The world’s only mainland breeding colony of Northern Royal Albatross – at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula – might not exist at all if it weren’t for one man. His name was Lance Richdale.
From 1928-1959 Lance Richdale was an agriculture/nature study instructor with the Otago Education Board, visiting schools across Otago to inspire pupils with a love of nature. Ahead of his time, he believed in taking children out of the classroom, for hands-on interactions with nature. Many of his former pupils remembered those nature rambles for the rest of their lives.
In weekends, when he wasn’t teaching, Richdale studied botany and was fascinated by alpine plants. He and his fellow naturalists had access to a study area on the Maungatua mountain range, southwest of Dunedin. Then, on one of their weekend outings someone forgot to shut a gate, sheep got out – and the amateur botanists were banned from returning.
It was the end of his botanical research project.
Some of the children Richdale had taught on Otago Peninsula had told him about the yellow-eyed penguins that lived there and offered to show them to him. Until then, like many people, he’d assumed penguins lived only in Antarctica.
Botany took a back seat as Richdale loaded up his Douglas motorcycle at weekends and began to study the wildlife of Otago Peninsula.
Lance Richdale carried out penguin observational studies at all times of day and night and in all seasons. Over a period of 18 years he made around 1300 personal visits to the birds and travelled over 80,000 kilometres on the rough, winding roads of the Otago Peninsula. He studied the yellow-eyed penguins with exhaustive attention to detail – earning an international repute as an ornithologist in the process. But they weren’t the only unusual birdlife to be found in the area.
A small group of Northern Royal Albatross had been spotted at Taiaroa Head in the war years. Sometimes as many as 6 adult birds were seen at a time, in the years from 1914-1918. In 1919 one of the birds laid an egg.
A local resident fried and ate it.
Eggs laid in 1920 and 1923 did survive – sort of – in the collection of Otago Museum.
Still the birds persisted in trying to breed at the remote Heads. It’s likely that eggs were laid every year from 1924 on, but each year the eggs failed to hatch or produce fledglings. Many eggs are likely to have fallen victim to collectors.
Then in 1935 an egg survived. It hatched on 1 February 1936. It was the first baby albatross of the 20th century to hatch at Taiaroa. Ten weeks later the chick was killed by a stoat or visitor’s dog. But still the birds came back
When the adult albatross returned to Taiaroa in November 1936, Richdale decided to check them out, riding the winding gravel roads for a two-hour journey on his Douglas motorcycle, then parking it and walking the last part of the journey up the headland’s harbour slopes.
He later wrote: “There on a grassy path, before my astonished gaze, sat a male Albatross incubating a large white egg.”
That egg too was eventually stolen by someone.
As Neville Peat writes in his biography of Richdale, ‘Seabird Genius’, it was a defining moment in Richdale’s life: “He made up his mid he would ‘do all possible’ the following season to safeguard the birds, their eggs and hopefully their chicks.”
Richdale rallied support to erect a predator proof fence to protect the birds from people and their dogs, gaining key support from local luminaries of the Otago Council of the Royal Society.
Soon the project began to come together. The Minister of Marine agreed to put up trespass notices, the Otago Harbour Board agreed to its Taiaroa Head signalmen also taking up ranger duties and the Royal Society built a fence with the Royal Forest and Bird Society contributing £20 towards the costs.
The first albatross arrived that year at 4pm on 8 October 1937.
“By the end of the month there were four nests,” writes Neville Peat in his Richdale biography, “three on the grassed paths of the slope overlooking the shipping channel, near where Lance first saw a nesting albatross, and the fourth in marram grass in a dune behind the adjacent Pilots Beach. Four pairs in one season! It was as if the albatrosses sensed improved prospects for fledging chicks.”
That summer, during weekends and summer school holidays, Lance Richdale camped out in a tent near the three hillside nests.
“One nest was deserted before an egg arrived. The remaining two nests soon had an egg each, but one was destroyed by someone throwing rocks ‘as big as a man’s first’ at the nest on a day when Lance was absent. Lance camped close by the nest with the last egg, naming the nest ‘Sprogg’. He wanted to give the egg every chance of producing a chick.”
While guarding the nest, Richdale also made his usual meticulous observations of the adults, how they incubated the egg, their interactions with each other and the timing of the change-overs.
“A chick emerged on 3 February 1938,” Peat writes, “three days after it began chipping the shell with its egg tooth. From then until its fledging in September, it had Lance’s undivided attention, except for the days when he was visiting schools and exciting young minds with stories of a bundle of soft white down that over the months ahead would slowing grow juvenile feathers.”
The observations and note-taking continued.
“On his days at Taiaroa Head he weighed, he measured, he watched, he photographed, and he made sure ferret traps near the nest were armed. All told, he documented the minutiae of the life of an albatross chick – observational research of unprecedented quality and detail.”
The chick and its parents were banded – some of the first New Zealand seabirds to be banded for research. Then on 22 September 1938, unobserved, the now-grown chick launched itself into the breeze and departed Taiaroa Head for oceans unknown.
Lance Richdale published his first scientific paper on the albatross chick in 1939 – launching his own scientific career as a seabird scientist – and the Northern Royal Albatross have been returning to breed at Taiaroa Head ever since.
Read more about the work of Lance Richdale in: ‘Seabird Genius, the story of L.E. Richdale, the Royal Albatross and the Yellow-Eyed Penguin’ by Neville Peat. (Otago University Press, 2011).
View Lance Richdales 1939/1940 film of Royal Albatross on YouTube.