I have always been fascinated by albatrosses. With their size, ability to fly long distances and their sometimes comical take-offs into flight, they are quite a special bird. They spend 85% of their lives at sea, touching on land to breed. According to the Department of Conservation, until recently scientists recognised fourteen different species of albatross, but new research has confirmed as many as twenty-four. Thirteen varieties breed in the New Zealand region, more than anywhere else in the world.
When we were down in Dunedin, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go and visit the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head (Pukekura) on the Otago Peninsula. This nature reserve is over 70 years old, and is operated by a charitable trust. It is home to the only mainland breeding colony of royal albatross in the world. This time of year is a good time to visit as birds can be seen incubating their eggs, so you are pretty certain of seeing something. An adult bird can have a wingspan of 3 metres and can fly at speeds of around 120 kilometres per hour.
The area is also home to a large colony of red bill gulls. Although you see them everywhere, the bird has recently suffered huge declines at its three main breeding colonies, mostly due to invasive introduced predators like stoats. However, here on the Otago Peninsula, where predators are controlled, they are actually increasing in number. As you can imagine, they are noisy and make quite a mess on the cars in the car park… Anyway, below you can see two views from the car park, two mother birds with their chicks, next to the cafe, another bird with chick (look carefully!) and one just standing there.
At the visitor centre, there is a small exhibition about the history of the centre, a nice little cafe and the obligatory gift shop. Public access is only by guided tour to an observatory within the reserve to view a section of the nesting area at certain times of the year. We stopped on the walk up to look at the view and were lucky enough to see a couple of royal spoonbills (not pictured) flying overhead. They also breed within the reserve.
We were very lucky with the weather on the morning we went, with clear skies and some sunshine when we got to the viewing area. There were binoculars available for us to get a closer look at the birds, and an excellent chance to see what was going on. We could see at least six nests with birds sitting on them, and one young male who flew off to everyone’s delight. The photos were just taken with my iPhone, so apologies for the quality.
All in all, I can highly recommend a trip here. It is only about 50 minutes or so to drive there from the centre of Dunedin, and the views as you can see are quite wonderful. Do check on the best time of year to visit though, and book in advance.
Footnote: we are allowed to travel around New Zealand. At the time of writing, there is no lockdown in the country.
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