Chatham albatross gliding over open sea
Confined until recently to one breeding site, the unique Chatham albatross is now less vulnerable. Photo: ©Shutterstock

‘Flowerpot power’ saves the day for rare wanderer

This is a classic conservation story from the isolated Chatham Islands about ‘flowerpots’ and the dangers of having all your eggs in one basket.

Until recently, the world’s entire population of the beautiful Chatham albatross (maybe 5000 breeding pairs) lived on one regularly storm-threatened outcrop in the Chathams, some 800km east of New Zealand’s South Island.

A precarious situation to say the least.

Climate change, over-fishing and predation by cats and rats at breeding colonies is already behind a reported 70 percent reduction in the global seabird population over the last 60 years.

Remarkable conservation

So, there was no time to lose. And the result is described by National Geographic as ‘a remarkable piece of conservation in one of the wildest and most remote places on the planet’.

At the centre of the albatross rescue operation is the Chatham Island Taiko Trust – a non-profit community conservation outfit, established in 1998 by Chatham residents to protect and recover the island’s unique and precious wildlife.

And first cab off the rank was conservation of the critically endangered magenta petrel (Pterodroma magenta), or taiko.

Private rock stack

The Chatham albatross (Thalassarche eremita) breeds only at a single locality, The Pyramid (Te Tara Kaia Koia) – a privately-owned rock stack. But severe storms can strip the location of vegetation and soil, leaving the birds nothing to build nests with. (Eggs break when laid directly on to rock.)

Taiko Trust says it can take the islands 15 years to recover from such storms, resulting in long term suppressed breeding for the albatross.

With all of the Chatham albatross’s eggs literally in one basket, a translocation strategy was ‘hatched’. The specific expertise of the Yamashina Institute of Ornithology in Japan was sought. Additional support came from the Royal Forest and Bird Society, Birdlife International, Chatham Island Conservation Board, Enterprise Trust, owners of The Pyramid and the local Chatham Island community.

Dummy adults

During 2014 and 2015 the rescue team moved 110 chicks by boat to a privately-owned release site at Point Gap, on the south-west coast of Main Chatham, where artificial nests (like big red flowerpots) and dummy adults had been previously set up (click here for a video clip of the operation).

In all, more than 300 Chatham albatross chicks were transferred between 2014 and 2018. The chicks were all hand-fed daily on blended squid-mackerel ‘smoothies’ and chunks of squid until they fledged, and the survival rate has been extremely high.

Following their departure from the colony, the birds spend five to seven years at sea before a hard-wired return to their ‘flowerpot’ nests to begin a new cycle.

©Natural Images 2018

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©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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