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  • Laura Beasley

The Takeover: Another poor breeding season for Tristan albatross

Updated: Nov 9, 2018

The life of an albatross chick between the time when it hatches from the egg until it can eventually fly away isn't particularly glorious. Hunkered down between wet grass on windswept islands in the southern oceans these chicks have to wait for their feathers to grow. They have to endure gale-force winds and driving rain, hail, and snow, and wait... not for a few days or weeks, but roughly for 8-9 months.


Sadly, many chicks do not survive that long.


One of the survivors. A 5-month old Tristan Albatross chick begging for food (S.Oppel)

The inclement weather, however, isn't the main culprit for dying Tristan albatross chicks on Gough Island in the South Atlantic. Non-native mice that were introduced by sailors have gradually learned to eat albatross chicks that are too young to to fly or run away. Every year, hundreds of albatross chicks are killed and eaten by mice.


The annual count of albatross chicks

Finding out just how many chicks survive every year is a key task of the Gough Island team. Twice each year, in January and September, the team hikes around the island and counts all Tristan albatrosses. In January adult birds are incubating eggs, and in September large chicks are counted. By comparing with January's egg count, this provides data on the year's success rate.


The RSPB team on a ridge, scanning the valley below for surviving albatross chicks (S.Oppel)

Tristan albatrosses breed in the upland valleys of Gough Island, and a census therefore requires extensive travel across mountainous and boggy terrain far away from any established trails. Because the weather on Gough can change rapidly, the team always carries survival gear to sit out ferocious storms in some remote valley.


Members of the RSPB team on Gough during the survey in September 2018 (S.Oppel)

Depressing results from the count in September 2018

After a glorious day on the 18th of September, when the team enjoyed blue skies and calm winds, it became apparent that 2018 was again a dismal year for albatross chicks. In valleys where dozens of albatrosses had been incubating eggs in February, only a handful of chicks remained.


RSPB team hiking into the valley in which 43 chicks survived out of 146 nests (S.Oppel)

After a short break due to rain, strong winds, and thick clouds that rendered any survey impossible, the team resumed the surveys and completed a count of all surviving albatross chicks on the 26th of September. The results were bitter, and highlight how urgent mice need to be removed from Gough Island:

Out of 1453 nests counted in February, only 309 chicks (21%) survived until late September.


As long as 4 out of 5 Tristan albatross chicks perish before they have a chance to leave Gough Island, the decline of this Critically Endangered species is set to continue.


The team take a break in the background as this chick and it's parent enjoy the sunshine! (S.Oppel)

Tristan albatross chick curiously eyeing RSPB scientist Steffen! (J.Cleeland)

Blog by Dr Steffen Oppel, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.


The round island count shows the decline in just one species on Gough Island, but we know mice are predating on 15 seabird species and one land-bird. If you'd like to support our action to remove mice from Gough Island and allow these species to thrive once again please help us to restore Gough by donating or sharing our social media and website.



Acknowledgement

The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da CunhaBirdLife South Africa and the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa and Island Conservation. The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations. If you would like to support our efforts to save the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross and Gough bunting, please get in touch or you can donate using our online form.

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© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654

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