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Oldest albatross: success at last?

Date:  07 February 2011

Taiaroa Head’s currently oldest albatross – White-blue-green (WBG), based on her colour bands – may not have the most exciting name. The 42-year-old matriarch’s life to date, however, is another story – it’s been riddled with bad luck.

WBG drew the attention of rangers in 1977, when she paired with a male that failed to return to the nest during the 80-day incubation period. This left WBG in sole charge of their egg and on incubation duty for 29 days without food. Hunger finally caused her to abandon that egg.

With the death of her first partner, WBG paired again in 1980 but this time with another female – a bond that lasted 22 years. Many of the eggs they laid were infertile, and the pair raised only two chicks of their own (fertilised by unknown males). However, they became useful for fostering eggs and chicks whose parents had died or disappeared, and successfully raised three chicks given to them by rangers.

When WBG’s female partner disappeared in 2002, she paired with another bereaved bird (a male) the following year, though he too was nowhere to be seen a year later.

She paired with her forth mate (Yellow-orange) in 2005, but her bad luck rearing chicks has continued.

Their first chick was found dead just three days after fledging, their next chick died from microbial infection cause by fly strike and their third chick died inside the egg when bacteria entered the egg through a minute crack. Last year WBG suffered from heat exhaustion and accidentally stood on their newly hatched chick while attempting to cool herself.

“There’s nothing wrong with her ability to raise young, WBG has just been unlucky,” said Department of Conservation ranger Lyndon Perriman. “At Taiaroa Head albatross face some unique environmental issues that hamper breeding success. Without human intervention, that success rate would be significantly lower.

Fortunately, WBG’s latest chick, which hatched on 27 January, is now past the most critical period. But as Mr Perriman points out: “The next month is still a vulnerable period where heat stress and predators are potential risks.”

The 2010/2011 season has been a bumper breeding year for albatross at Taiaroa Head – 23 chicks are alive and the last one is currently hatching. If all 24 survive the eight month chick rearing stage, it will be the second highest number of chicks the colony has seen.

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Additional information

  • Last season’s female-female albatross pair generated a lot of interest in the media. Their chick successfully fledged in September 2010. Those two females are now in their non-breeding year, expected back in October 2011.
  • There is another female-female pair this year, both proud first-time parents of a healthy chick. Similar to last year’s female-female pair, the current pair’s egg has been fertilised by an unknown male that has not contributed to incubation or chick rearing at this nest.
  • Female-female pairings are not uncommon. Pairs with unviable eggs have in the past served a very important function as foster parents.
  • The oldest female at Taiaroa Head, Grandma, died at the age of 60+ years.
  • Fly strike is a common problem for albatross chicks, blowflies being most prevalent during warm, dry weather. The chicks are most prone to being flyblown in the 3-5 days it takes to complete the hatch (from the first crack in the egg until the chick is fully out of the egg shell), and during the first 24 hours after hatching. They are equally vulnerable when food regurgitated by the parents accidentally spills on them. Peppermint essence is used at the nest as a fly deterrent.
  • In high-risk fly strike periods, Mr Perriman has found that the best way to avoid fly strike is by removing eggs that are about to hatch, placing them in the incubator, and putting the young back under the parent after they are completely dry. A fake egg is placed under the parent during this time.
  • Taiaroa Head is the only place where any albatross species breeds on a mainland site in the southern hemisphere.
  • The species that nest at Taiaroa Head are northern royal albatross, and the Taiaroa Head population is around 150 birds.
  • For the second time in 20 years, there is a young albatross family only 4-5 metres from the Fort Taiaroa Observation Post, so visitors to the Centre this season can get an up close and personal view of the young family and their chick.

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