Steph, your Instagram handle is @Ilovealbatross - tell us how you came to know and love this incredible, but pretty distant and difficult to access, species?
The first albatross I ever saw was from the back of a ship heading from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia, where I was going to study them for the British Antarctic Survey. I was immediately wowed by the sheer size and majestic way they glided just inches over the ocean, wingtips skimming the waves. My love for them only got deeper when I got to Bird Island and could appreciate how big they actually are, and started getting to know the different personalities and behaviours of the albatrosses. I spent 16 months living and working on the island, every day spending hours in the field, just me and the albatross. Since then I’ve managed to see more albatross in New Zealand, and most recently on Midway Atoll which is home to over 600,000 pairs of albatross and I was part of a team that counted every single one.
They seem to really have captured your imagination - what are the characteristics of these amazing birds that draw you to them and keep you interested?
I’ve always loved birds in general, but spending time with albatrosses is just magical. There is a depth to the interactions they have with each other, and that they can have with you, that I just haven’t seen with other birds. When they look at you, you can see that they are considering you in a way other birds don’t.
There are huge personality differences between individual albatross, from the grumpy bird that rips up grass in a fit of rage whenever you pass by the colony, to the birds that attempt to sit on your hand and brood it like an egg.
The ritualistic mating dances, that differ by species but all the birds know “the moves” are truly a sight to behold, and I could spend hours just watching them. They have an incredible life history spending years at a time at sea flying thousands upon thousands of kilometres, which I find amazing. A recent tracking study we did on grey-headed albatross juveniles found one chick to have flown 49,604 km in just six months, which is incredible!
How has this shaped your career and the work you do for the RSPB?
From the moment I first saw my first albatross back in 2012, my career has been inextricably linked with them. Falling in love with albatross was the first step, but through my work monitoring the population levels of these birds, and seeing first-hand the steep declines they are facing, I was from then on committed to doing something about it. After cutting fishing hooks from albatrosses faces and removing fishing lines and nets from the island so they don’t entangle any other animals, there was really nothing else I wanted to do than be the voice for these precious birds. When I returned to the UK after almost three years on South Georgia, I started work in the RSPB’s Albatross Task Force who work to save albatrosses in fisheries in South America and Southern Africa. After a year I then moved onto working with Asian fisheries doing the same thing, and I am now project manager for a suite of projects all working to save the albatross.
Why do you think it’s important more people can connect to albatross as a species, and our albatross stars as individuals?
Albatrosses are not easy birds to see, you have to usually be on a boat, or on a remote island to have any chance of encountering them, which for most people isn’t possible. However, albatrosses are truly remarkable birds and really are a sentinel species for the oceans. The health of albatross populations gives us an idea of the health of the rest of the ocean ecosystem, and act as real ambassadors for the marine world. Albatrosses also have many similar traits to humans, they live for a very long time (into their seventies and even beyond), they are great parents and have hugely strong bonds between mates. I think these similarities are one of the reasons more people should connect with albatrosses, but also the threats they face and of our doing and we all need to know more about that, and what we can do about it.
Tell us about your most memorable or magical albatross moment.
It’s really hard to pick just one moment having spent an awful lot of time with albatrosses, but I’d have to say that being there for the whole of the breeding season, from an egg being laid, the parent birds sitting patiently for two months, before a tiny fluffy chick emerges from the egg, all the way through to a smart young bird fledging almost 12 months after that egg was laid is an incredible journey to witness. I also had one particular wandering albatross that was really special. Every time I would go to his nest to check his egg, he would start preening my hair with his beak, I don’t think he approved of my hair style at the time! It was such a special experience sitting amongst the colony having an albatross treating you like one of the family. I could have stayed there forever.
Is there an albatross adventure you’re keen to undertake or a specific habitat/species you’d still like to visit?
Well I’ve been really lucky to have already spent years living with albatross on South Georgia, and more recently to have gotten married in an albatross colony in Hawaii, and then spent six weeks honeymoon on Midway Atoll, home to a staggering number of albatrosses nesting on every bit of ground, including right outside my bedroom window. I’ve still not seen all the species though and high on my list would be seeing the albatross of Gough Island in the middle of the Atlantic. The Critically Endangered Tristan albatross lives there and is currently under threat from invasive mice that kill the chicks. Plans are underway to remove the mice and secure a future for the species. I would love to go to the island after the mice are gone to see first-hand the increase in breeding success of the birds, which I’m sure will happen.
There’s a number of threats to albatross, not least harmful fishing practices. Can we be hopeful about the future for albatross? Why?
Albatrosses are the one of most threatened group of birds in the world, second only to parrots. They face threats from being accidentally killed in fisheries as bycatch, as well as from invasive species like mice and rats on some islands, disease and climate change. Although they face many threats we can have some hope as for some species the situation is getting better- 15/22 species are now threatened with extinction as opposed to 19/22 a few years ago. Plus we have really great examples of where conservation action has lead to conservation success, such as the work of the Albatross Task Force in South Africa and Namibia, that has collectively reduced the number of birds being killed by around 29,000 per year. This is the work of just a few individuals and shows the amazing outcomes we can have if we work hard to make a difference. There are still challenges ahead, and birds are still being killed but seabird bycatch does have solutions, it is just implementing them at a fleetwide level that is needed.
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