Chance to observe bird royalty

JACKIE BLACKWOOD
Last updated 05:00 17/11/2013
Prince Charles
BARRY HARCOURT/ Fairfax NZ

ROYAL ENCOUNTER: DOC worker Lyndon Perriman shows Prince Charles a northern royal albatross in Otago.

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Every year, at the end of the New Zealand winter, the Dunedin church bells ring to signal when the first albatross is sighted at Taiaroa Head.

Usually it is Lyndon Perriman, the "godfather" of the 150 birds, who is the first to sight the arrival of these king fliers.

When royal albatross return to breed, they always return to the place of their hatching, and the colony on the Otago Peninsula is the only mainland nesting place in the southern hemisphere.

Lyndon's office is next to the Royal Albatross Centre, where visitors can look through the glass of a viewing platform to catch a glimpse of a few nests. The colony is protected by fences and traps - a maximum security prison in reverse to keep the birds safe from predators.

"Office" is perhaps the wrong word. Rather, it is a small cube that is stuck like an eagle's nest on the cliffs of Taiaroa Head - not just a room with a view, but with an expansive panorama of the colony. Lyndon's workplace is squeezed between these panoramic windows and the fridge, kettle and microwave.

The albatross guardian fits his vacation time around the breeding cycles of those in his care and doesn't even leave the office during lunch. On the windowsill, clipboards are piled up that record details on each bird, and the binoculars are always within easy reach.

Lyndon has worked here since 1989 as a ranger for the Department of Conservation (DOC), New Zealand's primary government conservation agency. When he first started as a 17-year-old trainee ranger, there were just 15 breeding pairs in the colony. Today their number has at least doubled.

A passion for albatross has been with him since he was at school. If he saw a bird in the air that he couldn't name, he would borrow a bird book from the library to try to identify it and, in the course of his studies, he made many tours of the Taiaroa observatory.

Tuesdays are weigh-in day, and we accompany Lyndon, a bear of a man, as he trudges down the path with a green plastic laundry basket to the little white balls which, at first glance, seem like bursting feather pillows in the windblown grass.

It is hard to believe that in eight months these fluffy and clumsy creatures will grow into sleek flying machines with a wingspan of up to 3m.

Once they fledge and take to the air for the first time, they will fly for several years without ever touching solid ground, gliding across the Pacific to feed in South American waters.

Albatross lay only one egg at a time, and both parents take care of the 500-gram egg.

"May I see your offspring?" Lyndon asks nicely, and the parents do not object. They know Lyndon as he would have once weighed them too.

Lyndon lifts the 3kg chick gently into the basket, with his colleague, David Agnew from Dunedin, helping to check and record the weight. If the chicks are not gaining weight, probably because the parents had not caught enough to feed the chick, they are fed an extra meal of tasty squid and salmon pieces - perhaps more of an appetiser, as the chicks are accustomed to 2kg meals from their parents.

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"After one year, they have usually flown 190,000 kilometres, and they spend 85 per cent of their lives flying at sea," Lyndon enthuses, "and they also live a long time - normally around 40 years."

Lyndon's eyes shine as he says, "A female albatross, lovingly called Grandma, successfully raised a chick at the age of 62."

But there are also dangers for the young birds, the biggest being blowflies, which lay their eggs in the damp, broken eggshells - the resulting maggots mean certain death for the chicks. To prevent this, Lyndon, in true Kiwi style, fashions a simple but effective solution. A cotton cloth soaked in peppermint is placed near the nests as a "deodorant" and is enough to keep the flies away from the chicks.

Although Lyndon and his wife have two dogs at home, their "fur kids", as opposed to the "feather kids" he looks after at work, he is careful not to name the birds in his care.

"Wild animals live according to their nature, and it has nothing to do with our human behaviour," Lyndon says.

"Once you name wild birds, it blurs this boundary, they somehow are turned into friends."

He distinguishes his favourites by coloured rings. ROB (red-orange-brown) was the first to be weighed that day and is noted down as 6.82kg. Lyndon thought he had probably 20 more years working with his charges, by which time he hoped that there would be at least 300 of these magnificent king fliers nesting at the colony.

An edited extract from New Zealand - An Island Journey, by Karl Johaentges and Jackie Blackwood (RRP $59.99). ©Craig Potton Publishing 2013.

- Sunday Star Times

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