What would you say, to an albatross chick?
Updated: Nov 9, 2018
By Jaimie Cleeland
The Tristan albatross chicks on Gough Island are growing fast. Right now the chicks weigh approximately 8kg and are left unattended as both parents scour the South Atlantic for prey. But, just twelve short weeks ago the chicks weighed only ~800g and were unable to be left alone. During this time parents took it in turns to brood their small chick on the nest for up to three days at a time. The young chicks needed regular feeding, limiting both parents to short, local trips out to sea from the breeding colony.
This brooding period offered a unique opportunity to understand how Tristan albatrosses use Tristan da Cunha’s protected waters surrounding Gough Island and the risk of encountering illegal fishing vessels; a major threat to this species. Tristan Conservation approached us with the idea of GPS tagging the adults whilst they take short trips to sea, and myself, Kate and Fabrice took up the challenge! We started with a 2-3 hour trek up to the Gonydale breeding colony armed with thirty GPS tracking devices.
Deploying a GPS on an adult albatross is a team effort. The first challenge was catching the albatross while on the nest. This required Fabrice’s quiet approach and swift but cautious hand. Once the parent was restrained, it was up to Kate to remove the chick from the nest and fill the role of an albatross parent by keeping the small chick warm and out of the wind. With the adult blindfolded to keep it calm, I got to work attaching the GPS device to the back of the albatross. Once the small device was firmly in place the chick was returned to the nest and the adult released. With a quick ruffle of the feathers the adult’s attention quickly returned to its chick as it hopped back on the nest to resume brooding.
Two weeks later we returned to Gonydale to retrieve our devices (look out for the results in our next blog!). Rotating in each role I had the chance to hold a chick in my arms. I couldn’t help but wonder about its fate and in that moment wished I could forewarn it about the dangers that lie ahead:
'Little albatross, please scare away those predatory mice until we can eradicate them, please stay away from those fishing vessels until we can prevent you being caught on longlines, please do not eat the plastic floating in the ocean that we need to clean up.'
A week later one of those warnings and the whole rationale for the project became very real as we stumbled across an adult Tristan albatross tangled in fishing line, with a hook piercing through its lower jaw. Weak, but still alive we got to work to remove the steel hook. With the hook removed the bird was released and its chances of survival looked positive. But sadly, it had been unable to care for its chick... It is not known whether the chick died of starvation or whether it was depredated by mice, along with chicks in other nearby nests.
These two threats contribute to the decline of the Tristan albatross from both ends of the population. Adults suffer high mortality rates associated with longline fishing operations and chicks experience low survival due to mouse attacks (Cuthbert et al, 2004).
While this story is not a happy one, we do have many reasons for conservation optimism. Firstly, by pure luck this adult albatross was saved; secondly, the Tristan da Cunha Fisheries Department and other South Atlantic fisheries organisations (such as BirdLife South Africa) are working tirelessly to prevent seabird deaths and thirdly, the RSPB and Tristan da Cunha’s operation to eradicate mice will take place in just under a year from now.
Gough Island is one of the most important seabird breeding sites in the world. It is up to all of us to ensure that conservation efforts are supported so that species such as the critically endangered Tristan albatross do not go extinct.
The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa and the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa.
The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.