Albatross chick
Image: Laura Honey | DOC

Introduction

Read a month by month description of what is happening on camera and at the colony at Taiaroa Head, along with some frequently asked question at each stage.

Highlights

For more general information about the albatross colony and our work at Taiaroa Head, see our general FAQ page.

The nest featured on Royal cam for the 2017/18 season belongs to northern royal albatross pair known as YWK and KGY. Read more about the pair.

KGY laid her egg 7 November 2017 and it was the 10th egg to be laid in the colony. Since then the pair have been taking turns on the nest. Once the chick hatches, the parents will take turns feeding and guarding the chick for the next four to six weeks. After that they'll leave the chick unguarded, except for feeding visits. 

If all goes well, we'll get to watch another chick grow up on camera and eventually fledge (fly away) when it's about eight months of age. 

Read more detail about what is happening at the colony each month:

Watch the Royal Albatross short film (external site) to learn more about these birds and their life cycle.

January

Egg incubation 

After laying their eggs in November, incubation continues through to January/February. Parents 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.

Hatching time

The eggs will start to hatch around mid to late January or the start of February, depending on when they were laid (The first and last eggs may be laid about a month apart). After making a hole in the tough shell, chicks take about three to six days to finally emerge from the egg.

February

This is the busiest time for us with fly strike a major problem at the hatching stage. If flies lay maggots on the hatching egg or young chick and that would lead to the death of the chick without intervention.

Incubating the hatching eggs

Each day we decide whether the hatching egg will stay in the nest or be placed in the incubator. Warm and/or calm weather means that fly strike risk is high. At night when the flies have gone the egg can be returned to the nest.

Deterring flies from the nest 

You may see the rangers put peppermint essence in the nest during and after the chick hatched.  Flies dislike the smell, so it helps keep chick safe during their first few days when they are at risk. The chick is checked regularly to ensure no fly strike and that the chick is healthy and putting on weight.

Guard stage (from hatching up to 4-6 weeks old)

During the guard stage a parent is constantly with the chick. They will take turns feeding and guarding the chick during this time. 

Is there a time when the parents are most likely to switch over duties?

There isn't any time when the birds are more likely to change over, just keep watching, they do need wind to be able to fly in so calm days are less likely.

What happens if a chick dies in the guard stage?

The parents will usually leave the headland, and because they are not feeding a chick through the winter months they are likely to return and try breeding again at the end of this year. A surviving chick means that they skip a year as to regain condition to breed again, making this species a biennial breeder. Only smaller albatross species breed annually. 

When will we start to see the chick more?

From around 3 weeks old the chick will be getting too big to fit under the adult. At this stage it can retain more body heat so doesn't need constant brooding.

The chick can move out of the nest but rarely will do so until it is a few months of age. Even then it will stay very close by because if mum or dad arrive to feed it and if they cannot find it, it won't get fed.

Weighing

We weigh the chick daily until it reaches 14 days old. After 14 days old it will be monitored daily, but only weighed weekly from then on until it fledges mid-September.

How do the parents react when the rangers are at their nest?

At the guard stage, they are tolerant of us – they probably don't want us there, but they also don't want to leave their chick. In the post guard stage, the adult doesn't have to stay with the chick, and will generally move away when we are nearby. 

The more experienced pairs (like Moana's parents) don't show any nervousness and generally also don't show any aggression towards the rangers. Aggressive or nervous birds do bite, and if staff flinch (a normal reaction) it often makes the whole process worst as your sudden movement is something that causes the bird to get a fright and often bite. For aggressive birds we would not put our face close and tend to have padding for arm protection. Despite years of working with the same birds, these are still wild birds.

Feeding the young chick

The parents feed their chick by regurgitation. Some chicks don't get their first meal until they are two days old, the yolk sac keeps them going. After that they generally get a couple of feeds each day. The amount each chick gets given in the first few days or weeks can vary from 10g to 100g per meal.

The adults have enough food for several feeds at this time of the year, but as the chick grows and gets into post guard stage they're generally fed once before the adult heads back to sea.

Later, how often they are fed can vary as a range of things come into play. For example: strong winds causing landing difficulty, calm weather preventing the parents coming in, ease of finding food out on the ocean etc.

Sometimes the parent has trouble regurgitating food, why?

Some birds do, this is in the range of normal behaviour and we are not concerned at this stage.

Fostering

Fostering of chicks regularly occurs at Taiaroa Head. The use of dummy eggs and the fact that albatross to accept other eggs and chicks prior to the end of the guard stage increases survival rates.

A chick may be fostered because a parent may have disappeared or there is an option to use more experienced parents

Do parents often abandon their nest?

Not often, but inexperience at breeding, or stresses on the individual such as hunger or heat, or disturbance by other birds can lead to desertion.

How are the foster parents chosen?

Sometimes albatross pairs will lay an infertile egg. If this is the case, the rangers put a dummy egg on their nest in case they are needed as foster parents.

Do the rangers ever put two chicks into one nest?

No, the parents are not able raise more than one chick (they would also squash the one not in the brood patch).

Do the foster chicks end up back with their original parents?

We generally try to give parents back their own chick before the post guard stage (when the chicks are around 6 weeks old) as the adult albatross won't accept chicks that have been swapped after that stage.

Threat of predators

Once the chicks are out of the fly strike risk, the next biggest threat to the young chicks is predation by introduced predators. Although we have predator control there is still a risk when the chicks are small, and stoats are a major threat at this stage of the chick’s life. By the time they are a couple of months old (and around 3-4 kgs), they will be big enough to defend themselves.

We have traps within and near the albatross colony that are checked regulary. Other organisations such as the Pukekura Trust, Penguin Place, Nature's Wonders and the Dunedin City Council's Task Force Green also trap in the nearby area. These traps help with protecting not only the young albatross chicks, but also the many other seabirds found on the headland (penguins, shags, gulls, shearwaters).

Predator control is unfortunately necessary to ensure a thriving seabird colony. At times there are nearly 10,000 seabirds on or near the headland over summer and all are vulnerable to predation by introduced predators.

Panting during hot weather

During hot weather you might see the adults panting when they are feeling warm. This behaviour is normal. When they are on the nest, they cool down either by panting or standing up to lose heat from their legs and feet.

When the bird does stand up it often stands in such a way that it creates shade for its chick. We monitor this throughout any hot periods and if the panting becomes excessive we can cool the bird and nest by use of a sprinkler system or hand spraying.

Sprinkler system at the colony

The nests are spread over the headland, so we have different water lines going to different parts of the colony (as the different sides of the headland are either exposed or sheltered from different winds).

Do the sprinklers help keep the flies away?

They do, but there are a few problems with using the sprinklers:

  • the cost of trucking in water (each nest uses between 3-6 litres/minute so if left on for a while on most of the nests the volume soon adds up)
  • young chicks get wet which leads to them getting cold and their health compromised
  • when the sprinkler is turned off the chick will be damp and smelly so becomes more attractive to flies and there is a better chance of maggots surviving on wet chick than on a dry one.

Hand-spraying a few nests is an option we sometimes use if only a few birds are feeling the heat due to being in more sheltered spots on the headland.

March

Post guard stage (from about 6 weeks old - fledging)

The post guard stage is when both parents leave the nest to go find food for their chick out at sea, returning to feed whenever they have food. This usually happens when the chick is around 4 to 6 weeks old.

Typically, when left alone for the first time they are only left alone for part of the day before the adult returns. Later it can be as much as 2-3 days until the chick sees its next parent and next meal. This will depend on wind/weather, what time of the day the adult left, how hungry the adult is and timing around the other parent’s arrival.

It is perfectly normal for the chick to be by itself over night from now. It won't move far from its nest (possibly it won't get off the actual nest for weeks), as it has no need to go anywhere. It's just waiting for its mum or dad to arrive with food. The chick has food in its stomach than can last it several days (and as it gets bigger it can go up to a week between meals; but that is closer towards fledging in September).

Albatross have a part of the gut called the proventricular and its function is to store food at a highly concentrated level (a big proportion of fish and squid is made up of water which has no calories) so when an adult does return and feed the chick, it will get a mix of the highly concentrated food/liquid and lumps of fish/squid/octopus and that will keep the chick going for many days.

Interaction with adolescent birds

At the post guard stage, some of the young adolescent birds do harass the chicks. They don't generally cause harm but may make the chick anxious. Some nesting birds are more tolerant to these young visitors than others.

Supplementary feeding

It is important that the albatross have a natural upbringing, so rangers try not to interfere with chicks wherever possible. Chicks do not need to be fed every day, however, if a chick goes a long time without a visit from a parent, or is underweight rangers may supplementary feed a chick with fish and fluids.

At the post guard stage, the adult albatross will only feed their own chick (and will not foster another one), so if a chick is low in weight for its age we feed it. We normally end up supplementary feeding chicks almost every year (1 or 2 long term, on average each season).

For more details about supplementary feeding, see the FAQ page.

April

The adults often now come and go from the nest within 10 minutes so sighting each adult regularly isn't easy.

The chick will start to move out of the nest when it's a few months of age. Although it will stay very close by because if mum or dad arrive to feed it and if they cannot find it, it won't get fed.

Play nests

Chicks will often make 'play nests' close to their hatch nest and stay there for long periods. They still have a bond to the actual hatch nest (you might see the parent feed at the hatch nest on most occasions). So, for feeding, it is in their best interests to be in sight of the hatch nest.

Here at Taiaroa Head they do have freedom to move (unlike birds in big albatross colonies, where there could be dozens of nests in the similar sized area that the web cam shows; meaning a chick moving too far is likely to be bitten by the neighbouring chick).

May

Predicting the sex

When the birds are around 100 days old, the two sexes separate in weight; with males being heavier and larger. We use their weight, size and temperament to predict what sex they are, although we don’t always know for sure until the bird returns to breed several years later.

Males tend to (but not always) be more aggressive towards us, so that also helps to narrow down probable sex.

Non-breeding birds

Non-breeding birds will usually have left by the end of May.

Adult feathers

Adult feathers will start coming through but will still be hidden by the down for a while yet. The black wing feathers can occasionally be seen when the wind moves the down.

June

The down is breaking of the end of the adult feathers and the chicks are starting to look more like adult albatross.

July/August

Banding

Chicks get banded around July/August when their legs are at their adult size and there is still plenty of time before they depart. Also for some that nest close to each other and start moving around, we really need to know who is who then.

Chicks will get an individually numbered stainless-steel band on their left leg and a blue or red coloured plastic band on their right leg. These bands fit around the leg, a bit like wearing a loose watch. The coloured band has two purposes:

  1. quick identification for staff here prior to the bird’s departure - the coloured band has a large number so it is easier for us to see who that particular bird is.
  2. the bird will spend the next 4-10 years at sea. Occasionally, the odd one returns having lost the stainless-steel band (or visa-versa), so the coloured band helps identify those birds.

Reducing feeds

The parents usually start reducing the feeds around early August in preparation for the chick to fledge.

Preparation for fledging

The chick may start doing a little bit of hovering directly above where they were sitting in the month or so prior to departure.
Over the next month the chicks will become more active, moving to different parts of the headland to make use of the winds to practice flapping, hovering above ground, in preparation to eventually take off.

The land based flapping, or holding their wings out facing the wind, is the first stage of building up muscle strength in their wings. As the chicks become lighter in preparation to fledge, they begin to do little practice flights, hovering above the ground in the colony. This also helps them learn to take off and land.

September

Fledging

Each year the albatross chicks start fledging around September, when they're about eight months old.

Which chick will fledge first?

The oldest few chicks tend to depart before the younger ones, but it isn't all about age, some chicks are at sites more exposed to favourable take off winds and these can go to sea before older chicks of the same year.

It could happen in late August but more often in early to mid-September.

Will we see the web cam chick fledge?

When a chick is ready to go the wind direction and how far off camera the chick walks will determine this. We have had some chicks walk to the lighthouse and fledge from there during NE winds.

Some chicks can fledge on almost the first time we see them hovering about a metre above the ground, however the majority can do this on several days for weeks prior to their departure before one day taking that vertical flight into a horizontal one and head out to sea.

Do the chicks have practice flights before they fledge?

The land based flapping, or holding their wings out facing the wind, is the first stage of building up muscle strength in their wings. As the chicks become lighter in preparation to fledge, they begin to do little practice flights, hovering above the ground in the colony. This also helps them learn to take off and land.

Sometimes the hovering turns into a bit more of a practice flight and the bird will travel many metres. However, in terms of their first real flight, this is when they fledge, and they do not return to the headland afterwards.

How long are they out at sea for?

They usually return to the colony about 4-10 years after fledging.

Do they sleep out at sea? How?

Albatross will land and sleep on the ocean for several hours at a time. Using the wind to power their flight without the need for flapping makes their flying very efficient compared to flapping flight. Did you know: that albatross flight is referred to as Dynamic Soaring and this is as efficient as the bird sitting on the ground. Whereas a flapping bird will use 15 times the energy required for sitting.

Dynamic Soaring

This is when an albatross turns to the wind to gain height (usually no more than 30m above sea level then glides back to the sea to gain speed. This is repeated for very long distances and is how they can manage to fly thousands of Kilometres each week.

How do they feed?

Albatross are predominantly surface feeders and scavengers they will pick up anything from the surface or just below it that looks or smells like food. Therefore, plastic pollution is a big problem, look up Laysan albatross to see the effects that can result. The hook on the end of the end if the beak, the sharp edges and the really wide gape all help.

What do the parents do after their chick has fledged?

Once the parents realise their chick has gone, we don't usually see them too many times afterwards. They will spend the next year building up condition for the next breeding attempt. It has taken these two birds all their energy to raise the chick to fledging and they are not immediately in condition to breed again. Therefore, the great albatross species are biennial breeders.

October

Adult birds return for nesting

During October the next season's birds arrive home from 12 months away at sea, arriving back to start the yearlong breeding cycle. However, some birds return as early as September. But the younger, first time returners tend to turn up later in the year.

Once they've arrived back, they stay to mate and form their nests. The birds that have partners will mate and stay until the chick fledges.

At the start of the breeding season the male defends a territory in which the nest ends up in and this can be within 40m of the nest he grew up in.

November/December

Laying of the eggs

The birds will begin to lay their eggs in November.

Males can spend more time on the egg than females, but generally incubation is split evenly. Males may spend more time on the egg as:

a) they don't lay the egg, so they don't loss energy producing it, laying it and making sure the nest will hold it,

b) males are slightly bigger and heavier so can go further and store more food).

Checking fertility of the eggs

DOC staff check each egg to see if they're fertile. They confirm by 'candling' the egg with a torch – they shine a light through the egg to see blood vessels of a developing embryo. You can try that process at home with a torch and a hen's egg, they shouldn’t be fertile if bought for eating so you won't see blood vessels, but you can see into the egg.

Incubating the eggs

Incubation will continue until January/February.

While we hope for a 100% hatch rate, it is a long 80 days between laying and hatching. We manage eggs, nests and parents to maximise breeding success, but realistically we expect some annual mortality.

After a few changeovers the albatross start to take longer trips at sea, usually around 7-10 days. Some push that out to 20 days which is a long time for the other bird to be sitting on their egg without the ability for it to eat or drink.

These unusually longer changeovers are managed by us by removing their egg after 13 days (the egg is given to a foster parent at another nest and replaced with a dummy egg at their nest, so that if desertion occurs we haven't lost the real egg, the incubator is used if there is no foster nest available) and we will consider supplementary feeding the adult on the nest at around 16-18 days to ensure it stays on the dummy egg for a while longer. If we suspect that the missing bird has died, we would remove the dummy egg to release the remaining partner. 

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