Pukekura (Taiaroa Head) on the tip of the Otago Peninsula - in New Zealand's South Island - is the world’s only mainland breeding colony for northern royal albatross. With a population of around 250 northern royal albatross, the Pukekura colony has seen more than 650 chicks hatch since its establishment in the 1930s.
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 three metres and stands at almost one metre tall.
The first royal albatross egg was found at Taiaroa Head in 1920 and 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.
It has been difficult to protect the birds from introduced predators such as cats, ferrets and stoats, and in summer, fire is an ever-present danger. These problems have been largely overcome by predator control, and by the vigilance of local field staff.
Albatross breeding season
The breeding albatross arrive at Pukekura in September each year. The large white egg, weighing up to 500g, 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 where the chick is fed regularly throughout the day. At 100 days the chick's down reaches a maximum length of 12cm, important to keep it warm throughout the approaching winter months.
At the start of spring 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 Pukekura, 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 10 years at sea; many then return to this unique headland to start another generation of royal albatross on Pukekura.
In 2007 three royal albatross chicks from Pukekura 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. The young fledglings were traced on their southern circumnavigation. Since this original project several GPS based research projects have been undertaken, and Otago Peninsula Trust is currently looking to implement another project to gain a good understanding of foraging activity of adults during their breeding stage based at Pukekura.
From January 2016 until September a live webcam #RoyalCam sited next to a nest will allow albatross fans all over the world watch an albatross chick grow to maturity in the spectacular surrounds of Otago Harbour. The web cam is facing south so on a clear day watchers see Dunedin city in the distance. Watchers can also keep an eye out for cruise ships and other vessels sailing by, or for little blue penguins heading back to their nests at dusk.
Albatross Colony – Otago Peninsula
No less an authority than British naturalist Sir David Attenborough has described the Otago Peninsula and Taiaroa Head as “a unique and very special place … that every visitor to Dunedin should see” and it’s not hard to see why. With the southern hemisphere’s only mainland breeding albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, it’s possible for visitors to see these majestic seabirds with a wingspan of three metres soaring at speeds of up to 120 km per hour. Visit between September and November to see the breeding birds arriving at the headland and building nests. December and January see parents incubating their eggs. Chicks hatch from late January to early February, growing to 10-12 kilo giants over the next few months, when viewing is superb and, aided by a strong gust of wind, take their first flight in September.
The Royal Albatross Centre is managed by the Otago Peninsula Trust, a charitable trust, which works closely in partnership with the Department of Conservation to protect and enhance the royal albatross colony while allowing visitors access to the nature reserve.
Air New Zealand has daily flights to Dunedin. The Royal Albatross Centre, a 45-minute drive away at Taiaroa Head, offers free 60 and 90-minute tours. For an all-day tour that departs from Dunedin – and also offers the opportunity to see Hooker’s sea lions and Blue Penguins – try Elm Wildlife Tours. A university town with rich Scottish heritage, Dunedin is known for its impressive historic architecture and its buzzy nightlife.