An icy southerly funnels along Princes Street into the Octagon, where the sun gives an illusion of warmth just as the sparse daffodils give an illusion of spring. It’s lunchtime but no one is lingering on this Monday in September. Ōtepoti has been slow to shake off lockdown, people taking longer to re-surface this time, so when the bells begin to ring at one o’clock I am the only one standing still to listen. While the wind swirls and bites, the Town Hall clock chimes the hour, followed by the cathedral bells, pealing to mark the return of the first toroa—the northern royal albatross—for the breeding season.
About thirty kilometres from where I am standing, at Taiaroa Head at the ocean end of Otago Harbour, the toroa will continue to arrive, one by one, in the days and weeks to come, returning to a place they may not have seen for years. Some will be young birds, coming back for the first time to the place they fledged; others will return to reunite with partners and rebuild bonds established in previous seasons. Every year the bells ring in this way, interrupting an ordinary day to celebrate an extraordinary journey by creatures entirely unaware of such human acknowledgement.
Last year, a record number of chicks fledged from Taiaroa Head, the only mainland colony in the world—albatross mostly congregate on and around islands much smaller than Te Waipounamu. The success of the colony has become part of Ōtepoti’s identity, in a complex blend of promotional culture (the albatross feature heavily in tourism advertising) and something perhaps a little less transactional, a respectful attachment to these glorious birds who have made a seasonal home here. The cycle of life that brings the albatross back each year speaks of continuity and resilience, holding out the promise that it is possible to return from the longest journey and to find what we were seeking: belonging, connection, futurity. Perhaps even love. The ringing of the bells is hopelessly, shamelessly anthropomorphic and I am here for it, for the wonder of natural forces and rhythms that I can’t comprehend, for journeys and returns.
For me, though, the bells are not merely ringing for the return of the first adult bird—a four-year-old male, known as YL (after the colours of yellow and lime on his identification bands), who fledged at Taiaroa Head in 2017—but for an imminent departure. They are ringing for Tiaki, a creature I have never seen or heard except on my laptop screen. She is the toroa chick featured on this year’s ‘royal-cam’ webstream, receiving over two million views worldwide. Along with thousands of others, I have watched Tiaki’s progress from a dumpy, snowy-white floof ball on a grassy nest to a sleek, black-and-white, eight-kilogram adolescent, due to fledge any day now. When Tiaki flies away, crossing the Pacific for the coasts of South America, her feet will not touch ground again until she returns to Taiaroa Head years from now.
I have watched Tiaki most days for months, but especially during lockdown when I found myself unexpectedly alone in Ōtepoti, cut off from my partner on another island. He and I talked every day but the emotional isolation hit me harder than I thought I had any right to feel: I was comfortable, well-fed and warm, with excellent broadband; I was still free to roam the city streets to escape cabin fever, walking each day either to the choppy waters at the harbour’s edge or to the Southern Cemetery, quickening with birdsong and blossom.
I suspect, though, I was not alone in losing my bearings during the 2021 lockdown. We in Aotearoa had become accustomed to relative normality again until the Delta strain arrived. Then it was déjà vu all over again. Like a recurring nightmare where you know this has happened before but you still can’t figure out how to escape, I felt stuck in a limbo of limited choices and clipped wings.
I had begun the year with the intention of picking up the threads of a life that I had cast off years before and only then realised its value, telling myself it was not too late, that you can go back, that it does not have to be the case that you only know what you’ve got when it’s gone. They weren’t the same, of course, those threads that I reached for; I wasn’t the same, for a start, and some things had changed irrevocably in the interval between then and now. When lockdown 2.0 arrived, however, all the hopes I had allowed myself to entertain about a new future, the negotiations between past and present that I had made, were exposed for the precarious fictions they were. Human plans always have an element of magical thinking, I suppose, it’s just that when they do come to fruition we congratulate ourselves, believing we are witnessing the success of our astute projections and mature problem-solving strategies.
Meanwhile, on my screen, Tiaki had sat stoically looking out to sea through her black button eyes while the winds ruffled her fluff and the southern ocean below her cliff surged and roiled. On nights when gales and sleet raged up from the south to batter my first-floor windows, I thought of Tiaki and her exposed eyrie. I was eager each day to see her progress and yet fearful to check the royal-cam feed in case some calamity might have befallen her overnight. She looked such a baby, alone, untended, but Tiaki was a wild creature, not a defenceless, human infant. She was out of my reach, in every sense; I was far more powerless—to intervene, to come to her rescue—than she was to protect herself.
Yet the young toroa seemed unaware of her own vulnerability, instead regarding the world before her with a self-possessed curiosity that left her apparently content to sit and watch and wait, fending for herself until her parents appeared with her next feed. It was inexplicable to me. How could a creature be at once so dependent on others for its sustenance and yet apparently so untroubled by its abandonment for lengthy periods? I did not know then the history of the Taiaroa Head colony, the high mortality rate of chicks until relatively recently under the management of the Royal Albatross Centre. I imagined—wrongly—that albatross had been safely raising their young on that wild headland for millennia. I took comfort from a fantasy of nurture and generational continuity and tried to dismiss my anxieties about the chick’s safety as sentimental projections.
Increasingly, though, I wondered about my contradictory responses watching Tiaki, and why I see-sawed between the detached observation of ordinary birdwatching and a far more emotionally-entangled process in which I could lose and find myself by turns. I thought about her all the time and she began to feature in my daily conversations with my partner, too. I relayed to him not only what I had seen on royal-cam but also some of the comments left by other chick-watchers on the Twitter feed, amused by their anxious solicitude even as it echoed my own.
A common source of commentary concerned Tiaki’s sporadic efforts to make contact with her nearest neighbour, a feisty juvenile who seemed to make clear that he or she had no need of company. Poor Tiaki! was a regular refrain in tweets following a video of one of Tiaki’s friendly exploratory expeditions that had seen her once more rebuffed by her neighbour. It was as if we were all interpreting such exchanges through the prism of our own experiences of childhood friendships or fears of abandonment. Calm or cheeky, imperilled or self-sufficient, Tiaki was an enigma that we viewers believed we could solve, if we just kept watching. Her inscrutable face, with her piercing eyes and long, pink beak that curved down at the end so that it almost resembled a smile, was a mirror in which we all saw what we needed to see.
But it wasn’t all existential bewilderment, or misplaced pseudo-maternal regard for an unguarded infant, watching Tiaki-cam. Sometimes it was sheer entertainment, better than anything on Netflix. We would see Tiaki, after waiting patiently alone for days, begin to squeak and waddle in place, tapping her bill repeatedly with a sound like lightly clashing sticks, when one of her parents dropped from the sky with a gullet of fish or squid for their infant. Feeding time over, Tiaki would continue to wriggle and squeak and tap, while the parent bird bill-clapped back—impatiently? affectionately?—or preened the chick’s feathers, or simply rested in preparation for another food-seeking flight. Sometimes baby and parent would sleep side by side, an image of serenity to rival any icon of the divine mother and child. Then the parent bird would leave again and Tiaki would resume her solitary vigil or hunker down to sleep on her nest, those beady eyes closed at last, bill tucked into feathers that rose and fell gently as she breathed.
In time, smoother black and white feathers began to show through the chick’s fluff. Tiaki groomed away the loosening fluff, like wisps of cotton wool, traces of which would remain stuck to her pink beak. She became a messy melange of fluff-clumps and mature feathers, in a protracted process of transformation that left her looking like a child’s drawing—half of one bird clumsily fused onto another bird entirely. She also began to venture further away from the nest, taking slow uneven steps to explore her environment, casting her head around inquisitively as she plodded along or pausing to peck at something in the grass.
And all the time, from floof ball to adolescent, she would unfold her wings to flap. At first, crazily undersized winglets would emerge from the fluff as she sat, lumpen, on her nest. Then, as Tiaki grew, so did her wings, unfolding to improbable dimensions that began to give an inkling of the effort it must take to flap them. More and more Tiaki stood to stretch out her wings and flap them high over her head several times before retracting them slowly, to be concealed again beneath her feathered body.
The more she grew, the more wing exercises she performed, and for those of us watching it was almost as if we could see the young bird’s growing awareness of what it might mean to take flight, a sense that this earthbound existence was not really what she was destined for, even as her weight and shape seemed impossible to imagine being designed for the air, let alone for remaining airborne for days at a time before resting on the ocean’s surface. Nor did the occasional glimpses of Tiaki’s parents provide convincing proof of the airborne grace of the albatross. Given the positioning of the camera on the windy headland, they only hove into view on the brink of landing, when their mighty wing span made fine manoeuvering tricky so that face plants and clumsy stumbles were not uncommon.
By September, all Tiaki’s fluff had gone. On camera, she looked like an adult but still she sat, earthbound, on her nest; still her parents took turns with their bill-clap-and-collect food delivery service. I watched the rangers’ regular visits for health checks and weigh-ins, I read their tweets that Tiaki was now tapering weight in preparation for fledging. The first of the chicks had fledged already and left the headland.
So the day I stood listening to the bells in the Octagon I felt a sadness in anticipation of this phantom loss of a young seabird. The same winds that made the day so bitterly cold for me were what would soon enable this wild bird to fly away on untested wings, the gusts already helping to lift her awkwardly off the ground, big feet flapping, to hover briefly each day. Tiaki’s lessons in flight were directed towards a goal that she somehow already knew lay in store for her. Her life on the headland—all she had known so far—was not her real life, not her full life. Every wing flap, every hover, was a small preparation for another life, in the sky and on the ocean.
By the time I went to Taiaroa Head, Tiaki had been gone for almost two months and more than eighty adult toroa had taken up residence for the breeding season. On royal-cam, I had continued to observe the sociable life of the colony, watching grounded albatross waddle awkwardly on huge paddled feet towards each other to meet and greet. Birds began to spread out in pairs or small groups along the grassy slopes before nesting began in earnest. Best of all were the toroa sky calls—necks stretched long, heads thrown back, massive wings unfurled, as they emitted high-pitched cries of two or three syllables to each other. It was hard to believe that these performances were simply instinctual behaviours, that the birds did not derive pride or pleasure from their own artistry, or that such calls did not signal the joy of reunion or the delight of a newfound bond.
On the sunny, windless day of my visit to Taiaroa Head, however, most of the returnees were absent from the headland. On calm days, without the wind assistance needed for landing and take off, the birds cruise the skies or fish for food further afield, at ease in their element aloft and able to wait for the right conditions to return to ground level.
From the Centre’s observation hut, I saw only two birds sitting alone, some distance apart, taking no notice of each other. They each turned their heads towards where the humans were spying on them with binoculars through double-glazed windows but like Tiaki they seemed unconcerned by their solitude. The birds’ calm inactivity was all the more striking because of the presence of hundreds, if not thousands, of red-billed gulls who also nest on Taiaroa Head in the spring. Walking from the car to the Visitors’ Centre, and then up the path to the albatross observatory, involved running the gauntlet through flocks of screaming, territorial gulls, swooping or mating or sitting on nests dotted everywhere. Their noise and frenzy was intended to discourage intrusion and I was certainly reluctant to force a path through them, hunching my shoulders and bending over slightly as I walked, as if that would make any difference to a diving, shitting gull. Some gulls, a small minority it seemed from within the wheeling mass, were quieter, more timid, at the approach of humans. One gull, who had made her nest directly beside the asphalt path, fled her nest as we passed, leaving exposed three eggs in varyings shades of grey like water spilled unevenly on a page of black ink.
The hostile presence of the gulls lent a Hitchcockian air to proceedings, but the stench of gull droppings was in some ways even more overpowering. The pathways were splashed red and white like a horror scene, the result of the gulls’ diet of red krill, plentiful in the waters surrounding Taiaroa Head. The spectacle could not be further from the calm, stenchless vision of Tiaki on royal-cam. I had heard the distant call of gulls, picked up via the microphone adjacent to the camera, but the vision had been entirely of the toroa chick, of open headland and ocean, with Aramoana’s seawall and beach in the distance, and some days a glimpse of a tanker or fishing boat slipping silently through the narrow channel at the harbour entrance.
When toroa first began to come to Taiaroa Head, it is said that they could be seen from Aramoana Beach but the stationary white lumps dotted on the headland were initially mistaken for sheep, a more familiar sight on the Otago Peninsula. In that mistake, however, is embedded so much of the complex history of the toroa of Taiaroa Head, a history of interaction between humans and nature that is also, like everything else in Aotearoa, a history of colonisation.
The toroa has always been an important bird for Māori: the feathers signify mana, the bones were used for a variety of purposes, and the bird itself was a valuable food source. In the past, toroa were hunted at sea, or from island colonies further afield from the mainland. But the significant Ngāi Tahu pā that occupied the headland from around 1650, Pukekura, would have precluded toroa breeding because the birds need exposed grassy spaces for landing and nesting purposes.
While a lighthouse had been built in 1864, and signalmen and pilots had been based on the headland since the 1840s, it was the construction of Fort Taiaroa in 1885 that effectively erased the Māori presence there and, in the process, unwittingly created an environment ideal for toroa. Not only were barracks and underground gun emplacements built but the replacement of coastal shrubland with pasture grass, and the cutting of wide, flat tracks around the headland for the easier movement of men and equipment, left open areas suitable for nesting. Albatross sightings at Taiaroa Head only date from around 1917 and the breeding colony remained precarious until at least the late 1930s and the tireless efforts of local Dunedin teacher, Lance Richdale.
So the romantic story of epic solo journeys by wild birds, of the continuities of return and connection to place, of the celebration of the yearly bell ringing, is by no means a timeless one. In fact, however far-fetched it may seem, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the albatross colony at Taiaroa Head exists today because Russia invaded Afghanistan in the 1880s. Without the European settlement of Te Waipounamu, without the threat of war between Britain and Russia after the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1885 that saw the colony of New Zealand increase its ports’ defences, there would be no toroa on the site of Pukekura. And no Tiaki.
Standing in one of the viewing areas accessible only through the fortification tunnels built into the headland, I feel the historical realities of colonial dispossession brought uncomfortably close to home, linking the two meanings of colony—as a breeding site for birds and a space of imperial acquisition—in ways I would prefer they were not. The sustaining presence (on a screen) of a fluffy albatross chick during a time of enforced solitude cannot be measured against guns and empire, not in any scale that I can adequately tally, and I left the Visitors’ Centre with mixed feelings, through a blizzard of gulls once more.
I carried the smell of digested red krill home with me in the car, the parting gift of a diving gull that nothing short of a hot shower would subsequently remove. All along the road back to the city, blackbirds darted out from stands of coastal lupins in full buttery bloom, and from the lower branches of towering macrocarpas, crossing in front of my car to land in clumps of harakeke or flowering kōwhai. Strange to think that blackbirds would only have appeared on the peninsula about fifty years before those first albatross sightings, having been introduced in Otago and Canterbury in the 1860s, around the same time as macrocarpas.
I drove through the village of Ōtākou, where the last residents of Pukekura had been ‘resettled’ in the nineteenth century. At Wellers Rock, where the road almost merges with the rocky foreshore for a brief stretch, I passed a group of wet-suited divers standing in the shallows. I wouldn’t know until I read it in the Otago Daily Times later that week, but one of this group found the rib bone of a right whale that day, Wellers Rock having being named for Edward and Joseph Weller who established a whaling station there in the 1830s, one of several in this part of the harbour. Another trace of human interference in this landscape, of arrivals, clearances, and losses in which I, in my fossil-fuelled car, play no small part.
I continued to follow Tiaki on screen, due to her satellite flight tracker, as she safely reached the coast of Chile. The resilience and endurance of the young toroa had seemed to me a symbol of hope in troubled times but times have always been troubled and I cannot avoid my own complicity in that trouble. Tiaki had told me, or so I imagined, that solitude does not mean abandonment, that we might come home again when we have been adrift and far away, that being grounded does not preclude flourishing. And I had needed to be told all those things. But wild nature can never simply be about what humans need to know or feel. A nature that is only comforting is one from which we have excluded the trouble of history.
The toroa of Taiaroa Head remain a wonder that is humbling to observe. The birds, of course, have no knowledge of the human actions that have made this place a seasonal home for them but their future here may only be possible with further human intervention. Rising temperatures threaten the viability of breeding seasons and measures are already being implemented to prevent eggs overheating, exposed to the sun as they are on the headland. We cannot know how many years the bells will continue to ring, how many more chicks like Tiaki will fledge from Pukekura, ‘Launched from the land’s shoulder / To wander / Where currents of air / Lead her,’ in the words of Dunedin poet, Ruth Dallas.
Tiaki—the name given to the royal-cam chick as a result of an annual naming competition—means carein te reo and the emotional connections that we make with other creatures give us a powerful sense of what it means to care for something beyond ourselves, especially at times when our own fragility takes on a new dimension. In the journeys and returns that birds like Tiaki undertake, though, are embedded stories of lost homes that trouble our comforting stories of innocent nature. They force us to question what we truly care for and wish to preserve, asking how much loss we can bear, how much has already been borne by others. All our futures will require a resilience that can only come from confronting such questions in a world where trouble and wonder co-exist.
 Ruth Dallas, ‘At the Heads’ (1968), Collected Poems, Otago University Press, 1987, p. 106.