The DOC rangers seen on Royal Cam are part of the Taiaroa Head Albatross Team. We are a group of 4 to 5 rangers who work a roster of 7 days all year round. We check on all albatross, eggs and/or chicks on the headland each day.
To lessen the risks to royal albatross, we:
- incubate eggs
- create foster nests
- feed chicks
- keep birds cool
- protect chicks from flies and predators.
Rangers also keep records, band birds and maintain the colony grounds. Find out about the work we do during specific periods of royal albatross' life cycle below:
During hatching rangers work two shifts daily. This ensures rangers are on site during the long daylight hours of summer to protect albatross eggs and chicks.
After chicks make a hole in the tough shell of their egg, flies can lay maggots on the egg or the young chick ('flystrike') which can lead to their death. To help stop this, DOC rangers spray nests with insect repellent that has been formulated to be safe for them.
We also swap some hatching eggs with dummy eggs during this time. This is so we can move hatching eggs to our incubator to prevent flystrike. Once hatched, we return the chicks to the nest and remove the dummy egg.
Keeping albatross cool
Albatross nests are spread over about 200 m2 of Taiaroa Head. Rangers have installed two water lines covering the entire colony to help keep the birds at each nest cool.
If we see albatross panting or standing to cool their legs, they may be overheating. So, we target cooling water using a mechanism installed at each individual nest to adjust the waterflow.
Controlling introduced predators
Introduced predators such as stoats, ferrets and feral cats are one of the biggest risks to newborn albatross chicks. Rangers work hard to set and maintain traps on and near the headland. Chicks are most at risk when they are 2-6 weeks old, but by the time they are a couple of months old (and around 3-4 kg) they can defend themselves.
Organisations such as the Pukekura Trust, Penguin Place, Nature's Wonders and the Dunedin City Council's Task Force Green also help by trapping in the nearby area. These traps also help with protecting the many other seabirds found on the headland, such as penguins, shags, and shearwaters.
DNA testing for record keeping
We use blood cells from the hatched egg to perform DNA analysis to know the chick’s sex. This helps us to know if their weight is healthy, as males become heavier than females after a few months.
Once chicks have hatched from the egg, we collect the eggshells so we can take blood cells from them. We then send the shells to the University of Otago’s Zoology Department for analysis.
Rangers support the growing chick on Royal Cam and many more chicks in the colony too. To support all the chicks in the colony, we check to see if each is a healthy weight and provide additional feedings if required.
Monitoring and feeding
We monitor each chick and their weight every year. We’ll weigh and feed them if they are underweight, and no other albatross can.
Rangers weigh the chicks daily until it reaches 14 days old. After 14 days, we weigh them weekly until they fledge in September. We also monitor when their parents swap egg warming and food gathering duties to track if the chick has a parent with food to give it.
If rangers find the chick is underweight for its age, or if a parent is late in returning from sea, we may feed the chick. Rangers feed very young chicks well-blended fish smoothies, to avoid any lumps that could get caught in their throats. As they grow up the size of the fish can be increased to whole fish.
Foster placements of vulnerable chicks
Foster nests are those where a pair have laid an infertile egg, or an egg has died and the parents are available to raise another pairs' chick. Rangers place dummy eggs here to keep the pair on the headland in case a nest is deserted, or a chick awaiting a parent needs fed.
DOC rangers note when adult albatross come and go from the nest to track when chicks are being fed. Strong or calm winds can make landing difficult for albatross parents returning from sea to feed their chick. Being unable to find food can also prevent albatross parents from returning.
It’s best for an adult albatross to feed a chick. So, when an adult has not returned for around 13 days, we move the egg or chick to a foster nest and try to return the egg or chick if they return. If there are no foster pairs, then DOC rangers will feed the chick until it fledges.
Interacting to keep albatross calm
Rangers are experienced at handling albatross and are trained to move carefully around the birds to minimise any negative reactions. Ranger work is aided by the fact that albatross have evolved without land predators and need to be very loyal to the nest if they hope to raise a chick.
Until the chick is at least 6 weeks old, albatross will tolerate rangers, but may not want us there. After 6 weeks, the adult will move away when we are nearby as the chick is in post guard stage and the parent does not need to shelter is.
Our understanding of their behaviour minimises the chance of being bitten. For example, a little tap on the bill replicates the bonding behaviour between a pair. Occasional bites happen, and it can hurt, but we stay relaxed and work to keep the birds calm so we can continue to support them.
We put bands on albatross chicks when they are 6 months old. Usually we place a stainless-steel band on their right leg with a unique 5 or 6-digit number.
Bands for the season
We place a single colour plastic band with a one or two-digit number on each chick. This number is unique to them and is so we can identify them for our record-keeping that season. It helps us identify them as they move around the colony.
Banding for adulthood
Once the juveniles return from several years at sea, we replace the single plastic band with a two or three colour band combination.
We read the bands from the top down according to the first letter of the colour. For example, O is for orange. The one exception is K for black as B was already in use for blue when we started to use black bands.