Old-age Willie and Wanderer

Wednesday, 10 May 2023

  • Estimated reading time 2 min

Old-age Willie and Wanderer

Australia’s oldest Willie Wagtail and Wandering Albatross

Observations of one of our smallest birds and one of our largest —on either side of the continent — have resulted in Australian age records being broken, according to banding data.

Last summer, a Willie Wagtail was seen nesting at Edithvale, a bayside suburb of Melbourne, and was found to be wearing a tiny metal band on its leg. It was subsequently seen again in the same area just a few weeks ago. By reading the unique combination of numbers etched into the band, the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme was able to tell us that the bird was more than 11 years old — the oldest Willie Wagtail yet recorded anywhere in Australia!

The bird had been banded by BirdLife Australia’s Andrew Silcocks in March 2012, 11 years 0.3 months before its recent sighting. At the time it was banded, the bird had only just hatched during the previous breeding season. The recent sightings, more than a decade later, were less than a kilometre away from where it was banded originally.

Meanwhile, in the Southern Ocean off the Western Australian coast, the oldest Wandering Albatross ever recorded in Australia was seen soaring above waters in the Bremer Canyon, about two hours east of Albany.

Like the Willie Wagtail, this bird had a band fitted to its leg, and the unique combination displayed on the band revealed that it had been banded by French researchers as a chick in an albatross colony on the faraway Crozet Islands, a tiny archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean.

The albatross chick had been banded in September 1976, 46 years before this sighting. The previous oldest Wandering Albatross recorded in Australian waters was 44 years old, having also been banded on the Crozets (it was beachcast on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula).

This isn’t the first time the 46-year-old bird had been seen since it was banded. Its activities on Crozet have been recorded over the years, breeding with at least three different partners and raising 11 chicks.

In contrast with the kilometre travelled by the old Willie Wagtail, this Wandering Albatross has certainly lived up to its name; although, officially, it had travelled around 5,600 kilometres (the distance of a flight from the Crozets to the Bremer Canyon), in reality, it would have flown a vastly greater distance over the decades, regularly circumnavigating the globe.

Albatrosses are highly susceptible to being killed by fisheries operations in the Southern Ocean, with many thousands being inadvertently killed as ‘bycatch’ in nets and on long-lines each year, so to survive to the ripe old age of 46 years old (and counting) is no mean feat.