Guest post by Simon Pinder
With a three-and-a-half metre wing-span a wandering albatross effortlessly soars ten metres above the waves. Utilising the wind currents, it can then glide 200 metres without expending energy to rise up over the next peak in the swell. Using this method wandering albatrosses soar around the southern oceans, covering huge distances efficiently. A tagged wandering albatross was recorded covering 6000km in 12 days.
Wandering and royal albatrosses, the great albatrosses, have the largest wingspan of any bird in the world. They breed on Sub-Antarctic islands for example South Georgia, nesting on platforms constructed of vegetation and earth. The female lays one huge white egg which is incubated for about 80 days, after the chick hatches it is fed by both parents who undertake marathon feeding trips to provision it. After almost ten months of its lonely vigil on the nest it is ready to take to the air, it will not return to land until it too is ready to breed. By then it will have circumnavigated the globe for up to 15 years.
Wandering albatross. Photo (C) S. Pinder
The albatrosses use the strong westerly winds of the roaring forties and the furious fifties way down in the southern hemisphere where land is scarce and the winds build in their uninterrupted passage around the world. The females and young males spend their time in the relative calm of the forties, but the older males, those over 40 years old, live in without competition in the fifties where the stronger wings aid their ageing wings.
One of the effects of climate change is a change in the world’s weather patterns; with more chaos in the system, windier places can become windier. This can pose problems for scientists in the field as windier, rougher seas can be difficult to work on. However, the greater force of these increased winds has allowed wandering albatrosses to travel faster and therefore spend more time foraging. As a consequence, they have become fitter and heavier*. Whether in the future this will result in even larger birds or an over-exploitation of resources is currently unknown.
Simon is a freelance ornithologist and marine mammal surveyor, based in Scotland.
* Weimerskirch, H. et al., 2012. Changes in Wind Pattern Alter Albatross Distribution and Life-History Traits. Science. 335. 211. DOI: 10.1126/science.1210270