Royal albatross use dynamic soaring to fly about 1,000 km a day without flapping their wings

Image: Laura Honey | DOC

Introduction

Learn how albatross live and behave from newborn chicks to fully grown adults.

Royal Cam allow you to see albatross at different stages of their lives. Understanding their behaviours on and off camera can tell you a lot about them and how to decode their actions. So, you can know how:

  • albatross ‘dance’ for their mate
  • they keep their large chicks well-fed, and
  • fly over 10,000 km in one journey.

On camera: Adult and chick behaviours

Courtship

Most albatross stay with the same breeding partner for life. Each year adults return during mating season to Taiaroa Head to reunite with a mate or to find one.

Young albatross return after at least 4 years at sea to find a mate. They socialise in groups of potential mates called gams, to learn the language of courtship and try to impress with their displays. They perfect performances which start as what seems like a dance. Then eventually this becomes a simplified but unique language between one pair which they use to find each other each season.


Watch young adults practice their courtship dances on RoyalCam

Displays involve several actions which include:

  • sky-pointing: lowering their head then pointing sharply upwards,
  • skycalling: an extend of their wings, followed by pointing to the sky and calling,
  • front or side preening: a raise of their head then whipping it to preen their breast or side
  • snapping or rattling: a sharp clap or rattle of their beak by opening and closing.

Building nests

At the start of the breeding season male albatross defend a territory. It can be within 40m of the nest they grew up in and where their own nest will end up in.

The males choose the flat areas of the headland for the nest. The precise location will depend on the outcome of their competing for territory. Once settled, female albatross builds most of the nest.

As the chick becomes more mobile, they may leave the nest and build a ‘play nest’ nearby.

Albatross couples that are not breeding for the season may also build poorly formed nests.

Concentrating nutrients for chicks

Like most birds, albatross regurgitate food for their young. Occasionally a parent may struggle to regurgitate food for their chick. To help, you might see them shake their heads from side to side.

Albatross have a part of the gut called the proventricular. It distils food into a highly nutritious concentrate. Fish and squid have a lot of water in their makeup. As this part has no calories, this part of the gut removes the water but keeps fish oils and lumps of meat.

When an adult returns to feed their chick, it provides the highly concentrated mix and lumps of fish, squid or octopus that keeps the chick going for many days.

Staying at the right temperature

Staying cool

During the summer, temperatures at Taiaroa Head can rise to highs of 25 degrees celsius (which is around 77 °F). The albatross can overheat in these warmer temperatures and pant, similarly to dogs, to keep themselves from getting too hot. They may also stand up to lose heat from their legs and feet.

When the bird stands up, it will often stand to create 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. Learn more about ranger's work for royal albatross.

Warming chicks

Like most birds, adult albatross warm their eggs and protect their chicks under their bodies. Mostly the parents will share these tasks evenly. But sometimes male birds will warm their eggs more than females because they’re slightly larger and sometimes in better condition.

Once out of the egg, chicks position themselves in the deepest part of the nest. The adults have a ‘brood patch’ which protects the chick. The chick needs to stay here, or its parent’s weight could squash it.

Off camera: Albatross at sea

Once chicks fledge, they’ll live at sea for 4 – 10 years. Non-breeding birds who have been socialising on the headland leave for sea by the end of May.

A life of soaring

On Royal Cam you’ll see chicks practice soaring. You’ll hold their wings out facing the wind and hover above the ground to learn how to take off and land. Once fledged, albatross use a technique known as ‘dynamic soaring’.

Dynamic soaring is when an albatross repeatedly turns into the wind to travel forwards. They turn into the wind current to gain about 30 m in height above sea level, then dive downwards to gain forward momentum. Studies have recorded them reaching speeds of over 100 km per hour (or 67 miles per hour) while doing this and enabling them to fly 1,000 km a day without flapping their wings.

By using this technique, they use the same energy they would while sitting, whereas flapping uses 15 times more. So, albatross can fly thousands of kilometres each week and over 10,000 km in a single journey.

Eating and sleeping at sea

When albatross leave the headland for the winter, they go to feed off the coast of South America. They spend many years at sea and sleep on the ocean rather than on land. Albatross land and sleep on the ocean for several hours at a time.

Feeding from the surface of the ocean, they use the hook on the end of their beak and its sharp edges to spear and break down food. They can open their mouths beyond their beak to swallow large bites of over 1 kg in size.

The birds will target anything on the water’s surface or just below that looks or smells like food. Because of this, plastic pollution is an enormous problem for albatross. Algae growing on the plastic smells like their food and if they eat this continually, it can cause them to starve.

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