Renowned ocean wanderers, they travel vast distances from their breeding grounds to feed – as much as 190,000 km a year. Along with the wandering albatross, royal albatross are the largest seabirds in the world.
There are two species of royal albatross, southern and northern.
The southern is slightly larger than the northern. At sea it can be distinguished from the northern by its white upper wings with black edges and tips, whereas the upper wings of the northern are completely black.
Both species have a black cutting edge to their upper mandible, which sets them apart from adults of the closely related wandering albatross. Juvenile royal albatross have black flecks on their upper-parts.
While royal albatross may be graceful in flight, their large size makes them appear clumsy on land as they doggedly walk from their nests to exposed sites to take off into the wind.
Northern Royal albatross pair showing courting display
Toroa are some of the longest-lived birds in the world, regularly living into their 40s. One bird at Taiaroa known as ‘Grandma’, raised her last chick at the age of 62!
Although they eat some fish and other marine creatures, royal albatross feed mainly on squid plucked from the sea.
Northern royal albatross flying
Toroa have great spiritual significance to many iwi. For example Moriori of the Chatham Islands wear plumes (raukura) of hopo (the local name for toroa) to signify their allegiance to the pacifist principles of the chief Nunuku Whenua. Taranaki iwi likewise wear toroa feathers to signify loyalty to the Parihaka prophet Te Whiti O Rongomai, a pioneer of non-violent civil disobedience.
Chatham Islands royal albatross populations have a long history of traditional harvesting. By 1921 the birds were fully protected and hunting them was illegal. Applications to harvest albatross have been made from 1993 to the present day. None have been granted.
Northern Royal albatross adult and chick
Toroa breed only in New Zealand waters.
The northern species nest on the Chatham Islands and at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula, one of only two places in the world where albatross breed at a mainland site.
The southern species breeds on the subantarctic Auckland and Campbell islands, which are among the world’s most important seabird sanctuaries.
Toroa spend most of their lives at sea, returning to land only to breed and raise their young. They start breeding at around 6–10 years old, each pair raising one chick every two years.
Royal albatross usually mate for life, despite long separations at sea. Established pairs return to the same nesting area each time they breed.
Royal albatross males arrive at the nesting site first to prepare the nest.
Both birds share incubation duty in spells of two days to three weeks (eight days on average) over a period of about 11 weeks – one of the longest incubation periods of any bird. After making a hole in the tough shell, chicks take about three to six days to finally emerge from the egg.
When the chick has hatched, the parents take turns at guarding and feeding it for the first five or six weeks. Chicks are then left unguarded, except for feeding visits, until they fledge at about eight months.
When a chick is fully fledged, it will stretch its wings and with the help of a large gust of wind, take off for its first major voyage. Young albatross spend several years away from New Zealand feeding in South American waters.
After a successful fledging, the parents will leave the colony and spend the following year at sea before returning to breed again, completing a two-year cycle. If the pair fails to breed they may return in consecutive years until they are successful.
Adolescents return to look for a mate at 3–8 years of age. They gather on ridgelines where the male birds display their virility by stretching their wings, throwing their heads up and screaming raucously, while admiring females gather round and take part in elaborate courtship rituals. Sound familiar?
Royal albatross range throughout the Southern Ocean and are most commonly seen in New Zealand coastal waters during winter.
Birds have been banded on Campbell Island since the early 1940s. Bands returned from dead and live birds caught at sea or found on beaches show a migration of young birds and nonbreeders to southern South American waters and back to New Zealand.
In other work, satellite transmitter packages developed by French, British and Australian researchers were used to track the birds’ flight paths. Signals were monitored by satellite and the information used to learn more about the birds while at sea. One bird travelled 13,000 kilometres during a two-week foraging trip.
Royal albatross cover vast areas of the ocean in search of food, feeding primarily on squid and surface feeding fish. The following map shows GPS tracks of three adult breeding birds during their foraging trips from Taiaroa Head. They were tracked between February and May 2012.
GPS tracks of three adults over four months
Map courtesy of Junichi Sugishita | University of Otago (modified from Sugishita et al. 2015)
Toroa are listed as nationally uncommon by the New Zealand Threat Classification Series.
Their slow reproduction rates, changes in habitat and climate and some fishing practices make toroa vulnerable.
Sample being taken from the gullet of a Southern royal albatross chick for the national wildlife health monitoring programme, Campbell Island
Southern royal albatross on a nest, Campbell Island
A storm on the Chatham Islands in 1985 destroyed the albatrosses’ nesting habitat, reducing the percentage of nests producing fledglings to as low as 3% in some years. There are encouraging signs that their population may be recovering from this event.
Long-line fishing, drift-netting and trawling are a threat to a lot of seabird species.
Threats at Taiaroa Head
The toroa nesting area on the headland at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Pensinsula is a 'hot spot' - a sheltered area where summer ground temperatures can reach 50 degrees celsius. These conditions aren't ideal for a genus that's far better adapted to subantarctic conditions, but they chose this place.
In earlier times both adults and chicks could die from heat exhaustion. There is now a sprinkler system that on hot days sprays water over the nest to cool the bird.
Hot conditions during hatching is a major problem as adults will stand up to cool themselves, leaving the egg exposed to risk of fly strike. Albatross chicks can take 6 days to complete the hatch. Any fly eggs or live maggots laid in the egg during this period will often result in a dead chick.
Staff now place a cottonwool ball soaked in peppermint essence in the nest - the herb's strong aroma masks the hatching chick's smell and acts as a fly deterrent. This has reduced fly-strike.
Predator traps for feral cats and mustelids are used for what is probably the longest running predator control programme in New Zealand.