The Royal Albatross is one of the great albatross species, with a wing-span in excess of 3 meters and weighing approximately 9 kilograms. Endemic to New Zealand, the majority of the breeding population is found on sub-antarctic Campbell Island, with smaller numbers on the Auckland Islands. These seabirds breed biennially as it takes nearly a year to rear the single chick. Non-breeding birds and juveniles cross the Southern Ocean to feed in South American waters before returning to the breeding areas by circumnavigating the globe. Young birds begin returning to the islands at 3-4 years of age to find mates and generally start breeding at 6-12 years and live into their 40’s. The Royal Albatross is the largest of the albatrosses, rivaled only by the Wandering Albatross. It has a white body and black wings & white tail. The leading edge of the inner upper wing becomes whiter with age especially in males. The robust bill is light pink with a creamy tip and with a black cutting edge to the upper mandible. Juveniles have blacker wings than adults and white bodies with black flecking on the back, flanks, crown & tail. The ‘sky-call’, a high-pitched screaming bray is given during displays by socializing birds (courting birds, breeders and gatherings of immature birds known as ‘gams’). Displays may culminate in yapping or clucking. Over 99% of the Royal Albatross population breeds on Campbell Island and a small proportion on the Auckland Islands of Enderby, Adams and Auckland.
On Campbell Island, nests are scattered among tussock grasslands and mega-herb fields at mid-elevation (180-350 meters). Birds forage over the continental shelf and inner slope of southern New Zealand and the Campbell plateau, southern Chile, Uruguay and Argentina where they scavenge for squid & fish. Approximately 8,500 pairs of Royal Albatross breed each year on Campbell Island and 100 pairs on the Auckland Islands. Royal Albatross on Enderby Island were extirpated by humans in the 1800’s and on Campbell Island the population was severely depleted during the sheep farming era (1890-1931) by burning of vegetation, grazing, degradation of nesting habitat and direct predation of birds by people and probably farm dogs. Once the islands were protected in the 1950’s-60’s, introduced mammals were gradually removed from the islands. The population recovered during the second half of the 20th Century but appears to have leveled off during the early 2000’s. Royal Albatrosses are vulnerable to fisheries by-catch in New Zealand and South American waters as well as in transit between these areas.
Royal Albatross are monogamous with long-term partnerships, although a small proportion divorce. Birds mature at 6-12 years of age. The breeding pattern is biennial and successful breeders take one year off between breeding attempts. A single egg is laid in November-December, chicks hatch in February and fledged in October. Both adults of a pair share incubation and rearing. Nests on Campbell Island are dispersed at 3.1 nests although occasionally they are only a few meters apart. Royal Albatross are generally solitary at sea, young birds gather to display in gams on the breeding grounds. A variety of postures & calls are used in antagonistic and sexual displays, including aggressive bill snapping, clapping & gulping. Gamming and pair displays include: sky-calling with wings outstretched and head & neck stretched upward, croaking, yapping, billing, head shaking & whining. Partners mutually preen at the nest. Royal Albatross scavenge post-spawning cephalopods (squid and pelagic octopuses), fish, crustaceans and salps. Food is mostly seized from the water’s surface or by shallow plunges beneath the surface.