Webcam footage from the northern royal albatross/toroa colony yesterday evening (Sunday 18 February), shows female KGY attacking her chick, leaving it with injuries it could not recover from. The chick was just under a month old.
Aggression by adults and juveniles towards chicks has been seen previously but this is unusual behaviour and the Department is uncertain why the attack occurred, says DOC Threatened Species Ambassador Nicola Toki.
“This chick was one of only 16 to hatch this year, as Dunedin’s unusually hot summer has been putting the birds under a great deal of stress. With these low numbers, the death of the Royal cam chick is a serious loss to the fragile colony – the only mainland colony of albatross in the Southern Hemisphere.”
“While 29 fertile eggs were laid this year, only just over 50% of these eggs hatched, down from between 70 to 85% in previous years. With increasing frequency of extreme weather events due to climate change, the impact of the loss of any individual, for any reason, becomes even more critical for the conservation of the population.”
As well as prolonged high temperatures and the tail end of cyclone Fehi, a lack of wind has been an issue for the nesting birds. Strong winds are vital for the birds to fly and without them albatross are eventually forced to abandon their nests. Weather conditions also increased the incidence of fly-strike after hatching with seven chicks being affected contributing to one mortality.
“As a result, there has been a high incidence of embryo death inside the egg and the albatross colony currently has only 14 chicks compared with 26 and 23 at the same time over the last two years respectively,” says Ms Toki.
Much of Dunedin’s most recognisable wildlife is susceptible to climate change. Alongside toroa, the Otago Peninsula is within the northern-most ranges of breeding populations of yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho and New Zealand sea lions/rāpoka.
“Living on the warmer fringes of their natural breeding ranges, we would expect these small populations to be most vulnerable to any temperature increases,” says Ms Toki.
“We're beginning to see similar patterns for other native species, where changing weather patterns are compounding existing threats. DOC is aware that some native species management practices will need to be adapted to meet the additional challenges brought by climate change."
DOC rangers are continuing daily management of the remaining chicks at Pukekura to ensure they have the best possible chance of surviving to fledge (leave the nest). Management includes removal of any maggots, supplementary feeding for chicks and nesting birds, and using hand watering and an irrigation sprinkler system on the headland to help keep chicks and adult birds cool.
Royal cam will return later today. “We’re committed to keep telling the story of this special colony, complete with all the twists and drama of our incredible natural world,” says Ms Toki.
“We cannot say exactly why this sad event occurred. Up until now the chick had been doing well with both parent birds showing normal chick-raising behaviour. KGY also has a good record of producing healthy chicks over the years making this behaviour even more unexpected and upsetting for our rangers."
- This year’s Royal cam chick was produced by YWK (the male albatross) and KGY (the female). Their egg was laid on 7 November 2017 and hatched on 22 January 2018.
- This season 33 eggs were laid of which 29 were thought to be fertile. In the 16/17 season 38 eggs (34 fertile) were laid and 35 eggs (34 fertile) in 15/16.
- Embryo death occurred in 12 of the 29 fertile eggs.
- In a typical year for the colony 70-85% of fertile eggs hatch and approximately 90% of these hatchlings survive to fledge at around eight months.
- Northern royal albatross/toroa are an icon of Dunedin with a conservation status of ‘at risk - naturally uncommon’. They are a taonga species for Ngāi Tahu.
- With a wingspan of over three metres, northern royal albatrosses are among the largest seabirds in the world.
- The Pukekura/Taiaroa Head albatross colony is the only mainland place in the world to view northern royal albatross in their natural habitat.
- DOC manages the albatross colony with the support of the Otago Peninsula Trust, Te Poari a Pukekura (Pukekura Co-management Trust) and Dunedin City Council. It has grown from one breeding pair in 1937 to about 65 pairs in 2017.
- 10,000 seabirds also thrive at Pukekura/Taiaroa Head, including nationally vulnerable and threatened species like red-billed gulls and Otago shags.
- DOC worked with the Otago Peninsula Trust, Pukekura Co-management Trust, Wellington City Council and Dunedin City Council to install Royal cam.