Birds are awesome. They just are.
I never fully appreciated what truly incredible creatures they are until coming to New Zealand. This country is rife with beautiful and endlessly fascinating species, most of which can be found nowhere else on earth. Two of which – the Royal Southern Albatross and the Blue Penguin – I’ll be covering in this post.
I’ve touched on this burgeoning obsession with Kiwi avians in a previous post, although my love of albatross can be traced back to our very first stop on this journey, the island of Oahu. I don’t know if it’s their enormous wingspan, the fact that they mate for life or the effortless way they soar over the ocean, but these giant seabirds have locked themselves into my metaphorical keepsake box and aren’t coming out any time soon.
All that being said…
After our pleasant morning traipsing about Larnach Castle, we headed further out on the peninsula to the Royal Albatross Centre. We spent our afternoon and evening here, getting our ornithology on – what, what! See, bird watching gets me really excited. First up, albatross.
Royal Southern Albatross.
Taiaroa Head, just 40 minutes from the city of Dunedin, is the only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony IN. THE. WORLD. So, yeah, it’s pretty special. Usually, these large seabirds nest on remote islands, far from human interaction.
If you don’t know much about albatross, you’ve come to the right place. They are the largest seabirds on earth with wingspans reaching up to 12 feet. Once they first take flight, they do not return to land for three to five years! They just fly around eating squid, drinking salt water and thoroughly enjoying their gift of flight. They’re basically oceanic vagabonds, which might be why I’m so enamored of them.
After traversing hundreds of thousands of nautical miles, they return to their breeding grounds to find a mate. They’ll spend the next year tag team incubating their egg and gathering food for their hatchling. Finally, with a strong burst of wind, their fully fledged offspring will take flight, and each parent will spend another year traveling the sea solo before returning to start the process all over again.
At Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula, the breeding pairs arrive in September. By the end of November an egg will be laid, only one per pair. Hatching takes places from late January to early February – so any time between late February and August is a sure bet for seeing an albatross chick.
As we visited in early June, we were able to see a few chicks, already appearing quite large. The centre is very protective of their colony, so the viewing area is completely behind glass, but you are still able to get a good view. We also saw a couple of adults flying overhead in the distance during our tour.
We’ve come across several decommissioned military bunkers in our travels around New Zealand. Fort Taiaroa lays beneath the albatross colony and you have the option to tack on a little extra tour to the wildlife viewing experience. We did just that, and I would definitely recommend it, as it was in the best shape of all the ones we’ve seen so far. The disappearing gun was in especially good condition.
It was also a good option for us, as once our albatross viewing was over, we had a bit of time to kill before our next venture.
Taiaroa Head Birdwatching, part II.
The area surrounding the Royal Albatross Centre is a beautiful spot to just relish in the natural landscape. With a lovely white and red lighthouse and steep rock cliffs jutting into the crashing waves, it makes a spectacular spot to watch the sunset. We wandered down to a wooden boardwalk above the water and were joined by a few daring sheep, several other species of birds and, off on the distant rocks, a colony of fur seals.
Before we knew it, it was time for us to head back to check in for our penguin viewing orientation. The Blue Penguin, also known as the Fairy Penguin, is the smallest penguin in the world. They are found solely on the southern shores of Australia and New Zealand. Each day is spent out in the water feeding, and they only return to their burrows once the sun has set. Obviously, this makes viewing them a bit of a struggle. However, the centre has provided a special lighting that allows visitors to see the incoming penguins without negatively impacting the birds. No flash photography or outside lights of any kind are allowed. Should the penguins be exposed to these kinds of light, their vision could be impaired, making it difficult for them to feed.
Once briefed, the group is led down to the viewing platform to wait. As someone with not the best vision, I kept believing I saw an incoming penguin. It wasn’t. When they did arrive, in little groups called rafts, it was very clear.
All of a sudden, out of the darkness there began movement in the black water, then little white bursts would appear at the surface. And finally, there would be a group of the cutest little creatures you could imagine waddling across the sand, then skillfully hopping from one rock to the next, up the incline to the grassy dunes where they make their burrows. Once the entire raft had scuttled off, another would begin its entrance from the ocean. We began to be serenaded by their squeaky little barks… and then the rains came. We held out for a while and were able to see a few more rafts waddle their way to bed. The group gradually dissipated. Gina and I were a few of the only ones left on the platform before turning in.
A love of birds cemented.
Reminiscing on these experiences has further established my newfound love of birds. A few years back, in the first house Jason and I shared, we had a roommate who loved birds. She could recognize bird calls and name them by sight. The entire time we lived together, I never understood how someone could be so fascinated by something seemingly so mundane and ordinary. Now, constantly in the presence of extraordinary birds, I feel as though I understand. I was in the wrong, there is nothing mundane or ordinary about these creatures – they are exceptional.