Bird ring reveals epic journey of young albatross

RSPB experts have been able to trace a dead albatross found in Namibia back to its nest site 3,000km away.

Published 30 Nov 2018, 00:09 GMT
This albatross chick was among the 200 birds that were ringed on Nightingale Island, one of ...
This albatross chick was among the 200 birds that were ringed on Nightingale Island, one of which was found dead off the coast of Namibia.
Photograph by Andy Schofield

Earlier this year, at the beginning of August, a Namibian fisherman called Yvie van Urk, handed in a bird ring that triggered an amazing series of discoveries.

At the time, the information was limited to a ‘dead bird of unknown species’ snared on a fishing boat off the coast of Namibia, in Walvis Bay.

Local Albatross Task Force workers who received the ring discovered that it was a British ring, bearing the code MA43682. They sent the details on to their project officer, Nina da Rocha, at the RSPB’s headquarters in Sandy, Bedfordshire, and she in turn passed them on to the ringing office at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) which administers the British and Irish Ringing Scheme, to see what details were held for this ring.

Rare albatrosses ringed

The records revealed that the ring had been fitted to an Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross chick on Nightingale Island in the Tristan da Cunha island group, back in January 2017. Tristan de Cunha, a UK Overseas Territory, is almost 3,000 km south west of where the dead bird was found.  

Armed with this information the ring investigators discovered that an RSPB project team, working in partnership with the Tristan da Cunha government conservation department, had fitted rings to about 200 chicks on Nightingale Island.

It was a ring like this one that was fitted to the albatross found dead off the coast of Namibia.
Photograph by RSPB

Will Kirby, RSPB conservation scientist and lead on its bird ringing group, said, “People are sometimes surprised to learn that the RSPB has an active bird ringing group, but in fact ringing is an important component of many of our research and monitoring projects. Each year 2,000 to 3,000-plus rings are fitted to wild birds by group members (usually staff or volunteers), ranging from blue tits in nest boxes at The Lodge reserve [RSPB HQ} to turtle doves in Senegal and storm petrels on St Helena.”

Ring completes the circle of life

In the case of the Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross chick, ringed with the code MA43682, it appears that the bird fledged successfully, survived its perilous early days at sea, and then headed out into the ocean.

“For the majority of albatross chicks this would be the last we knew of it (though a few of the lucky ones may be re-sighted when they return to the breeding grounds five or more years later),” said Kirby.

Without the evidence that arises from ringing these chicks, conservationists would know significantly less about how far albatrosses travel, how long they live and how and where they die.
Photograph by Andy Schofield

The return of the ring, however, provided a priceless piece of the jigsaw to establish how long the bird lived, how and where it died, and in the process exposing the threat posed to seabirds by fishing boats.

“It has been estimated that 100,000 albatrosses die as a bycatch of the fishing industry every year and 15 of the 22 albatross species are considered at risk of global extinction,” said Kirby, adding that the RSPB is working with partners and the fishing industry to develop methods that reduce the numbers killed.

An unfortunate victim of fishing bycatch, this dead albatross was found in Namibia.
Photograph by John Paterson
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