Northern Royal Albatross Diomedea sanfordi


Justification of Red List Category

This species is classified as Endangered because it is restricted to a small breeding range in which severe storms in the 1980s resulted in a decrease in habitat quality and poor breeding success. Based on this low breeding success, the population is estimated and projected to be undergoing a very rapid decline over three generations. Evidence suggests that the number of breeding pairs may have remained relatively stable; thus, the species might qualify for downlisting in the future. However, in the absence of recent substantive data upon which to assess trends or changes in productivity rates, projected declines are maintained as a precautionary measure. 

Population justification

The largest population (99%) is on the Chatham Islands, with 1% of the population on Taiaroa Head, on the mainland of South Island, New Zealand. There has not been a successful run of annual photographs over the past 8 years to enable updated estimates of the breeding population of this biennial breeder (C. J. R. Robertson in litt. 2008). However, air photographic counts on the Chatham Islands in the 1970s (1972-1975) and 1990s (1989-1991) recorded a total of 6,500-7,000 total breeding pairs. The number of pairs breeding each year was estimated as 5,200 pairs, based on a count in 1995. This is equivalent to a total population of 17,000 mature individuals. A count in 2002 recorded 5,800 pairs on the Chatham Islands (counted at the end of egg laying), with a probable 1,700 pairs on sabbatical after breeding in the previous season (C. J. R. Robertson in litt. 2008). However, since the estimate of 17,000 mature individuals is based on data from multiple years, this is the estimate used here. It roughly equates to 25,000-26,000 individuals in total. Around 35 pairs breed each year at Taiaroa Head, including five hybrids (descended from cross with female Southern Royal Albatross D. epomophora). Two individuals of D. sanfordi, both breeding with D. epomophora partners, have been recorded on Enderby Island.

Trend justification
Low annual productivity produces a projected population decline in this species. More recent data, from 1995 and 2003, point to a possible recent increase in population, but methods are not sufficiently comparable for any meaningful interpretation regarding population trends, and a very rapid ongoing population decline is precautionarily retained here.

Distribution and population

Diomedea sanfordi breeds on Forty-Fours, Big and Little Sister Islands (Chatham Islands), Taiaroa Head (Otago Peninsula, South Island) and Enderby Island (Auckland Islands), New Zealand. The Chatham Islands population (99% of the total) is estimated at 6,500-7,000 pairs (Robertson et al. 2003), with c. 5,200-5,800 pairs breeding each year. Around 35 pairs breed each year at Taiaroa Head, including five hybrids (descended from cross with female Southern Royal Albatross D. epomophora). Two birds have hybridised on Enderby Island. During the breeding season adults typically forage over the Chatham Rise (Nicholls et al. 2002, BirdLife International 2004). Non-breeding and juvenile birds undertake circumpolar traverses in the Southern Oceans (Robertson and Nicholls 2000) and forage in the Humboldt Current and Patagonian Shelf, off the coasts of South America (Robertson et al. 2003, Nicholls et al. 2005, Thomas et al. 2010)
Low annual productivity has led to a projected population decline in this species. In 1985, a cyclonic storm hit the breeding sites on the Chatham Islands, reducing soil cover and destroying most vegetation (Robertson 1998). Nests were subsequently built with stones, or eggs laid on bare rock (Taylor 2000). As a result, mean annual productivity plummeted to 8% (1990-1996) on the Forty-Fours, and 18% over all three islands (Robertson 1998), due to egg breakage, high temperatures and flooding in temporary pools (Taylor 2000), though there has since been a partial recovery (Robertson et al. 2003). By 2007, annual herb-field vegetation cover had recovered to about 70% of that recorded in the 1970s. The soil base is still minimal, but improving. While productivity has continued to improve, the mean annual chick production from 1995-2003 was still only 66% of the mean annual productivity per annum in the 1970s. It is estimated that for the 20 year period 1985-2005 there was a total 50-60% reduction in productivity for the species. However, it is clear from the annual chick production figures that the annual breeding population is becoming much more balanced than in the 1990s, when as much at 80-90% of the breeding population was attempting to breed annually (rather than the normal 60%). In 2002, an end of egg-laying count was 5,800 pairs, with a probable 1,700 pairs on sabbatical (after breeding in the previous season). This suggests that in spite of the extensive reduction in productivity over a 20-year period, the number of breeding pairs may have remained relatively stable (C. J. R. Robertson in litt. 2008).


Behaviour Eggs are laid in October to December, hatching mostly between late January and early February, and chicks fledge in September-October. It is a biennial breeder, if chick rearing is successful. Juvenile birds start returning to the colony when three years old but the mean is five years of age. Age of first breeding can be as early as six years old, but it is usually eight years of age. Satellite-tracking of breeding birds shows that they forage close to their breeding sites, over the shallow waters of the Chatham Rise out to the shelf slope (1,500 - 2,000 m deep). Failed breeders and non-breeding birds, including newly fledged juveniles, rapidly traverse the Pacific Ocean to the continental shelf and slope off Chile and the Patagonian Shelf. On the Patagonian Shelf, they are widespread 200-350 km offshore in waters <200 m deep but extending to, and over, the shelf break to 1000 m depth between 36 and 49°S (ACAP 2009).
Habitat Breeding Northern Royal Albatrosses usually nest on the flat summits of tiny islands with herb fields (G. A. Taylor in litt. 1999) and grasses. The nest is typically a low mound of vegetation, mud, feathers, stone chips etc, on flat ground and slopes on islands and headlands.
Diet It feeds mainly on cephalopods and fish, but also salps, crustacea and carrion (Heather and Robertson 1997, Imber 1999).


Past extreme weather events have had severe impacts on the population. In 1985, a cyclonic storm hit the breeding sites on the Chatham Islands, reducing soil cover and destroying most vegetation (Robertson 1998). Mortality due to longline and trawling fishing activities has been recorded (Croxall and Gales 1998, Taylor 2000), but the relatively high survival rates of adults and juveniles at the Taiaroa Head colony suggest that fisheries-related mortality is not a major threat to the species (ACAP 2009). There is currently no data from the Chatham Islands. There is a history of significant harvesting of the species on the Chatham Islands by local residents. Harvesting of chicks may still occur, although now illegal, but this is likely to be limited in extent (ACAP 2009). At Taiaroa Head, predator control aims to reduce predation by introduced Common Green Bottleflies Lucilia sericata, stoats Mustela erminea and cats Felis catus (Croxall and Gales 1998), which may be contributing to population declines.

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
ACAP Annex 1. All populations are monitored periodically. Annual population data from Taiaroa Head is the most complete for any seabird species in New Zealand (Taylor 2000). Predator control at Taiaroa Head during the breeding season results in comparatively high mean annual productivity (Croxall and Gales 1998) (no predators recorded on Chatham Island colonies). Animal husbandry techniques have been developed from work with this colony. Feral cattle, rabbits and mice have been eradicated from Enderby Island (Taylor 2000). Taiaroa Head and Enderby Island are nature reserves.

Conservation Actions Proposed
Continue to census Chatham populations annually using aerial photography. Continue intensive management of Taiaroa Head colony. Band further cohorts of chicks from all colonies. Obtain legal protection for Forty-Fours and Sisters Islands, and continued access for research (Taylor 2000).


115 cm. Huge, white-and-black albatross. Juvenile with white head, neck, upper mantle, rump and underparts (with some dark speckling on crown and rump). White mantle and back flecked black. Dark black-brown upperwing with white flecks on coverts. White tail, tipped black-brown. White underwing with black tip and diagnostic black band behind leading edge between carpal joint and tip. With maturity, head, back, rump, tail and scapular region become mainly white. All ages, light pink bill (darker pink when chick rearing) with black cutting edge on upper mandible. Legs flesh. Similar spp. White head, body, tail distinguish adults from Wandering Albatross D. exulans, which also lacks dark line on bill. Southern Royal Albatross D. epomophora lacks black band at carpal edge of underwing and leading edge of upperwing is white except for primaries (C. J. R. Robertson in litt. 2008).


Text account compilers
Anderson, O., Moreno, R., Butchart, S., Small, C., Calvert, R., Sullivan, B., Symes, A., Taylor, J.

Misiak, W., Stahl, J.-C., Perriman, L., Robertson, C., Gales, R., Taylor, G.A., Deppe, L., Walker, K., Phillips, R.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Diomedea sanfordi. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 07/12/2022. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2022) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 07/12/2022.