One of the highlights of our family trip to the South Island earlier this month was a visit to the windswept Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve at the end of the Otago Peninsula, overlooking the mouth of the Otago Harbour, in the shelter of which lies the city of Dunedin. Taiaroa Head, or Pukekura, was an important site for Māori and, later, European settlers. Some 10,000 seabirds reside there, including royal albatross, little penguins, Otago spotted shags (a.k.a. cormorants), red-billed gulls, and red spoonbills, and it’s also a breeding site for New Zealand fur seals (kekeno) and a resting spot for New Zealand sea lions (rāpoka). But very likely it’s best known (and world renowned) as the home of the only mainland colony of some 200 royal albatross (Diomedea epomorpha; toroa), which have the third-largest wingspan (up to 3.5 meters or nearly 11.5 feet) of any living birds, exceeded only by wandering albatross and white pelicans. We hiked up a steep path to the albatross observatory, in the hope of seeing an adult in flight, but only two chicks were in residence, a considerable distance away. I was able to get some fairly good detail of one of them with my 100-300 mm zoom lens, as well as of some of the spotted shag (Stictocarbo punctatus; parekareka) roosting on their chimney-like nests and many red-billed gulls (Larus novaehollandiae; tarapunga or akiaki). This was my third visit to Taiaroa Head; my first was in the mid 1990s and my second in 2003, but it was CD’s first. I am already looking forward to my next, and I hope to see some airborne adult albatross.
News flash: a live camera mounted there by the Department of Conservation caught this footage, just a week and a half ago, of one of the chicks (very likely the one in my first photo) learning to fly and building its muscles. Once it feels confident it will simply soar away over the ocean and may not rest again on dry land for a year or more!
Happy birds to you. Although we spent a couple of nights in Dunedin, we never made it onto the Otago Peninsula, stopping instead at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary on our way north. Of the kinds of birds you mentioned, we managed to see a few as we traveled around.
Although there were no albatross in flight during either this or my 2003 visit, there were a few in the 1990s, but it was a really nasty, rainy, gale-force day (actually ideal weather for the birds!) and I wasn’t able to make any shareworthy photos. I’m setting my sights on next time.
By the way, it’s tempting to interpret the alb in albatross as ‘white,’ the way we correctly do in albino and albumen. However, the word actually splits into al-batross, where the first part represents the Arabic definite article. So strong was the Romance language connection to white that the word had actually gotten changed from the earlier forms alcatras and alcatraz, where the main part meant ‘pelican.’ And now you know how that rocky little island in San Francisco Bay came to be called what it is.
Though I’ve been to San Francisco several dozen times and have gazed out at Alcatraz during most of them, I never really felt inspired to go out for a tour nor, truth be told, did I have the time. But thanks for this etymological insight. Now that I know that it’s really Pelican Island, next time I just might reconsider.
Catching the albatross in midflight will be a challenge. Thanks for the virtual tour of the Nature Reserve so far away from Canada!
You’re welcome. It was great to revisit this magical place again after so many years and to finally share it.
The Red-billed gull photo is exquisite! What an adventure it must have been, seeing all these island birds, especially in spring. :-)
They are very photogenic and trying to catch their essence is quite a fun challenge. It is certainly an adventure, and one I greatly enjoyed revisiting.
Photo-bomber me will add that I also got a few pictures of red-billed gulls in NZ.
I see that I missed that post–thanks for the link.
And that footage was great, thanks. :-)
Wonderful bird pictures! :)
Thanks, Adrian, I thought you might be pleased!
Well, well. I’ve been watching this cam on the Cornell website for weeks. It never occurred to me that someone I knew actually would visit the spot; another small world story, for sure. It cracks me up that I saw this (via video recording) prior to you posting about it. We never know.
There were days I had to click out of the cam — I kept worrying nest and all was about to be swept over the cliff! Clearly, the birds know how to cope.
Well, well, well! The winds there are legendary and usually quite dependable, which is a good thing for the albatross, and one of the main reasons they’ve settled there. They can weigh as much as a large turkey (8.5 kg = 19 lbs) and they need that considerable wind to be able to fly efficiently. How very cool that you’ve been watching them too!