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There are about two dozen different species of albatross, these belong to the Diomedeidae family and come from the Procellariiformes order of seabirds. Four of New Zealand’s eleven species feature in the galleries. Two great albatrosses; northern royal albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) and antipodean albatross (Diomedea antipodensis) together with two medium sized albatrosses that are also known as mollymawks; white capped albatross (Thalassarche cauta) and Salvin's albatross (Thalassarche salvini). I photographed the birds in the coastal waters of New Zealand’s South Island at Kaikoura and Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula.
Albatrosses are long-lived ocean-going birds, mostly southern hemisphere, that visit coastal waters to feed, nest and raise their young, usually a single chick. They can glide for hours, float on the sea surface and like all Procellariiformes drink salt-water.
The northern royal albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) is an endangered species, the second largest albatross of the New Zealand endemics. These magnificent birds have an enormous wingspan up to 3.20m, only the wandering albatross, antipodean albatross and the southern royal albatross have larger wing spans.
They almost exclusively breed on the Chatham Islands except for one small colony, which breeds on the mainland at Taiaroa Head on the tip of the Otago Peninsula in the South Island of New Zealand. This is an important site, as it the only one where albatrosses breed on main land. The population may be around 200 individuals and in any one year, about 60 birds may come ashore to nest. In 2012, 36 breeding pairs returned and 26 chicks fledged. Their breeding cycle starts in September and lasts around 11 months. Outside the breeding season, they travel to both coasts on the Southern part of South American and some over wintering in South Africa and Tasmanian waters.
On the day I visited Taiaroa Head in 2012; several birds were flying or gliding along the side and above the cliffs. These birds are impressive when they lock their wings (photo top right) and exploit the wind and glide effortlessly.
Their nest site is inside a fenced protected area known as the Royal Albatross Centre, a business of the charitable Otago Peninsula Trust, refers. Some albatross images show GPS and radio transmitters attached to the back of some birds and rings on their legs.
In 2015 I photographed a northern royal flying close to the sea away from the breeding colony at Taiaroa Head straight towards our boat.
Another New Zealand endemic is the Antipodean albatross (Diomedea antipodensis), a distinct form of the wandering albatross, ICUN red listed as vulnerable. It has a wingspan between 3.0m and 3.5m making it one of the largest seabirds on the planet. About nine-thousand pairs breed on the breed Antipodes, a few pairs on Campbell Island and the Chatham Islands.
Gibson's Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni) is an endemic subspecies, ICUN red listed as vulnerable and nationally critical Ref 1). Twelve and half thousand breed on the Auckland Islands.
The Antipodean albatrosses are similar size and colour to the royals but can be distinguished by the lack of black on the cutting edge of their pink bills. Colour range is varied from brown with black upper wings, white face and underside of wings through to white birds with some back on the upper wings. Breeding females have brownish chocolate plumage, the breeding males are whiter and juveniles are chocolate-brown.
Thalassarche albatrosses or mollymawks are much smaller that the great albatrosses having wingspans around two to two and a half metres. I photographed the Thalassarche albatrosses off the coast at Kaikoura.
A New Zealand native, the Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini) has a range from South Africa to South America’s west coast but breeds on New Zealand’s off shore islands. It's a medium sized albatross with a wingspan of 2.5m, ICUN red list as vulnerable and is closely related to the white-capped albatross. It is similar in colour but can be distinguished from it close relative by the head and throat colour, which is pale grey and the bill is grey-green with a black spot at the tip of the lower bill.
White-capped albatrosses (Thalassarche cauta) are the most abundant, an endemic breeder in Australia and native to New Zealand. Its ICUN red listed as near threatened and the population is declining. A medium sized albatross with a wingspan about 2.1m to 2.6m. It has a white head and neck with a small dark patch in front of the eyes, greyish cheeks and a bill that is blue-grey on the sides, yellowish tip especially at the base and tip. Its range is from the Tasman Sea across the Southern Ocean to South Africa. The subspecies T. cauta steadi known as the white capped albatross is endemic to offshore islands of New Zealand. All the images in the gallery are probably of this subspecies.
Diomedeidae (Albatross) family
Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) [EN]
Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini) [VU]
Gibson’s Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni) [VU]
White-capped Albatross (Thalassarche cauta) [NT]
IUCN: International Union for Conservation of Nature
IUCN Red List Category: [CR] Critically Endangered, [EN] Endangered, [VU] Vulnerable, [NT] Near Threatened.
Ref 1: New Zealand Birds Online. Conservation status. [Online] Available from: http://www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz/?active=status [Accessed 15th February 2016]