In the first of a two-part ode to the albatross, RSPB's Albatross Bycatch Project Manager Stephanie Prince sheds light on the lives of these magical species, explains why we can all identify with their charismatic personalities, and outlines the challenges and solutions ahead in albatross conservation.
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 (BAS). I was immediately wowed by their sheer size and the 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 just how big they actually are, and started getting to know the different personalities and behaviours of the albatrosses. I’ve always loved birds in general, but spending time with these particular species 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, where the different species all know “the moves” to their own sequence, 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!
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 they 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 because the threats they face come from humans and we all need to know more about that, and what we can do about it.
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, from disease and from climate change. Although they face many threats we can have some hope, as for some species the situation is getting better - 15 out of 22 species are now threatened with extinction as opposed to 19 out of 22 a few years ago. We also have really great examples of where conservation action has lead to real 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 in fisheries 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 vital that we raise awareness of these magnificent species and implement change at a fleet-wide level.
Albatross Stories is funded by the Darwin Initiative, South Georgia Heritage Trust, and Friends of South Georgia Island.
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