Awestruck by albatrosses

Awestruck by albatrosses

I stopped, captivated, entranced. Is this real? It can’t be. What a beautiful creature; those eyes, so intense, focused and alert. It was then I realised I was talking out loud. My colleague smiled at me, that knowing smile of having been there before – an understanding of that awestruck feeling which opened the door for me to be inspired by the albatross.

It was October 2015 on Albatross Island, a tiny rock in northwest Tasmania where the Shy Albatross breeds. I was ashore there with two passionate marine biologists who were researching albatrosses; I was learning the ropes of working with these magnificent birds so that I could apply these skills on Macquarie Island in Australia’s Subantarctic. I was about to embark on a year-and-a-half journey to one of the most incredible places on Earth.

A Black-browed Albatross in Windsor Bay, Macquarie Island. Image: Kimberley Kliska
The courting behaviour of the Grey-headed Albatross as well as other albatross species is always something to behold. Image: Kimberley Kliska

Even the stench that first hit my nose – the rotting kelp and Elephant Seal excrement – could not remove the smile from my face as I stepped out of the helicopter onto Macquarie Island, or “Macca” as I came to fondly call it. I stood at the station gate that first day enthralled with all that was happening around me. Seals battled on the beach; giant petrels hovered in the wind; Light-mantled Albatrosses called from the slopes. I had made it. The dream was alive.

Two weeks later, we climbed up onto the plateau for the first time; the reality of working here began to sink in. While I was excited about leaving the comforts of the station and the adventures to come, the slopes were steep and the persistent rain and wind drenched the landscape. ‘Just keep walking’ became my motto.  Two days later in similar conditions, I met my first Wandering Albatross chick. Instantly, the rain and wind seemed insignificant; once again, I was awestruck and smiling.

If you’re fortunate enough to visit, Macquarie Island is an ideal place for spotting various species of albatross. Image: Kimberley Kliska
The author, Kimberley, finding her feet on the shores of Macquarie Island. Image: Rowena Hannaford
Meeting a Wandering Albatross. Image: Kimberley Kliska

The story of the Wandering Albatross on Macquarie is nothing short of heartbreaking. Each year, around twenty mature adults gather to court, and usually around five or six pairs lay an egg. We know from bones found in caves on the island that hundreds or thousands used to breed here. For starving ship-wrecked sailors and sealers, hunger often lead them to eating many of these docile birds, even in light of the belief that killing albatrosses brings bad luck. High rates of by-catch from long-line fishers in the late 1980s and early 90s decimated this population.

Nowadays, volunteer biologists and Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service staff monitor this population each summer, hoping that the patient males building beautiful nests will find “the one” and raise a chick.  From over twenty years of monitoring, we know who is breeding with whom. It is devastating knowing that Wandering Albatrosses pair for life; when someone’s partner does not return, they will patiently wait for the next ten to twenty years. There are small glimmers of hope, though. Young females (approximately eight years old) that were born on Macca are beginning to return to find partners. Let’s hope they do their part for this population.

A Wandering Albatross on the wing off the south-west coast of Macquarie Island. Image: Kimberley Kliska

Also tucked away in the southwest are Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatrosses. On the steep slopes of Windsor Bay, these seabirds breed in small groups. There are around forty Black-browed and 100 Grey-headed Albatrosses here. At the risk of humanising birds, I love the quizzical, mascara-flicked eyes and pink-beaked look of a Black-browed Albatross. Yet, the proud and beautiful Grey-headed Albatrosses are also stunning on their tall mud brick and grass nests, with their grey-fading-to-white heads and bright beaks.

People often ask me what my favourite species is. I can’t possibly decide; they are all so unique and special. The social antics of all species fascinate me. As a biologist, I was privileged to observe the amazing courting behaviours of the Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatrosses. The nest building itself is the first step in a male attracting a female and consolidating a relationship. There is then tail-flaring, an entire repertoire of calls, dancing, clacking sounds and intensive grooming; the courtship of the albatross is truly a sight to behold.

A Light-mantled Albatross adult with their chick. Image: Kimberley Kliska
A Grey-headed Albatross flying along the cliff’s edge. Image: Kimberley Kliska

In addition to these species, there are over 2,000 Light-mantled Albatrosses whose grey tones, blackened wings and haunting calls cover the slopes of Macca. Add this diversity to the thousands of penguins across the landscape, the Elephant Seals on the beaches, the giant petrels, terns, burrowing petrels and skua, and the megaherbs, and you really are immersed in a David Attenborough documentary.

All up, I spent eighteen months on Macca and am one of only a handful of people to have witnessed the entire life cycle of this “Galapagos of the Southern Ocean”. Every day throughout winter I looked forward to the return of the albatrosses. And although I loved the giant petrels and the Elephant Seal pups, nothing could beat that contented feeling that came over me the moment two Light-mantled Albatrosses soared above me, threw their heads back and called. Albatrosses have given me a lifetime’s worth of memories and inspiration, and while these birds continue to fly, we can too. I left Macquarie Island inspired to conserve the world’s biodiversity for future generations, so that the albatross can continue to inspire.

Want to make a contribution to the conservation of albatrosses? The research and monitoring programs talked about in this article are managed by the Marine Conservation Program. The Shy Albatross research is managed with contributions from The Tasmanian Albatross Fund. Anyone can donate to The Tasmanian Albatross Fund here to support the conservation of the Shy Albatross.

Banner image of a Grey-headed Albatross courtesy of Kimberley Kliska.

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