Taiaroa Head - home of the royal albatross

Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula - is the only mainland breeding colony for Royal Albatross in the southern hemisphere.

Taiaroa Head on the tip of the Otago Peninsula - in New Zealand's South Island - is the only mainland breeding colony for any albatross species found in the southern hemisphere.

With a population of around 140 royal albatross, the Taiaroa colony has seen more than 500 chicks hatch since its establishment in the 1930s.

Largest seabirds

Albatross are the world's largest seabirds. These huge birds usually breed on remote islands and spend at least 85 per cent of their lives at sea. The royal albatross has a wingspan of up to 3.3m, and flies an estimated 190,000km each year.

Taiaroa Head colony

The first royal albatross egg was found at Taiaroa Head in 1920.

In the 1930s, Dunedin ornithologist Dr Lance Richdale campaigned to protect the colony from interference. Richdale's efforts were rewarded when the first Taiaroa-reared albatross chick flew from the colony in 1938.

In 1951 a full-time field officer was appointed to act as caretaker of the albatross colony, and as wildlife ranger of Otago Peninsula.

Albatross predators

It has been difficult to protect the birds from introduced predators such as cats, dogs, ferrets and stoats, and fire is an ever-present danger. These problems have been largely overcome by erecting and maintaining predator-proof fences, and by the vigilance of local field staff.

Albatross breeding season

The breeding albatross arrive at Taiaroa Head in September each year. The large white egg, weighing up to 500gm (17oz), is laid during the first three weeks of November. The parents then share the incubation duty over a period of 11 weeks - one of the longest incubation periods of any bird.

Chicks hatch during late January and early February. The parents take turns at guarding it for the first 30 to 40 days, and also share feeding duties. For the first 20 days the chick is fed on demand. At 100 days the chick's down reaches a maximum length of 12cm.

In September, the fully fledged chick wanders from the nest, tests its outstretched wings and eventually takes off with the aid of a strong wind. Nearly 12 months after their arrival at Taiaroa Head, having cared for egg and chick over a period of 300 days, the albatross parents leave the colony to spend a year at sea before returning to breed again.

The young albatross spends the first three to six years at sea; many then return to this unique headland to start another generation of royal albatross on Taiaroa Head.

Satellite tracking

In 2007 three royal albatross chicks from Taiaroa Head had satellite transmitters attached to their back feathers so their movements at sea could be followed.

Every six hours, the albatross GPS locations were taken - giving positions to within 15m - and sent via satellite for mapping and analysis.