Albatross are Amazing

The waters surrounding New Zealand, whether north or south – cool or equatorial, are full of marine life. I’ll start with the sea birds and finish with other vertebrates on another page.

The sea birds run the gamut from petrels to albatrosses to terns to gulls to jaegers to shearwaters to prions; and most of them are common and easily seen if you are there at the right time of the year. In the following images I will show some of the albatrosses that give size and power to these waters.

But first it should be mentioned that the taxonomy of this group is a bit sketchy, a work in progress. There are several breeding groups of large albatross y=that have great site fidelity and act as separate species what with no interbreeding. But the birds seem too be the same species from all signs. Thus they mat be undergoing speciation right now based on geographical separation and the lacking of population interbreeding – but taxonomists don’t agree on when one species begins and where its closes cousin’s group ends. DNA can do some things but in many cases it shows that life is a continuum of genetic change with no clear and decisive demarcation between on creature and the next.
Thus there are books that speak of albatrosses non anywhere from 14 (the old number) to as many as 27 separate species. I am using names from Onley and Scofield (Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World – both Princeton and Helm, 2007). They recognize 21 species of albatross.

In Kaikoura we went out with a company called albatross encounter which is part of the Encounter Kaikoura operation. We were part of very small groups and had a skilled and knowledgeable boat lady (Tracy). The trips are not long as the birds are just off shore and getting to them is not at all time consuming. The whole operation is geared to showing you birds in the open ocean and is very well done.

The reason they are here is that the floor of the ocean changes just off Kaikoura. There is a deep water canyon (Kaikoura Canyon) that reaches right in toward shore and creates an upwelling of cold and rich water that provides a great deal of small edible sea life. Thus the area is rich in foods and rich in predators as well.

We will look at petrels, shearwaters, and diving-petrels on other blog pages.

So here they are; big beautiful and glorious masters of the wild winds of the southern hemisphere.

The islands that make up New Zealand run from sub-equatorial to nearly antarctic. the water temperatures vary tremendously. The phyto- and zoo-plankton are equally varied and support a great array of sea life. But the top of the line predator, at least in the air, are the large seabirds. To see them you must head out to the ocean. Though they nest on land and can be seen coming and going in many parts of the world they are best seen and understood as pelagic animals; creatures of the great oceans. New Zealand offers many opportunities to see many types of sea bird. The most spectacular perhaps are the albatrosses.  There are about fourteen species that can be seen in the waters of New Zealand. There are specific areas where the oceanic conditions are best suited to provide calories to sea birds; the ocean is not an equal-opportunity buffet table. Rather it is a series of patches of food separated from other areas by much less productive waters. Thus we head to Kaikoura on the eastern side of the South Island and again to the Hauraki Gulf just north of Auckland on the North Island. Of course the smaller islands and island chains to the south of the South Island (Stewart, Chathams, Antipodes, Aucklands, and Campbells have birds and endemic populations.) 
The two large (traditional) albatrosses are the Wanderer and the Royal. The wanderer is in the midst of extensive taxonomical study and the number of species is still undetermined; probably there is no definitive answer as populations seem to be isolated today (on islands) but certainly share a rather recent common ancestor. The bird above is rather typical of a Wandering Albatross in that it has a pinkish bill with a cream colored tip. The hue on the nape is from either algae or bacteria or something else. It is a rather common occurrence but not well explained as of today.

The bird below is quite similar to the bird above. The next bird down however is a Northern Royal Albatross another very large bird but with a black cutting edge to the beak.

This Royal Albatross is about as large as a Wanderer; a ten to 11 foot wing span and a weight of fourteen to twenty pounds. Actually the Wanderer averages a good deal lighter than the Royal. The black line where the edges of the mandibles meet is characteristic for Royal Albatross. The amount of black on the back and wings varies and changes with age in both groups. The Royals are now divided into two types (maybe species) and the Wanderers are divided into three and maybe four types. 
There are quite a few albatross that have a gray or sooty head and neck. The Buller’s Albatross (above and below) is one of the loveliest of them. This is a medium-sized bird with a wingspan about seven feet and a weight of four and a half to seven pounds or so. Like so many oceanic creatures we only have a vague idea where they go when at sea. These birds seem too be NZ birds for the most part though one population wanders eastward all the way to the Chilean coast on occasion. The use of radio and satellite transmitters is providing much more information annually than all the information that has been gathered by anecdote and banding over the past decades.

The Shy Albatross was another of the regulars around our boat. The eyebrows are similar to the Black-browed Albatross and the bill is a mix of characteristics from other birds; but it is a singular beauty. This is a bird of the waters around Australia and New Zealand though is it ranges out to sea as well. There is a breeding population in the Bass Straits near Tasmania and another on the islands off New Zealand. Some books separate them as identifiable populations if not as species. Most books however do not separate them. These middle-sized birds are in the Genus Thalassarche. This entire group of (probably) nine species are often called Mollymawks. 
Spectacular aren’t they?

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