Macaroni penguins may be cute and geeps may be entertainingly disgusting, but the real stars of the show on Bird Island are the albatrosses. Everything about them is an extreme: for a start, they’re vast – the wanderers weigh in at around 15kg, with wingspans of 3-4 metres to support their enormous bulk. A wanderer’s foot is similar in size to my outstretched hand. They can live for over 50 years. They can soar for several hours without flapping. On the ground, they bear a striking resemblance to a plumped-up pillow with a head.
Sadly, the wanderers are deemed to be a vulnerable species and their numbers, already low, are in consistent decline year on year. This is thought to be due to them getting snagged on the long-lines of fishing trawlers which were, ironically, only introduced to reduce the by-catch of net-trawling. For years they have been intensively monitored by our scientists, with every wanderer on the island known, logged and checked on a regular basis – it was this long-term data-set that originally highlighted the decline in population. You can see that some of the birds in the photographs are ringed, no mean feat on a bird this big and strong!
The story is no more positive for the other albatross species. They grey-heads, which have to be one of the most beautiful birds that I’ve ever seen, are similarly in decline. The sooties, with their white-ringed eyes giving them a constantly surprised look, fare no better. The haughty-looking black-brows have suffered a devastating 67% decline over the last 64 years, with numbers still falling.
One of the privileges of working here is being able to see these birds nesting in their natural habitat and soaring above the cliffs around the island. Due to the complete absence of predators here (unlike on South Georgia, where introduced rats have devastated bird populations), they are surprisingly unconcerned at the presence of humans nearby – on a sunny, calm day, there’s nothing quite like sitting quietly on the edge of a colony and watching these birds go about their daily business.