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 2018/19 season belongs to northern royal albatross pair known, LGK (male) and LGL (female) at South Plateau. 

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

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

November/December

An egg being 'candled' revealing an embryo.
An egg being 'candled' revealing an embryo
Image: Sharyn Broni | DOC

Laying of the eggs

Northern royal albatross lay one egg per female during November. Incubation is split evenly between the males and females.

Checking fertility of the eggs

Parent changeover.
Parent changeover
Image: Sharyn Broni | DOC

Rangers ‘candle’ each egg to see if they're fertile or infertile. This is done with a candling torch in a dark area. When the light is shone through the egg you can see the blood vessels of a developing embryo.

You can try that process at home with a torch and a hen's egg in a dark room. 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 by both parents continues for 80 days until the chick hatches in January/February.

After a few changeovers the albatross start to take longer trips at sea, usually around 7–14 days but maybe up to a week longer.

Long changeovers are managed by rangers to prevent the loss of the egg if it is deserted. The egg would be replaced with a dummy egg after approximately if a changeover hadn’t happened at around 13 days. The egg is sometimes fostered at another nest or placed in the incubator. We consider supplementary feeding the adult on the nest at around 16–18 days but if the missing bird is suspected to have died, we remove the dummy egg to release the remaining partner. 

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.

Albatross chick hatching.
Albatross chick hatching
Image: Sharyn Broni | DOC

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

Hatching continues through into February. This is the busiest time for us with fly strike a major problem at the hatching stage when the weather is hot. If flies lay maggots on the hatching egg or young chick that would quickly lead to the death of the chick without intervention.

Deterring flies from the nest 

You may see the rangers put peppermint oil 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 for fly strike and that they are healthy and putting on weight. Death by fly strike is one of the biggest causes of chick mortality at Taiaroa Head.

Panting during hot weather

During hot weather the albatross pant to keep themselves from getting too hot. They may also stand 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 out over the part of the headland in an area of about 200 m squared. There are two water lines going to different parts of the colony to keep the birds at the nests cool.

Do the sprinklers help keep the flies away?

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

  • Chicks could get wet which leads to them getting cold and their health compromised.
  • A damp and smelly chick becomes more attractive to flies.
  • The cost of trucking in water.

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 10 g to 100 g 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.

Strong winds causing landing difficulty, calm weather preventing the parents coming in, ease of finding food out on the ocean can cause delays for the parents returning to feed their chick.

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. We will keep an eye on the chick’s weight to ensure it is receiving enough food.

Adult albatross with chick in guard stage.
Albatross and chick at guard stage
Image: Royal Cam | DOC and Cornell University

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 the year. A surviving chick means that they need to skip a year to put on enough condition to breed again.

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. It will stay close to the nest, because if a parent arrives and they cannot find it, it won't get fed.

Weighing

Rangers weigh the chick daily until it reaches 14 days old. After 14 days old it will be weighed weekly from then on until it fledges during September. Daily monitoring continues during this time.

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

During the guard stage, they are tolerant of us, but do not necessarily want us there. More importantly they don't want to leave their chick so will stay on the nest. In the post guard stage, the adult doesn't have to stay with the chick and will generally move away when we are nearby. 

Many albatrosses don't show any aggression or nervousness. Aggressive or nervous birds do bite or may back off the nest. Rangers are trained to move carefully around the birds to minimise negative reaction from them.

Fostering

Fostering of chicks occurs to maximise survival of chicks. The use of dummy eggs and the acceptance of albatross to other eggs and young chicks makes this possible. A chick may be fostered because a parent has deserted the nest, or it is not getting fed enough.

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, or a fertile egg might die. If this is the case, the rangers may 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 if they have not deserted the nest.

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. Introduced predators that are a risk at Taiaroa Head include stoats, ferrets and feral cats. Although we have predator trapping on and near the headland there is a risk when the chicks near the end of the guard stage. By the time they are a couple of months old (and around 3-4 kg), they will be big enough to defend themselves.

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 also help with protecting the many other seabirds found on the headland (penguins, shags, gulls, shearwaters, spoonbills etc).

March

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

Albatross chick at post guard stage.
Albatross chick at post guard stage at Taiaroa Head
Image: Sharyn Broni | DOC

The post guard stage is when the parents leave the nest unguarded to find food for their chick out at sea, returning to feed whenever they have been successful. By the time the chick is 4-6 weeks old it takes both parents on full-time food gathering duties to feed the growing chick enough.

When left alone for the first time it may only be 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 overnight from now. It won't move far from its nest (possibly it won't get off the nest for weeks), as it has no need to go anywhere. 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).

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 investigate the chicks. They don't generally cause harm but may make the chick anxious. An anxious chick can vomit fish oil to protect themselves. It is best if vomiting does not occur as the down becomes less waterproof and compromises the chick’s health going into winter.

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. If a chick does go 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, the rangers will feed it. We normally end up supplementary feeding chicks each year.

April

The adults often now come to the nest, feed the chick and leave within 10 minutes so sighting each adult regularly isn't easy.

Chick growing adult feathers.
Chick growing adult feathers
Image: Aaron Heimann | DOC

Play nests

Chicks will often make 'play nests' close to their hatch nest and stay there for long periods.

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 be seen when the wind moves the down.

May

Predicting the sex

When the birds are around 100 days old, the two sexes separate in weight; with males being heavier and larger. At this time, we can start to predict the chick’s sex by looking at the weight, profile, temperament (males tend to be more aggressive) etc. However, an exciting development recently has been the identification of sex at a much earlier stage. Using the blood cells from the hatched egg DNA analysis can be performed to reveal the gender. The process takes a few weeks, but we should know a couple of months sooner than relying on past methods.

Non-breeding birds

Non-breeding birds who have been socialising on the headland will have left by the end of May.

June

The down is breaking of the end of the adult feathers and the chicks are starting to look more grown-up.

July/August

Banding

Chicks get banded around July/August when their legs are near their adult size and there is still plenty of time before they depart. For some that nest close to each other and are moving around at this stage, we need to be able to identify who is who!

Chicks will get an individually numbered stainless-steel band on their left leg and, in some years a 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 prior to the bird’s departure – the coloured band has a large number engraved on it, making it easier to see who that 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, so the coloured band helps identify those birds.

Adult albatross.
Reducing feeds
Image: Sharyn Broni | DOC

Reducing feeds

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

Preparation for fledging

The chicks exercise their wings prior to departure. 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 do brief practice flights, hovering above the ground in the colony. This also helps them learn how to take off and land.

During this time the chicks become more active, moving to different parts of the headland to make use of winds from all directions to practice the skills needed for fledging.

Do the chicks have practice flights before they fledge?

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.

September

Fledging

The albatross chicks fledge during September, when they're nearly 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.

Will we see the web cam chick fledge?

When a chick is ready to go, the wind direction, camera location and slope of the area will determine this. We have had some chicks walk to the lighthouse and fledge from there during North East winds. Other seasons, a few fledging’s have been seen from Royal Cam.

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. Albatross flight is referred to as ‘Dynamic Soaring’ (see below) 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.

What is Dynamic Soaring?

This is when an albatross turns to the wind to gain height (usually no more than 30 m 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. The hook on the end of the beak, the sharp edges and the wide gape all help. Plastic pollution is a big problem as algae growing on the plastic smells like their food. A bird with a full belly of plastic will starve to death.

What do the parents do after their chick has fledged?

Once the parents realise their chick has gone, we don't see them much 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 good condition to breed again, making them biennial breeders.

October

Adult birds returning for nesting.
Adult birds returning for nesting
Image: Sharyn Broni | DOC

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 breeding cycle. The younger, first time returners tend to turn up later in the year.

Once they've arrived back, they stay to mate and build 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 40 m of the nest he grew up in.

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