Wandering albatrosses are among the largest birds in the New Zealand marine area, surpassed only slightly by the southern royal albatross for size. Together, these are the largest of the great albatrosses, of which four species occur in New Zealand waters. The wandering albatross is most similar to the slightly smaller and darker Antipodean albatross, and the two are often lumped together as one species under the wandering albatross name. Here we use wandering albatross to refer only to the larger form that does not breed in the New Zealand region (other than a few pairs on Macquarie Island).
Great albatrosses have an impressive wingspan and slow gliding flight, which distinguishes them from other smaller groups (e.g. gulls and mollymawks). They are normally found offshore, but can be seen in southern New Zealand waters and northwards to Cook Strait, and in lower numbers further north. Care is needed to separate wandering and Antipodean albatrosses, as their plumage markings overlap almost completely. The most reliable distinguishing characteristics are the larger size, and especially the larger bill of the true wanderer.
The adult wandering albatross is a very large white bird with variable amounts of black on the enormous (3 m wingspan) wings and a pinkish-salmon coloured bill. Some adults have a pinkish stain behind the ears. The wandering albatross has numerous, graduated plumage phases, from chocolate brown juveniles with white faces and underwings through to mature males that are pure white apart from their black wing tips and trailing edge to the wing. At close range, even the whitest birds usually have fine dark vermiculations on their body feathers (not present in the royal albatrosses). Most wandering albatrosses (and Antipodean albatrosses) have upper wings that are either completely dark or have a large white patch in the centre of the inner wing that expands as the bird gets older. All but the whitest colour variations of wandering albatross are also seen in the Antipodean albatross, which is slightly smaller with a smaller bill, most apparent if the birds settle on the water together.
Voice: wandering albatrosses are mainly silent at sea. At breeding grounds they give a high-pitched trumpeting call, and also groans, rattles, and ‘puck’ sounds.
Similar species: the two royal albatross species are bulkier birds with a hunch-backed look in flight, and a fine dark cutting edge to the upper mandible (this can be difficult to see in flying birds). Royal albatrosses are much whiter birds, and (except for juvenile northern royal albatrosses) rarely have dark feathers anywhere other than the upperwings, which tend to whiten from the leading edge back, looking like the bird has flown through a bag of flour (cf. wandering and Antipodean albatrosses whitening from the centre of the wing outwards). Antipodean albatrosses (including Gibson’s albatross) never get as white as the whitest wandering albatrosses, and usually have at least a dark skull cap. Other than mature ‘snowy’ male wandering albatrosses, the two species can only be separated by size, with Antipodean albatross smaller with a shorter and less robust bill. Extra-limital Tristan albatross and Amsterdam albatross have the same plumage states as Antipodean albatross, though Amsterdam albatross has a dark cutting edge to the upper mandible.
Distribution and habitat
Wandering albatrosses breed on South Georgia and on Crozet, Kerguelen, Marion, Prince Edward, Heard and Macquarie Islands, and range throughout the Southern Ocean in latitudes from Antarctic to subtropical waters. Non-breeding birds from the Crozet Islands (and to a lesser extent other populations) frequent New Zealand waters. Non-breeding birds from the Crozet Islands (breeders in their sabbatical year, and pre-breeding birds) may spend extensive periods in the deep waters in both the Tasman Sea and the eastern waters of New Zealand from the subantarctic to latitudes around East Cape.
Wandering albatrosses breed outside of the New Zealand region, in the southern Indian and Atlantic Oceans and at Macquarie Island south-west of New Zealand. A global population of c. 8050 breeds biannually.
Threats and conservation
Threats to wandering albatrosses at breeding sites are few, as they breed mainly on sites with few or no predators. Threats in the marine environment consist principally of fisheries interactions, with population decreases linked to fishing mortality, particularly in longline fisheries. Recent studies have shown strong life-history consequences of inter-decadal changes in wind patterns, with stronger winds in the southern latitudes leading to reduced effort required for foraging by breeding birds, and positive population consequences.
Breeding occurs only outside of New Zealand and begins in the Austral spring, continuing for 8-10 months, depending on the site. Wandering albatrosses breed as monogamous pairs no more than once every two years, and have long-term pair bonds. The single large egg is laid in December or early January and is incubated by the parents in alternating shifts for about 11 weeks, with most hatching in March. The chick takes another 7-9 months to fledge; as the full breeding cycle takes 10-12 months, the adults then take a sabbatical year to complete their moult before attempting to breed again. Immature birds return to colonies when 6-10 years old, and typically do not start breeding until 11-15 years old.
Behaviour and ecology
Wandering albatrosses are solitary at sea, though may feed in flocks in association with fishing vessels.
The wandering albatross is essentially a scavenger, feeding on squid (especially) and marine fishes, and mainly within a few metres of the surface. Most prey is captured by surface seizing.
Do albatrosses have personalities? Te Papa Channel
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- Breeding season
- Egg laying dates