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National recovery plan for Albatrosses and Giant-petrels

Wildlife Scientific Advice, Natural Heritage Division
Environment Australia, October 2001

Note:This publication has been superseded by the National recovery plan for threatened albatrosses and giant petrels 2011—2016

4. The critical habitat of species breeding within areas under Australian jurisdiction

This section describes the habitat that is critical to the survival of albatrosses and giant-petrels breeding within areas under Australian jurisdiction. It provides a description of all albatross and giant-petrel breeding localities under Australian jurisdiction (ie, their protection status, geography, flora, fauna, and the effects of human occupation), and discusses difficulties in identifying critical foraging habitat.

Under the EPBC Act (1999: Section 207A), a Recovery Plan must identify the habitat that is regarded as critical to the survival of the threatened species covered within the plan. Albatrosses and giant-petrels utilise two broad categories of habitat: breeding habitat (remote islands) and foraging habitat (southern oceans). These two habitat types are detailed below.

4.1 Breeding Habitats

Albatrosses and giant-petrels breed at only six localities under Australian jurisdiction. These are:

These remote islands constitute the only suitable breeding habitat under Australian jurisdiction and should be regarded as habitat that is critical to the survival of albatrosses and giant-petrels in Australian waters. Shy Albatrosses breed only within Australia, and hence the breeding habitats of this species (Albatross Island, Pedra Branca and the Mewstone) comprise its entire breeding range. Macquarie Island, Heard and McDonald Islands and the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) host several species of albatrosses and giant-petrels. Many of these populations are very small and are critical for maintaining the genetic diversity necessary to ensure the viability of these species.

There are no other islands within areas under Australian jurisdiction that are considered to be potential or former breeding habitat for albatrosses or giant-petrels.

The breeding locations of albatrosses and giant-petrels under Australian jurisdiction are depicted in Map 1 (see also Appendix 2). A brief description of each breeding island under Australian jurisdiction is presented below.

4.1.1 Macquarie Island (and Bishop and Clerk Islets) 5418'S, 15835'E

Species breeding on Macquarie Island (and Bishop and Clerk Islets) covered by this Recovery Plan

Protection status

Geography

Lying in the Southern Ocean, 40km from the Antarctic Convergence, sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island is the exposed crest of the Macquarie Ridge (Map 1). The island is 32km long by 5km wide at its broadest point and 12,785ha in area. It rises abruptly from the ocean to form an undulating plateau, usually between 200-300m above sea level, with a maximum altitude of 433m. The north-western portion of the island is fringed by a raised beach terrace 15m above sea level and up to 1km wide.

Bishop and Clerk Islets lie 37km to the south of Macquarie Island while Judge and Clerk Islets lie 14km to the north. These small islands are poorly known because of difficulty of access. They are mostly barren rock less than 50m high and are geologically similar to the main island (Selkirk et al. 1990).

Flora

There are no trees on Macquarie Island. However, there are 45 species of vascular plants as well as numerous moss and lichen species. These species are often associated to form one of five vegetation communities: feldmark, grasslands, herbfield, fen and bog.

Three plant species are endemic to Macquarie Island: the Cushion Plant Azorella macquariensis, an orchid Corybas dienemus and a salt tolerant species Puccinellia macquariensis. Five introduced plant species have become naturalised (Selkirk et al. 1990).

The cushion-like Colobanthus muscoides is the only vascular plant on Bishop and Clerk Islets (Macquarie Island Nature Reserve Management Plan 1991).

Fauna

Macquarie Island is inhabited by a large variety of wildlife. About 86,500 Southern Elephant Seals Mirounga leonina and Fur Seals Arctocephalus spp, and around 3.5 million seabirds breed on the island (Selkirk et al. 1990). 72 bird species have been recorded on Macquarie Island. Twenty seabird species breed on Macquarie Island, notably King Penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus, Royal Penguins Eudyptes schlegeli, Rockhopper Penguins E. chrysocome and Gentoo Penguins Pygoscelis papua. Royal Penguins are endemic to Macquarie Island. Over a million birds attend a rookery at Hurd Point at the southern end of the island during the breeding season (Selkirk et al. 1990).

Albatross and giant-petrel breeding locations

Wandering Albatrosses at Macquarie Island usually nest in moderately wind-exposed areas of the plateau edge up to an altitude of 250m. Nests have been recorded along the western side of the island, extending around to the southern side at Petrel Peak and the northern side at Handspike Corner. Nests have also been recorded on the raised beach terrace areas, from the north-western corner to Aurora Cave.

Black-browed Albatrosses breed in small numbers on South-West Point. Three small colonies and several solitary nests are located in this area (Gales et al. in press). A larger population of Black-browed Albatrosses breed on Bishop and Clerk Islets (N. Brothers pers. comm.).

The Grey-headed Albatross breeding population is confined to the slopes on the southern side of Petrel Peak, West Rock and the slopes opposite West Rock. The majority of birds breed on the steep, tussocky southern slopes of Petrel Peak (Gales et al. in press).

The Light-mantled Albatross has the largest breeding distribution of all the albatrosses on Macquarie Island. Nests are found at the northern end of the island around Bauer Bay, North Head and Sandy Bay. Nests are also found in the south around Caroline Cove, Hurd Point and Lusitania Bay (Gales et al. in press).

Southern Giant-Petrels tend to form breeding colonies on the coastal plateaux or headlands, or on exposed flats, hillsides or ridge tops (Voisin 1988). Most of the adult birds roost communally on the coastal beaches and around lakes (Gales and Brothers 1996).

The Northern Giant-Petrels establish their solitary nests at low altitudes among dense tussock-grass on the coastal flats around the island (Gales and Brothers 1996).

Introduced species

15 species of vertebrates have been introduced to Macquarie Island since its discovery. Seven of these species are still present on Macquarie Island (Table 2.15). Five plant species have become established on Macquarie Island.

Table 2.15: Animal species introduced to Macquarie Island
Introduced Species Still Present on Macquarie Island Introduced Species No Longer Present on Macquarie Island
Cats Felis catus Cattle Bos taurus
European Rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus Dogs Canis familaris
European Starlings Sturnus vulgaris Donkeys Equus asinus
House Mice Mus musculus Goats Capra hircus
Mallards Anas platyrhynchos Horses Equus caballus
Redpolls Carduelis carduelis Pigs Sus scrofa
Ship's Rat Rattus rattus Sheep Ovis aries
  Wekas Gallirallus australis

Data from Macquarie Island Nature Reserve Management Plan (1991)

Effects of human occupation

Macquarie Island has a long history of human impact. Seal and penguin oil harvesters occupied the island from 1810 to 1920 (Cumpston 1968; Townrow 1988). Albatrosses and giant-petrels were harvested for food throughout this time, particularly in the early years (Cumpston 1968).

Whilst the number of albatrosses and giant-petrels taken by the early settlers is unknown, it is likely to have been excessive, given the degree to which other species were exploited. For example, sealers killed over 80,000 Southern Elephant Seals within the first 20 years of occupation (Hindell and Burton 1988). In addition, Fur Seals had been completely eliminated from Macquarie Island following 25 years of exploitation. This species began to re-colonise the island in 1964 (Rousevell and Brothers 1984).

Feral cats and rats were recorded on the island by the 1820s and 1880s respectively, and both species are still present on the island. Recent pest control programs have caused a significant decline in cat numbers (G. Copson unpubl. data: see Section 5.5). Wekas were introduced to Macquarie Island by the sealers as a source of food. These aggressive birds preyed upon penguin chicks, burrow-nesting petrels and invertebrates. An eradication program for wekas began in 1985, and ended when the last weka on the island was shot in 1988 (Copson 1995).

The introduction of rabbits to Macquarie Island in the 1870s has modified the distribution of vegetation alliances, particularly the grasslands (Rousevell and Brothers 1984). Once rabbit control (myxomatosis) commenced in 1978 numbers quickly declined (Brothers et al. 1982). The rabbit population has diminished further in recent years, from approximately 150,000 in 1987 to approximately 8,000 by 1998 (G. Copson unpubl. data). This has enabled Poa foliosa to expand its range, mainly into the short tussock grasslands, recreating a more natural mosaic of vegetation on the island (Brothers and Copson 1988; Copson 1995).

Few historical structures remain on the island. The modern station, located on the Isthmus, is comprised of over 40 buildings and structures for scientific and tourism purposes. There are also some field huts located elsewhere on the island (Macquarie Island Nature Reserve Management Plan 1991).

The Macquarie Island Nature Reserve Management Plan 1991 provides guidelines preventing activities likely to impact upon wildlife on the island. No more than 600 tourists are permitted to visit Macquarie Island each year.

4.1.2 Albatross Island 40 23'S, 144 39'E

Species breeding on Albatross Island covered by this Recovery Plan

Protection status

Geography

Albatross Island is located in western Bass Strait, 30km north of the north-west corner of Tasmania (Map 1). The small island is only 1,100m long, by 200m wide, comprising an area of only 33ha. The rocky island rises steeply from the surrounding sea to a height of about 35m. A deep 'gulch' runs through the short axis of the island near the northern end of the island (Green 1974).

Flora

Twenty-three plant species, including two small shrub species, have been found on the island.

Fauna

Albatross Island once contained a large population of Fur Seals before sealers exterminated the population. Fur Seals now occasionally haul out on Albatross Island. Shy Albatrosses, Fairy Prions Pachyptila turtur, Little Penguins Eudyptula minor, Short-tailed Shearwaters Puffinus tenurostris and Silver Gulls Larus novaehollandiae breed in large numbers on the island. Numerous other birds are occasionally seen on the island. In addition, at least two species of skinks (Leiolopisma pretiosum and L. metallicum) are found on the island (Green 1974).

Introduced species

Common Starlings and European Blackbirds Turdus merula have colonised the island.

Albatross breeding locations

The Shy Albatrosses nest on the top of the island. Colonies have formed in four areas: in the north-east, east, south-east and western edges of the island. These remnant colonies were formerly interconnected, except for the northern and southern sectors.

Effects of human occupation

The first European sighting of the Shy Albatross colony on Albatross Island was by George Bass in 1798. About 20,000 breeding pairs are thought to have nested on the island annually. By 1909, however, plume and egg hunters had decimated the colony to only 250-300 nests (Johnstone et al.1975).

4.1.3 The Mewstone 4344'S, 146 22'E

Species breeding on the Mewstone covered by this Recovery Plan

Protection status

Geography

The Mewstone is located 22km south of Tasmania (Map 1). The tiny island is 450m long and only 150m wide, comprising 6.8ha. The island rises precipitously from the sea to a height of 133m. A ridge consisting of loose boulders and numerous rock crevices runs in a south-east direction. The only flat tracts on the island occur along the summit of the ridge. The steep sides of the ridge are occasionally interspersed with gently sloping ledges.

Flora

Only seven species of plants occur on the island (Senecio leptocarpus, S. lautus, Carpobrotus rossii, Poa poiformis, Asplenium obtusatum, Chenopodium glaucum, Salicornia quineflora). These small plants grow opportunistically in crevices or cavities where soil has accumulated (Brothers 1979a).

Fauna

Shy Albatrosses and Fairy Prions nest on the island. Other birds recorded on the island include the Common Diving-petrel Pelecanoides urinatix, the Black-faced Shag Leucocarbo fuscescens and the Silver gull. The Australian Fur Seal Arctocephalus pusillus occurs in moderate numbers, and a skink Leiolopisma pretiosa is abundant (Brothers 1979a).

Introduced species

None

Albatross breeding locations

Loose nesting colonies occur along the summit and on the rock ledges on both sides of the island. Some nests are located only 15m above sea level, but most are at higher levels. Two-thirds of the nests are built on the western side of the island (Brothers 1979a). The rocky habitat ensures that the opportunities for entrapment in crevices are great, causing many albatrosses to die as a consequence.

Effects of human occupation

The tiny island has never been inhabited. In 1927 Lord reported that the Mewstone was 'swarming with birds... That Albatrosses breed there we know.' However, Lord also recounted stories that Shy Albatross eggs were taken for sale. The number of Shy Albatrosses destroyed in this manner is unknown. The island's remote location ensures that direct human interference is minimal (Brothers 1979a).

4.1.4 Pedra Branca 43 52'S, 146 58'E

Species breeding on Pedra Branca covered by this Recovery Plan

Protection status

Geography

Pedra Branca lies 26km south-southeast of Whale Head, the south-eastern extremity of Tasmania (Map 1). Only 2.5ha in area, the island is a mere 270m long and 100m wide. The island is essentially a rock mass emerging from the surrounding sea. The east and west slopes rise steeply to meet at a central ridge less than 60m in height, running in a north-south direction.

Flora

Salicornia blackiana is the only plant species on the island. This species occurs sparsely and is confined to cracks among the rocks.

Fauna

Shy Albatrosses, Australasian Gannets Morus serrator, Black-faced Shags, Silver Gulls and Fairy Prions all breed on Pedra Branca. Australian Fur Seals inhabit the island, as does the endemic Pedra Branca Skink Pseudemoia palfreymani (Brothers 1979b). The skink is regarded as endangered and a Recovery Plan is currently in preparation.

Introduced species

None

Albatross breeding locations

The main Shy Albatross colony is located on the south-eastern section of the island above 25m above sea level where the sheer slope begins to level out making conditions suitable for nesting. Numbers gradually decrease northwards from the main colony (Brothers 1979b).

Effects of human occupation

The tiny island has never been inhabited. It is not known for certain whether humans exploited Shy Albatrosses on Pedra Branca in the past.

In 1938 S. Fowler visited Pedra Branca. Although he did not land on the island, he did indicate that an albatross colony existed there. In 1947, A.E. Palfreyman became the first recorded European to make a landing on Pedra Branca, however he made no record of the albatrosses. In October 1978, Brothers (1979a) landed on the island and located 97 active Shy Albatross nests.

Due to the island's remote location and the extreme difficulty of access, human interference is unlikely.

4.1.5 Heard Island and the McDonald Islands 53 04'S, 73 12'E

Species breeding on Heard Island and the McDonald Islands covered by this Recovery Plan

Protection status

Geography

The Territory of Heard Island and the McDonald Islands consists of a remote group of islands lying close together in the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean. The sub-Antarctic island group lies south of the Antarctic Polar Front, over 4,100km to the south-west of Fremantle, and 1,500km north of Antarctica (Map 1).

Heard Island is 20km wide, 43km long and has a total area of 368km2. It is dominated by Australia's tallest mountain, 'Big Ben', an active volcano 2,745m tall. To the north-west is a subsidiary volcanic cone, Anzac Peak (715m). Glaciers cover eighty percent of the island. The remaining ice-free areas are mostly narrow coastal flats at the north-western and eastern ends of the island and along some northern beaches.

McDonald Island lies 43.5km to the west of Heard Island (Map 1). McDonald Island rises to 230m above sea level, with a total area of about 1km2. The McDonald group also includes the smaller Flat Island and Meyer Rock. All islands have high, cliff-lined coasts and rocky shoals.

Flora

The vegetation of the island group is typically sub-Antarctic comprised predominantly of bryophytes, lichens, mosses, liverworts and tussock grasses. Eleven species of vascular plants are known to occur on Heard Island and five on the McDonald Islands. Six major higher plant communities dominate the islands: tussock grassland, meadow, herbfield, pool complex, cushion carpet and felfield. The islands are void of woody plants (Heard Island Wilderness Reserve Management Plan 1995).

Fauna

Southern Giant-Petrels, Black-browed Albatrosses and Light-mantled Albatrosses breed on Heard and McDonald Islands. Fifteen other avian species nest on the islands. The Heard Shag Phalacorcorax nivalis is an endangered species endemic to Heard Island. Likewise, the Heard Island Sheathbill Chionis minor nasicornis is a strongly defined subspecies endemic to the Heard and McDonald Island group. Four species of burrow-nesters breed in tens of thousands on Heard Island (Antarctic Prions Pachyptila desolata, Fulmar Prions P. crassirostris, South Georgian Diving-Petrels Pelecanoides georgicus and Common Diving-Petrels). Other birds breeding in large numbers include Cape Petrels Daption capense, Wilson's Storm-petrels Oceanites oceanicus, sub-Antarctic Skuas Catharacta lonnbergi and Kelp Gulls Larus dominicanus.

Vast colonies of Macaroni Penguin Eudyptes chrysolophus (with over one million breeding pairs) occur on both Heard Island and McDonald Island. There are also large numbers of Southern Rockhopper Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, and King Penguins.

Three seal species breed on the islands; namely the Southern Elephant Seal, the Antarctic Fur Seal Arctocephalus gazella and the sub-Antarctic Fur Seal A. tropicalis.

127 species of terrestrial invertebrates (many of which are endemics) have been found to occur on the islands (Heard Island Wilderness Reserve Management Plan 1995).

Introduced species

None.

Albatross and giant-petrel breeding locations

The ice-free areas of Heard Island are mostly confined to the narrow coastal flats at the north, north-western and eastern ends of the island. These are the principle breeding areas for Light-mantled and Black-browed Albatrosses and Southern Giant-Petrels. There have been occasional sightings of Wandering Albatross on Heard Island. In 1980, a male Wandering Albatross (originally banded at Macquarie Island) was observed brooding a small chick at Cape Gazert. Two old nest mounds were also present nearby, suggesting that breeding had been attempted in previous years as well (Johnstone 1982).

Effects of human occupation

Heard Island was first sighted in 1833 and became the focus of a major sealing industry from 1855 to 1929. It is likely that the albatross and giant-petrel populations were exploited for food throughout this period (Anon. 1996).

In 1947 Heard Island and the McDonald Islands were transferred from Britain to Australia. Australia then used Heard Island as a meteorological base until 1954. There has since been no protracted stay on Heard Island other than ANARE scientific programs in the summers of 1985 - 1989, and an over-wintering expedition in 1992 (Anon. 1996).

The first recorded landing on the McDonald Islands occurred as recently as 1971. The only other landing on McDonald Island was in 1980 when a team of Australian scientists visited the islands (Anon. 1996).

The number of tourists to Heard Island is increasing. A maximum of 400 tourists per year is allowed to visit Heard Island (Anon. 1996). An increase in uncontrolled tourist and scientific activities may reduce breeding success of seabirds on the islands.

Global warming is having a dramatic impact on the island group. Glaciers that were once at the sea level have now retreated to above 1600m above sea level. The surrounding ocean has increased its mean temperature by 0.75 C since 1947 (Anon. 1996).

4.1.6 Australian Antarctic Territory

Species breeding on the Australian Antarctic Territory covered by this Recovery Plan

Protection status

Geography

The Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) covers 5,896,500km2, or 42% of Antarctica. Less than 0.2% of the continent is permanently ice-free. It is the driest, coldest and windiest continent on earth. It is also the highest continent on earth, with an average elevation of 2,300m.

Flora

Over 500 species of algae have been found in continental Antarctica, along with 125 lichen species and 30 mosses.

Fauna

Millions of Crabeater Seals Lobodon carcinophagus and Southern Elephant Seals breed around the rocky Antarctic coastline and offshore islands. Antarctic Fur Seals, Weddel Seals Leptonychotes wedellii and Leopard Seals Hydrurga leptonyx also breed on Antarctica. Ten seabird species breed within the AAT; namely Southern Giant-Petrels, Southern Fulmars Fulmarus glacialoides, South Polar Skuas Catharacta maccormicki, Antarctic Prions, Adelie Penguins Pygoscelis adelie, Emporer Penguins Aptenodytes forsteri, Antarctic Petrels Thalassoica antarctica, Cape Petrels, Snow Petrels Pagodroma nivea and Wilson's Storm-petrels (Soper 1994).

Introduced species

None.

Giant-Petrel breeding locations

Less than 0.2% of the AAT is permanently ice-free, but it is these ice-free areas that are the principal breeding, roosting and moulting sites for Southern Giant-Petrels, as it is for all seabirds breeding within the AAT (Woehler 1993).

Southern Giant-Petrels breed at only four sites around the coastline of Antarctica and on the Antarctic Peninsula. Three of these breeding sites are within the AAT; namely Giganteus Island, Hawker Island and the Frazier Islands (Map 1). Colonies are established on open gravel areas and rocky outcrops, usually towards the periphery of the islands (Woehler et al. 1990).

Effects of human occupation

During the 1820/21 summer, two sealing masters working from the South Shetland Islands (discovered only two years prior) independently landed on the Antarctic Peninsula. By 1892, over 1,100 sealing ships had visited Antarctic regions (Headland 1993).

Australia's record of involvement with Antarctic exploration dates back to 1886 when the Australian Antarctic Committee was founded. The first research expedition to winter on the Antarctic continent occurred 12 years later. There are now 40 permanent scientific research stations in Antarctica, most of which are located on the Antarctic Peninsula. Australia has three permanent scientific research stations within the AAT; namely Mawson Station (near the Rookery Islands), Davis Station (near Hawker Island) and Casey Station near the Frazier Islands).

The habitat loss and disturbance to nesting sites associated with construction and operations of research stations have directly affected at least two species, Snow Petrels and Wilson's Storm-petrel. There are also data suggesting regular visits to colonies of Adelie Penguins and Southern Giant-Petrels may disturb breeding birds, causing colonies to decrease (Woehler 1993).

4.2 Foraging Habitats

Albatrosses and giant-petrels are among the most dispersive and oceanic of all birds. More than 95% of an individual's life is spent searching the oceans for prey (Weimerskirch and Wilson 2000). Birds from colonies breeding on Australian islands can undertake foraging voyages covering hundreds to several thousand kilometres of ocean, taking them to critical foraging habitat well outside of Australian waters (Battam and Smith 1993; Brothers et al. 1998; Nicholls et al. 1992, 1995, 1996, 2000). Hence, foraging habitat potentially exists throughout the entire southern ocean from the Antarctic pack-ice to the equator, and sometimes well into the Northern Hemisphere (see specific descriptions in Section 2).

Most albatrosses and giant-petrels concentrate their foraging activity upon oceanic areas of high primary productivity such as warmer coastal or slope waters (for example, along the Humboldt Current off western South America), continental shelf-breaks, and upwellings of nutrient-rich water, such as the Antarctic Convergence.

Currently, very few precise data exist regarding the at-sea movements of albatrosses and giant-petrels. The recent taxonomic separation of many albatross species (Nunn et al. 1996; Robertson and Nunn 1998), the morphological similarities amongst species (particularly juvenile birds) and their highly pelagic nature, has meant that knowledge of the at-sea distribution of most albatrosses and giant-petrel species is lacking.

The use of satellite telemetry on albatrosses and giant-petrels breeding on Australian Islands has the potential to provide very important information on their at-sea distributions and movements. However, the use of this equipment on Australian populations has thus far been minimal.

Given the current paucity of precise information on the at-sea distribution of albatrosses and giant-petrels breeding within Australian waters, it is not yet possible to identify which specific areas within the southern ocean should be deemed as 'critical habitat'. This lack of data is one of the most important management issues confronting albatross and giant-petrel conservation.

It is therefore imperative that the at-sea movements of all albatross and giant-petrel populations breeding on Australian islands be determined using satellite telemetry (as prescribed under Actions A 1.2 and A 1.3; also see Section 5.1).