It is one thing to see the albatross at Taiaroa Head from the comfort of the observatory. It is quite another to be on the swaying, noisy and wet open deck of the Stewart Island ferry plunging across the Foveaux Strait.
On the crossing out to the Island there was a breeze of sorts blowing and that was enough to allow a Buller's Mollymawk to catch up with the ferry and scan its wake for mashed-up fish and squid.
The Buller's Mollymawk (literally meaning 'foolish gull') (Thalassarche bulleri) is a small albatross of the genus Thalassarche and is endemic to New Zealand. It should be noted that Mollymawks should not be confused with a 'mollyhawk' as a this 'is a fisherman who follows other fishermen, and a huge insult' (see sailsashore.co.nz on Stewart Island).
It is named after Walter Buller, who wrote the classic, A History of the birds of New Zealand, which was first published in 1873. He was the son of a Cornish missionary. Born in New Zealand he died at Fleet in Hampshire in the UK in 1906.
The rather grainy photos here show the intensity with which the 'Mollies' (as they call them down at Stewart Island) scan the churned-up sea for squid. They also show the amazing dexterity with which the Mollymawk flies: it wings canted over to a sharp angle and yet its body and head parallel with the water's surface.
In the photo above its wing tip looks like it will touch the water. It also gives a great view of the blade-like structure of the wings. While the one below shows the shoulder-locked wings as the bird begins to wheel around as it nears the ferrry.
The Buller's weighs 2.5-3.5kg, and has a length of 80cm. There are estimated to be 32,000 breeding pairs.
It is peculiar amongst albatross in that it will nest in dense vegetation, sometimes walking as much as 100m from landing area to nest. Many of the nests on the isalnds where it breeds are under dense woody vegetation such as Olearia lyalli, Brachyglottis stewartiae and Hebe elliptica.
The Buller's is a much sleeker bird than the big albatrosses and has wings that in comparison with the Diomedea genus look almost stubby. So short are they that none of the descriptions I have looked at give the length of the wingspan.
The birds breed on the sub-Antarctic New Zealand islands and when chicks are fledged station themselves off the coasts of Chile and Peru.
Although lone feeders they will congregate when food sources are concentrated and take much discarded fish from trawlers.
On the early moring return journey across the Foveaux Strait there was not enough wind for the lone Mollymawk to keep up with the ferry and it soon turned away and landed on the water.
With its big comical yellow-fringed bill and scavenging habit behind trawlers it is possible to see why Mollymawks have been given the moniker of 'foolish gulls'.
And when they are fighting for cast-off fish they make a lot of noise. Click on the first photo here to hear them.
However, it should be remembered that they are albatross.