Albatross and giant petrel research on Macquarie Island

This week at Macquarie Island: 6 February 2015

The Macquarie Island albatross and giant petrel program team of Jarrod and Kate arrived in October. They have been busy monitoring 346 albatross nests as well as following up on northern and southern giant petrel censuses conducted by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service (TASPAWS) rangers. This is Jarrod’s first time to Macquarie Island while Kate has returned for her second stint. We are both in awe of this island. Given the wildlife, weather, landscape, and fast-growing tussock, you just never quite know what’s in store for the day.

Our first trip into the field to obtain a breeding effort count involved finding every albatross nest in our study areas.

We have:

  • Seven light-mantled albatross study sites around the island
  • One main grey-headed albatross and black-browed albatross nesting area at the southern end of the island on the slopes of Petrel Peak
  • A smaller area on the nearby Cape Star where a few grey-headed albatross have been found nesting in recent years

Finding the nests involves walking up and down the slopes, checking every gully, spur and bluff for those sometimes very well hidden nests. It’s a leg workout, that’s for sure! We also banded last season’s wandering albatross chicks which hatched last March and remained on their nests all through winter.

On our subsequent field trips we have monitored these nests to identify parents (by reading band numbers of banded birds) which provides important survival data, and to see how many eggs hatch. Towards the end of the season we will obtain a final count of successful nests to determine breeding success.

We have also undertaken a breeding success count of more than four hundred northern giant petrel nests found by the TASPAWS rangers with the assistance of station personnel in September (thanks Mike, Chris, Scotty, Ivor and Ian), and an interim count of the southern giant petrel colonies that are scattered all around the coast (again, with assistance from rangers Mike, Chris and Andrea). We've enjoyed our home away from home at Hurd Point hut where we are based most of the time while in the field, and even celebrated both our birthdays there.

Most recently, we have been observing last season’s wandering albatross chicks, and finding out how many 'wanderer' eggs have been laid this season. Four of the six chicks that hatched last season have fledged, and Jarrod was lucky to witness one taking its maiden flight and heading out to sea. If these youngsters survive, they will remain out at sea for several years before returning to try to find a partner.

Unfortunately though, two chicks did not make it. Necropsies revealed the most likely causes of death as starvation. This could indicate that the parents have not been able to find enough food for both themselves and to support their young. Or perhaps one or both of the parents have met an untimely fate, possibly through interactions with commercial fishing operations, particularly long-line fishing, which remains a key threat facing albatrosses worldwide.

Ongoing annual monitoring on Macquarie Island is a small but important part of global efforts to understand, and hopefully mitigate, the declines of albatross populations across the southern ocean. This season we have found five wandering albatross eggs. Let’s hope they all make it through to fledging!

Dark clouds and rain begin to drench a plateau on Macquarie Island
The macca weather sets in approaching Green Gorge during field training
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Two expeditioners with pack-laden backs facing camera look off into the grassy, hilly horizon
Checking out landmarks from the overland track en route to Hurd Point…
(Photo: Chris Howard)
Jarrod, barely noticeable on a hillside amongst tussock grass, points out some grey-headed albatross
Jarrod points out some grey-headed albatross on the slopes of Petrel Peak
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Expeditioner's feet and legs are seen while sitting down and remotely counting a southern giant petrel colony - the land below is at a point with ocean on three sides
Remotely counting a southern giant petrel colony on Precarious Point
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Inside a field hut, a female and male expeditioner sit on bunk beds, opposite one another and smile to the camera
In Davis Point hut after a day on the west coast
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Hurd Point hut with water on left, penguins all over the beach, and land on the right - long grass is seen in foreground
Our home away from home - Hurd Point hut
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Female expeditioner with weather and walking gear on poses on a steep hill with cliffs and rocky shores in the background
Kate about to head down the jump-down to Hurd Point hut for…
(Photo: Jarrod Hodgson)
Two serene black-browed albatross sit on a nest
A pair of non-breeding black-browed albatross construct a practice nest on the…
(Photo: Jarrod Hodgson)
Black-browed albatross chick sticks its head up from a nest on the southwest slopes of Petrel Peak
Black-browed albatross chick on the southwest slopes of Petrel Peak
(Photo: Jarrod Hodgson)
Malnourished wandering albatross chick in grass gazing out over the water
Unfortunately this wandering albatross chick did not survive to fledge
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)
Wandering albatross pair on nest nuzzling neck to neck
Wandering albatross pair on their nest in the Amphitheatre
(Photo: Kate Lawrence)