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??”
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.
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.
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)…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.