Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Scientists hopeful about albatross numbers

Scientists have just completed their annual survey of white-capped albatross numbers. Photo / File
Scientists have just completed their annual survey of white-capped albatross numbers. Photo / File

Scientists just back from an annual white-capped albatross census in the remote and windswept subantarctic islands are hopeful for the welfare of the iconic endemic seabirds.

A joint expedition between the Ministry for Primary Industries, Seafood New Zealand and the Department of Conservation this month surveyed numbers of the species on their key breeding site - the Auckland Islands in the Southern Ocean, 465 kilometres south of Bluff.

An estimated 95 percent of the worldwide population of white-capped albatross breed on the Auckland Islands each year, and hundreds of thousands of birds make their way there on an epic journey from both around NZ and South Africa.

Deepwater Group scientist Richard Wells said DoC would report the census data in the coming months, but he expected the figure would fall within the bounds of previous years.

"White-capped albatross are renowned for quite large changes in birds actually breeding in any one year and it is birds actually sitting on an egg that are counted to give an index of the population," Wells said.

"There are hints that this year is one where more birds took a break from laying but were still present at the breeding sites."

This was called "loafing" by scientists and the birds were labelled "floaters" as they wandered around the colony or stand on empty nests.

"Those on an egg sit very snugly and firmly on them so can be recognised as breeders."

Wells said weather had made it a challenging mission for the team, "but a window in the westerlies arrived, the photographic data collected and all of the team were flew home safely".

"The survey gives us valuable data on breeding patterns and adult populations," Wells said.

This is the ninth time the annual survey has been carried out.

The sea lion survey has been carried out since 1996 and in 2016 it was estimated there were 1727 pups on the island, a 15 percent increase on the lowest estimate from 2009.

The New Zealand sea lion study is funded by the DoC Conservation Services programme.

- NZ Herald

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