Taiaroa Head and the Northern Royal Albatross

In November last year, on our way down the South Island, New Zealand, we stopped at Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve. Taiaroa Head/Pukekura is especially known for its northern royal albatross colony, the only mainland colony of albatross in the Southern Hemisphere.

Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi)
Click to zoom in

Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve

Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve is located at the end of the Otago Peninsula. It is just under a 40 minute drive from the Dunedin city centre along a picturesque coastal road.

Taiaroa Head is named after Te Matenga Taiaroa who was a 19th-century Māori chief of the Ngai Tahu iwi. There was also a significant Māori called Pukekura on the headland which was established around 1650 and was still occupied by Māori in the 1840s.

Taiaroa Head/Pukekura is currently home to nearly 10,000 seabirds, including several species of albatross, Otago shags, spotted shags, little blue penguins, royal spoonbills, petrels, terns, gulls and shearwaters amongst others. Don’t forget your binos!

The first northern royal albatross egg found here was in 1919, with the first live fledgling seen in 1938. Since then, royal albatross numbers have slowly increased due to intensive management by reserve rangers.

The Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi)

Along with the wandering albatross, the northern royal albatross is one of the largest seabirds in the world. They have a wingspan of between 270 to 305 cm (106–120 in) and are typically around 115 cm (45 in) in length.

Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi)
Click to zoom in

The northern royal albatross in endemic to New Zealand, meaning that New Zealand is the only place in the world where it breeds.

According to NZ Birds Online, there are estimated to be approximately 17,000 mature individuals worldwide, with 99% of the breeding population on the Chatham Islands (6,500-7,000 pairs) and tiny 1% at Taiaroa Heads (~30 pairs).

The majority of the non-breeding population spends their time off both coasts of southern South America, especially over the continental shelf and slope off Chile, and the Patagonian shelf off Argentina.

Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi)
Click to zoom in

With a lifespan of over 60 years*, northern royal albatross don’t breed until they are around 8 years of age. Once they do, they only lay one egg every two years. This single egg is laid in October or November, taking both parents around 80 days to incubate. The chick is brooded for a month, and is ready to fledge after around 240 days.

*Banded in 1937 at Taiaroa Head, the oldest northern royal albatross we know about was a female called ‘Grandma’. She was last seen at 61 years of age and was still breeding. Grandma used to be the oldest banded bird in the world. You can watch a gorgeous, old documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough about her and the colony here:

Visit the New Zealand National Geographic website to watch ‘Animal Nation – Grandma – The Northern Royal Albatross’ narrated by Sir David Attenborough

The albatross remix and montage at 17min 30sec is something else!

As Grandma has sadly not been seen in many years, she is presumed to be dead. Her title has now been claimed by a Laysan albatross named ‘Wisdom’ who is at least 68 years old (and still breeding!)

The Royal Cam

If you are not able to make the trip down the Otago Peninsula anytime soon, in this age of technology, you can watch a Live Stream of one of the northern royal albatross nests at Taiaroa Head.

The camera runs 24 hours a day during the breeding season. If you’re curious, you can click the image below to visit the Royal Cam on the Department of Conservation’s website.

The “Royal Cam” run by the Department of Conservation

References and Further Reading

The Northern Royal Albatross

Department of Conservation – Northern royal albatross – https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/albatrosses/royal-albatross-toroa/
(Retrieved 24 October, 2019)

Department of Conservation – Royal Cam: Live stream and highlights – https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/albatrosses/royal-albatross-toroa/royal-cam/
(Retrieved 24 October, 2019)

New Zealand Birds Online – Northern Royal Albatross – http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/northern-royal-albatross
(Retrieved 24 October, 2019)

Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve

Department of Conservation – Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve – https://www.doc.govt.nz/taiaroa-head
(Retrieved 24 October, 2019)

The Royal Albatross Centre – https://albatross.org.nz/
(Retrieved 24 October, 2019)

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Fotohabitate says:

    I loved my visit to the Royal Albatross Center! It was wonderful to watch the Royal Albatross breed and fly over the sea. There were so many birds at Taiaroa Head, incredible!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pam says:

    This is wonderful! Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I will have to content myself with the Life Cam. Unfortunately, no trips planned to N.Z. any time soon. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

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