the need to be free from unnecessary human disturbance – is paramount.
The view overlooks a sloping, grass-covered headland, and beyond it the sea. There are albatross dotted here and there in the grass, some alone and others in pairs, while more wheel effortlessly above in the brisk wind. We settle down to watch the action, while our guide tells us more about what we are seeing.
She reminds us that it is late November, so the eggs have been laid and incubation is underway. There’s a constant coming and going; albatross circle around for a while, searching for a suitable spot, then crash land in an inelegant tangle of legs and wings. Meanwhile, others take off and head out to sea.
Both birds take turns at incubating the egg, and when an adult returns to its duties after time away to feed and stretch its wings, there is a period of socialisation: they dance around one another, moving synchronously and tenderly rubbing their bills together. And then it’s time for the changing of the guard: the newly arrived adult takes over incubation, while its mate takes some time out.
It’s a joy to watch the Royal Albatross going about their business, apparently unaware of our presence. It’s also great that so many people come here to enjoy them. Man – directly or indirectly – is the greatest threat to the survival of these majestic birds, but at the same time the only hope for their salvation. If people come here and pay for the pleasure, and if the good folk of the Otago Peninsula Trust spend that money wisely, then maybe – hopefully – they have a chance.
- Watch live action from the albatross colony. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a webcam to enable us to view the action live, 24 hours a day. Click here for the link.