NIWA spies discover big birds take midwinter holidays


Scientists have discovered that our big birds take long winter holidays overseas. The native Campbell Albatross take off to South Australia, and the Grey-headed Albatross goes further afield to an area 7,000 km from Campbell Island, in the Indian Ocean to the west of Australia.

NIWA scientist Dr David Thompson says, "This appears to be an oceanic zone of importance for Grey-headed Albatross that we were previously unaware of."

These findings have been recently confirmed by NIWA scientists Dr Paul Sagar and Dr David Thompson using geolocator tags.

Dr Thompson says, "We found that the Grey-headed Albatross travels lesser distances than we thought. It looks like they go to South Australia and then off into the Indian Ocean further to the west. We thought that the Campbell Albatross would go further than South Australia," says Dr Thompson.

Oceanic seabirds spend 90 per cent of their lives in the open sea. The wing span of a Campbell albatross is 2.1 to 2.46 metres. The Grey-headed albatross has a wingspan of 2.2 metres.

Scientists studying at Campbell Island are looking at three species of seabird: the Campbell Albatross (which is endemic to New Zealand), the Grey-headed Albatross, and the Rockhopper Penguin. This is the third year of a six year Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment-funded study, tracking where the seabirds go. National Geographic in USA provides extra funding for the Rockhopper Penguin work.

The Campbell Albatross breeds on Campbell Island only, while Grey-headed Albatross breed in other parts of the world too. "They nest in groups, the Grey-headed Albatross with the Campbell Albatross - a beak length apart - they can touch each other's nests," says Dr Thompson.

Both the Grey-headed Albatross and the Campbell Albatross share the incubation of their eggs between partners, and when they forage for food, can travel as far afield as Antarctic waters.

NIWA scientists tagged Campbell Albatross and Grey-headed Albatross with geolocators, light-weight tags that record light level data, which can be processed to give location information.

Dr Thompson says that the geolocator tags, "will reveal information about these conspicuous marine predators and their marine environment, what's important to them and why it is they go where they go."

The numbers of Grey-headed Albatross are thought to be declining, whereas the Campbell Albatross, which have declined in previous decades, are thought to be stabilising or increasing slightly. The total breeding population for the Campbell Albatross could number 23,300 pairs. Both species are classified as vulnerable.

Campbell Island is the most southern of the five New Zealand sub-Antarctic Islands. These islands are remote and hard to get to, and the Department of Conservation's permission is required to visit them.

NIWA scientist Dr Paul Sagar says, "Each year since 2009, we have sent a team to the island at the beginning of October through to January. It coincides with when they lay their eggs, right through the incubation phase, the hatching period, which is 65 days, and after they have hatched an egg, through to the guard stage, when one adult stays with a very small chick until it can defend itself."

So far, the scientists have deployed 70 leg-mounted geolocator tags onto the two species of albatross. "We have over 60 tags back from the Campbell Albatross, but less information for the Grey-headed Albatross," says Dr Thompson.

"Until we started this project we didn't know where they went to in winter," says Dr Thompson. The data suggest that in April each year, when the Campbell Albatrosses have finished breeding, they go to South Australia. They spend 4 months there, and then return to Campbell Island.

NIWA, WWF, Albatross Encounter Kaikoura, and Forest and Bird are key sponsors of the Fifth International Albatross and Petrel Conference, which will be held at Mac's Function Centre, in Wellington, 13 August 2012 - 17 August 2012.

The conference will cover all aspects of albatross and petrel biology, ecology, distributions and tracking, taxonomy and human interactions.


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To find out more information about the conference visit: 


Campbell albatross. Photo by David Evans.
Dr David Thompson and Paul Sagar on Campbell Island, fitting a geolocator to a Campbell albatross. Photo by Henk Haazen
Grey-headed albatross. Photo by David Evans
Research subject: Coasts