Albatross and Adams Island
The team have just arrived back in Bluff Harbour but before disembarking Alison Ballance has posted another update from the trip and will no doubt post more once the information gathered has been given more consideration:
Awesome, amazing, and any other amount of A words describe our trip to the southern end of the Auckland islands. After we had completed our morning penguin count on Ewing Island it was a three hour-or-so journey down the east coast of Auckland Island to Carnley Harbour. Then Jo Hiscock and I parted ways with the rest of the team, heading up to the top of Adams Island for a spot of wandering albatross work, while the others remained on yellow-eyed penguin duty, heading out along the north coast of Adams Island to sort out their penguin watching spots for the following morning.
Adams Island is a remarkable place. It’s the largest pristine island in New Zealand – even though sheep were farmed for a while, no other introduced mammals ever arrived there. Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott have been carrying out a long-term study of the Gibson’s wandering albatrosses, which breed only on Adams Island, since 1991, as well as researching another sub-species, the Antipodes wandering albatross, which is found only on the Antipodes Island. Their field season in the subantarctic is January-February, at the beginning of the breeding season when birds are laying eggs and chicks are starting to hatch. Kath and Graeme need to put leg bands on the young albatrosses before they fledge and leave the colony so they can identify them when they return after a few years at sea – but by the the time Kath and Graeme return the following year many of the chicks will have already flown. So, they enlist the help of passing DoC staff such as Jo to band the chicks once they have reached adult size, and since the job takes two people I was keen to volunteer.
The study began because there were concerns that the albatrosses were being caught as by-catch in the longline fishing industry, and it was important to establish the size of the population and the breeding success. In the early 1990s the annual breeding success was 67%, but in the last few years it has dropped to a worrying 40%, and Kath and Graeme report that a concerning number of adults are also failing to return.
The evening we arrived in the study area Jo and I headed out to make the most of the long summer evening, as we had nearly a hundred nests to check. I was clad in head-to-toe yellow PVC (very attractive) as I had been warned that the young albatrosses were highly likely to regurgitate a fishy oily slurry over me (their only means of self-defence), and I wore light leather gloves as protection against their large sharp bills, which they clack fiercely when anyone approaches.
It was an incredible opportunity to get close to one of the largest birds in the world, with a wing span of 3-metres. The chicks were already as big as their parents, and although they had grown most of their adult feathers they were still covered in varying amounts of the lightest powder-puff white down. The banding procedure is quick and simple – my job was to hold the bird, which is so large that I could only just fit my arms around, with one hand holding its bill firmly, and my other arm keeping its long wings tucked in. Jo had two leg bands to put on – the usual metal numbered DoC bird band, and a plastic band with large letters and numbers that Kath and Graeme would be able to read at a distance using binoculars. Jo quickly had both bands on, and then an indignant albatross was released with a volley of bill clapping and grumpy calls. Not every nest had a chick greeting us – many were sad and empty, and a handful still had the bones and feathers of recently dead chicks.
As the evening light began to fail we retired for the night to the small bivvy and the following morning Jo and I carried on nest checking and chick banding while the the penguin counting contingent assumed position along the island’s northern shore. We worked in the albatross colony into the afternoon by which time the penguin team were off on their own albatross adventure at South-west Cape, visiting a colony of white-capped albatrosses (a kind of shy albatross) nesting on ledges on the cliffs. These smaller mollymawks are just starting to breed at the moment, so when we made it back to Evohe just on dark, after a cold wet walk back over the island, we were greeted with x-rated reports of goings-on on the cliffs as well as excited reports about adventures trying to find several of the historic sites.
The slightly less good news was that the Gibson’s wandering albatross chick survival so far this year is just 40%, and more chicks will likely die before this breeding season is over. And the yellow-eyed penguin tally for Adams Island was a rather meagre 21 birds, compared to 52 birds in 1989. Hmm, lots to think about until we bring you more news tomorrow.