Friday, September 9, 2011


Whether you want to call it a mollymawk or an albatross, it’s big! There are around a dozen albatross species worldwide with the New Zealand area the richest of all for species. In New Zealand the smaller albatrosses are called mollymawks and only the larger two – the Royal and Wandering – plus the small Sooty albatross are called albatrosses. The belong to the stormbird family Procellariiformes which includes shearwaters, petrels, prions, muttonbirds, fulmars and about 100 others, again concentrated in the New Zealand region.
The molly we are most likely to see is Bullers mollymawk. Thousands nest on the Solander Islands and the Snares. The youngsters leave the nest in September and many get blown off course. Each year DoC rescues them from farmland throughout Southland. Sometimes there is one standing lonely on the beach – Molly on the Shore, if you remember the Percy Grainger tune. Most mollymawks ashore will be too weak to take off and will die unless rescued and fed before release. Sometime they need a bit of height to get airborne, and Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula is a favoured release spot. Handling the bird you notice something weird, which is how little it weighs. No bone on an albatross is more than a millimetre thick, the wingbones are hollow, there are large air spaces in the body, the feathers weigh nothing and there is surprisingly little muscle. An albatross is a weak flier and unable to flap for long. It relies on locking the wing into the outstretched position and gliding. A bird this size is at the limit for flight and has to be as light as possible to stay aloft. Albatrosses are said to have an extra joint in their wings to enable them to achieve their enormous wingspan of nearly four metres. Not true, but there is an oddly elongated elbow ‘thumb’ that pushes out the leading edge of the wing into a straight line for maximum lift.

My best encounter with mollymawks was off Solander Island in January. From a ship we could see many hundreds of Bullers mollymawks just circling. They weren’t looking for food – which they do by skimming along near the surface, landing by the morsel and gulping it down. No, they seemed to be flying for the pleasure of it., spiralling up and downwards in a great flock.

It has been reported that until a decade or so ago there were albatrosses nesting along cliffs west of the Wairaurahiri Mouth. I’d be very keen to confirm this. They would probably have been Bullers mollys and if confirmed, this would be just the second site in the world where an albatross is nesting on the mainland, the other being Taiaroa Head where the Royals are nesting. My most recent encounter was a few days ago. I was walking the bush track through Bowman’s Bush in Otatara when I came across an juvenile Buller’s molly also doing the track. He must have run out of good air just above the bush on his maiden flight. We grabbed him, getting painfully beaked in the process, took him out to the beach, gave him a boot in the backside and watched as he spread his wings and got just enough lift to get beyond the breakers. Fate unknown but he is in a better environment than the native forest.

Here’s a plea for information!! Do you know anything about albatrosses nesting along the south coast? Can you provide any Southland records or snippets of information for my weekly column on history in the Southland Times? I’m always looking for more! Do you have any photos or stories of Omaui? I am doing a book on Omaui and I want as much detail as I can get before it is printed later this year.

Lloyd Esler