Hautere/Solander Island, The Capital of Albatrossness

Its probably one of the most rugged small island sites around the Southern Ocean….lacking only a glacier to make it truly inhospitable. No huts, no trees, and best of all, no humans! And yet Hautere/Solander Island has something of a reputation of among seabird researchers. Most of the ones I have encountered, who had been there, said “What would possess you to go there??”

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Cliffs of Solander Island in the albatross study colony, with many birds wheeling overhead in the afternoon. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

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Buller’s Albatross and chick in the sun after a stormy afternoon. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

The answer lies in the fact that it’s home to the albatrosses, penguins, prions, enumerable fur-seals, and a cute collection of forest birds who seem weirdly out of place among the boulders, vertiginous cliffs and crashing waves. Our work was focussed on the Buller’s Albatross population, which breeds at Hautere/Solander Island and at The Snares some 165 km to the south. The population at Hautere/Solander Island is densely packed and birds breed on open tussocky slopes compared to the Snares population which nests largely under forest.

The campsite at the albatross colony on Hautere/Solander Island

The campsite at the albatross colony on Hautere/Solander Island. Susan Waugh (left) and Tim Poupart (right) store the food and equipment in waterproof containers to keep it dry and safe in the less-than-clement weather. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

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Colin Miskelly keeping an eye out for returning birds among the boulders of the albatross colony. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

Our Te Papa research team of four arrived at Hautere/Solander Island on 10 May to carry out a GPS tracking programme on the world’s smallest, and arguably most beautiful albatross, Thalassarche bulleri,  the Buller’s Albatross. We deployed miniature GPS units on breeding adult birds to find their at-sea feeding areas. The work is part of the Winterbreeder Programme at Te Papa, with our team of seabird researchers working in collaboration with Deakin University (Australian) and the CNRS (France). We’re studying how a group of seabirds that raise their chicks in the winter months segregate marine resources, and how this unusual breeding habit has evolved. Several endemic seabird species feeding in central and southern New Zealand use this strategy, we’re trying to find out what the advantages are for them over breeding in spring or summer like most of the millions of pairs of shearwaters, albatrosses, prions and penguins that make up New Zealand’s rich seabird fauna.

Colin Miskelly and Tim Poupart deploy a GPS logger on a Buller's Albatross

Colin Miskelly and Tim Poupart deploy a minature GPS logger on a Buller’s Albatross. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

Tim Poupart watches two adult birds displaying

Tim Poupart watches two adult birds displaying. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

While we were at Hautere/Solander Island during 3 weeks in mid May, we listened intently to the weather forecast every day, and sympathized with the folks in Westland and Wellington who were receiving lashings of rain, gales, and worse. In fact, when you’re on a small exposed rock somewhere between Fiordland and Stewart Island, it’s pretty much all you want to hear about on the radio…If you’re not familiar with the Beaufort scale of marine weather, it’s worth studying…a kind of 18th century shorthand which resumes the terrors of a Southern Ocean climate into one-word statements. These start at “calm”…(I wish!!!), moving through “breeze”, and several more stages, up to those more familiar to us Hautere/Solander Island temporary residents of “gale”, “severe gale”, “storm”…and onward up to “hurricane” (thankfully we didn’t see any of the latter)…

Buller's Albatross flying at sea in a storm near Hautere/Solander Island. Photo Dominique Filippi, Copyright Dominique Filippi

Buller’s Albatross flying at sea in a storm near Hautere/Solander Island. Photo Dominique Filippi, Copyright Dominique Filippi

Our main comfort, based in a flapping tent, on the side of a waterlogged gully, was that we were NOT at sea…most of what was forecast blew over the top, round the side, and went past as ‘man-of-war’ thunder clouds that glided by between us and the hills of Fiordland, visible on our northern skyline, in-between the showers.

A pair of non-breeding Buller's Albatross take a rest form displaying on the tussocky slopes of the colony

A pair of non-breeding Buller’s Albatross take a rest from displaying on the tussocky slopes of the colony. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

Albatrosses are renowned for their ‘life-in-the-slow-lane’ approach to living. They take an age to decide to start breeding, (e.g. 10+ years), raise one, or fewer chicks per year, (some skip a year between breeding), and they take between 8-12 months to raise a single chick.

An albatross chick is feed every 1-14 days by both parents, their down and fat enable them to withstand the cold, wet and long fasting periods

An albatross chick is fed every 1-14 days by both parents, their down and fat enable them to withstand the cold, wet and long fasting periods. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

The birds we studied were raising their chicks with most visiting once or twice a week to feed them. Our GPS tracking revealed that they were feeding around the southern & central New Zealand regions, with foraging trips of between 1 day and 14 days. Some of the birds we tracked went surprisingly far, such as the one in the track pictured, which went all the way to the eastern North Island during a 14-day trip. It returned home 2 days after the logger ran out of battery near Mahia Peninsula.

GPS track of a Buller's Albatross tracked from Solander Island

GPS track of a Buller’s Albatross tracked from Hautere/Solander Island. Image: Susan Waugh. Copyright Te Papa.

This trip, we were able to take our laptops and download the data on the island, which had the advantage of helping us decipher the behaviours of the birds we were observing…some of the tracked birds were travelling for longer than they had previously been known to do so, with 10 days being a maximum for foraging trip lengths in studies done in the 1990s. The feeding areas observed in our tracking study, as far north as Challenger Plateau, Cook Strait and East Cape area were areas commonly used in the 1990s studies. The birds we studied spent time in these areas as well as closer to home around the Fiordland coast.

Susan and Tim download data from loggers retrieved from birds returning to the colony after their trip to sea. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

Susan and Tim download data from loggers retrieved from birds returning to the colony after their trip to sea. Photo Jean-Claude Stahl, Copyright Te Papa.

A week or so after our trip finished, Colin Miskelly attended the New Zealand Bird Conference held in Napier this year over Queen’s Birthday weekend, including a marine-bird spotting outing, and saw a number of Buller’s Albatross feeding off the Hawke’s Bay coast, possibly some of the birds that we were observing at Hautere/Solander Island.

6 Responses

  1. D. Moffitt

    What beautiful birds. These photos are exquisite and they capture a wonderful sense of the end of the world. I am so glad I can sit here comfortably and profit from your complex and challenging work in difficult conditions. Remember that the old version of the Beaufort Scale ends with winds that are more than any canvas can withstand.

    Reply
    • Susan Waugh

      Hi, yes we have some very talented photographers in our team, and there are a few moments of downtime when we’re working when you can get the camera out. It seems you have to wait for beautiful light, then find a great subject to capture in those brief moments. I tend to get rather focussed on the science outcomes, and never give it the time needed to get those stunning shots…but they are precious, and thankfully several of my talented bird-research colleagues, like Jean Claude are on hand to fill the photography gaps. Re Beaufort, it was interesting to read that they’d up-ed the higher end of the scale to deal with more extreme weather events that are now possible to measure and categories with modern instrumentation. When you have worlds in common parlance, like ‘storm’ or ‘gale’ its easy to feel complacent about what their relative strength is…definitely not good to be out in a storm…!

  2. Clayton Ian Watson

    Aroha love to visit that area see albatross.I remember my dad wearing a Albatross feather on his hat and was a prized item for Korowhai dress.Thanks or sharing pics tumeke.

    Reply
    • Susan Waugh

      Hi Clayton, that’s a really great memory, and they’re such wonderful birds to be around, its a real privilege to be able to study them and get to know some of their secrets…

  3. Susan Waugh

    Hi Pamela, its an amazing place to visit, and probably the most accessible place to photograph albatrosses is via the various seabird spotting trips that you can do from Kaikoura.

    Reply
  4. Pamela Moresby

    I would love to visit these places to see an albatross, having never seen one and Im a keen photographer and would love to get some good photos, hopefully not upsetting any bird.

    Reply

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