A Wandering albatross dad with his chick.
Wandering albatross on Macquarie Island

Wandering albatross numbers flourish on Macquarie Island

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The largest number of Wandering albatross nests in more than 10 years have been observed by Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) rangers on Macquarie Island, through an ongoing survey of the birds which have suffered population declines in recent decades.

This season, 10 pairs of Wandering albatross produced an egg over the summer, the highest number in a decade and a welcome contrast to last year’s low of three eggs laid. One of this year’s nests, on the northern west coast of the island, is in a location that hasn’t been used for breeding since 1967.

The Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) began a dedicated program to monitor Wandering albatross in 1994. 

PWS Rangers and DPIPWE biologists have monitored and recorded all courting and nesting attempts and fitted chicks with unique numbered bands on their legs before they fledge, so that individual birds can be identified throughout their lives. In addition, PWS rangers and DPIPWE biologists have used trail cameras at nests to monitor chick health and feeding visits by adults.

PWS Wildlife Ranger Sara Larcombe, who has just returned from a monitoring trip to the main colony which is about a 40km walk from the main station on Macquarie Island, found six of the 10 Wandering albatross pairs had successfully hatched a chick. Two sets of parents (the birds mate for life) were first-time breeders.

“Keeping track of the success of Wandering albatross nests is a crucial part of the work that PWS rangers do here on Macquarie,” Ms Larcombe said. 

“These birds choose this tiny sliver of green spongy land to breed on, but most of their lives are spent in the vast southern ocean. By keeping track of their population here on land, we can learn more about their survival rates out at sea, and how the timing of their breeding may be shifting in response to a changing environment.”  

Macquarie Island has a very small population of breeding Wandering albatross. Throughout the island’s history of human occupation, the birds have suffered substantial declines, initially due to being used as a source of food by sealers and shipwrecked sailors. Declines in more recent decades are likely from interactions with fisheries.

The wanderers choose nest sites that are exposed to the strong westerly winds which are typical of Macquarie Island. This means that monitoring involves walking the length of the island and working out of a remote field hut on the southern coast, a trip Ms Larcombe will make once a month until the chicks are fully grown and able to leave the island in December.

“I was fortunate to arrive during a very exciting time in the lives of the Wandering albatross, right when their chicks were due to hatch. This meant that my first trip to many of the nests was the first time that they’d been monitored since their chicks hatched, so I was one of the first people to get to observe the next generation of these magnificent birds.”

News of this nesting success comes ahead of World Albatross Day next month on 19 June, which aims to increase global awareness of the conservation status and threats facing many albatrosses species.