a web page by Don Roberson
  • 14-21 species worldwide
  • DR personal total: 8 species (57-38%), 7 photos
Yellow-nosed Albatross, Indian Ocean taxa (above)

"I now belong to a higher cult of mortals,
for I have seen the albatross!"

Robert Cushman Murphy, writing home from the South Atlantic to his new wife, Grace, in 1912.

Every experience with Short-tailed Albatross (right) has left me in awe. The initial experience was with California's first record in many years. Rich Stallcup had seen one at the Cordell Bank on 3 Nov 1985. A chase boat was hurriedly arranged for two days later. It was amongst the roughest trips I've endured, and we were horribly sea-sick. And yet, when the albatross finally appeared, it was like I had paid Neptune's price and achieved the prize of a lifetime.

It is now more than 20 years later, but the impact of that first encounter has remained. An albatross — and especially a huge and rare one — leaves a dramatic impression. I've been fortunate to have now seen four in California waters, including one I was the first to spot, but each is a joyous occasion. These shots (above & below) were from a Monterey Bay boat trip in April 2007.

"At length did cross an Albatross:
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.
It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners' hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! --
Why look'st thou so?' -- With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross."

Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In the Rime of the Ancient Mariner it was that thoughtless shooting of an albatross that changed the luck of the voyage. From pleasant sailing to " Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink," was the sailors' fate, and they hung the body of the albatross about the shooter's neck in hopes of changing their luck.

It is now the albatrosses that need a change in luck. They forage for over vast stretches of ocean, and are attracted to trawlers (left). The trawler's waste doesn't harm the albatross (right; Shy Albatross), but the long-liner fisheries does. Caught and drowned on hooks from the long-line fleet, perhaps no single family of birds is more threatened as a group.

Albatrosses roam the sea except when breeding. Then are concentrated in and around their nesting islands. The only breeding albatross on the equator is Waved Albatross of the Galapagos. It is a rare bird, nesting only on Española Island. The photo (above) was taken near that island, at the time we had in view about 800 albatrosses, perhaps 10% of the world's population!

Most of the world's albatrosses nest in subantarctic waters in the southern hemisphere. These are great travelers. Huge species such as Shy Albatross (left) and Wandering Albatross (below, a fine shot by Greg Lasley), spend their long lives gliding over the southern oceans. It has been estimated that a 50-year-old albatross has flown something like 3.7 million miles (Safina 2007).

The three north Pacific albatrosses are also great travelers. Radio tagged Black-footed Albatross (right) have been shown to 'commute' from its breeding grounds on Midway I., in the middle of the north Pacific, to Monterey Bay to find food for their young. Laysan Albatross Phoebastria immutabilis do the same. One can say that a parent albatross may fly more than 10,000 miles to deliver one meal to its chick (Safina 2002, 2007).

Albatrosses are long-lived birds with a very slow reproductive strategy. In larger species they do not begin breeding until quite old (even 10-12 years old); the pairs mate for life and often have one chick only every other year; and individual birds can live for over 50 years.

Short-tailed Albatross (left; a juvenal bird with 'bubble-gum pink' bill) is making a slow come-back from near extinction. A hundred years ago, it was considered the easiest albatross to see from shore in Monterey County. Then the species was almost extirpated by plume hunters on its volcanic nesting island of Torishima, off Japan. It has been estimated that 5 million albatross were killed here from 1887-1902, until a volcano in 1902 wiped out the village of the plume hunters. More hunters arrived, however, and continued to kill thousands of albatrosses a year until another volcanic eruption in 1939 destroyed the village again. By the end of World War II, it was estimated that only 30-50 birds were left (Harrison 1979). Fortunately, the few young birds remaining at sea until they eventually returned to their natal island. With much protection and research, the population has rebounded (Carboneras 1992). A recent estimate is perhaps 2000 birds. By the turn of the 21st century, young Short-tails were occasionally appearing again on Monterey Bay, and even occasionally again seen from shore!

There are 23 or 24 taxa of albatross, and much controversy about the number of species. Traditionally there were just 13 species; one more was added by some in the 1990s (Amsterdam Island Albatross Diomedea amsterdamensis; e.g., Carboneras 1992). A molecular study in the mid-1990s (Nunn et al. 1996) found four major clades, and they resurrected old generic names for the four groups: Phoebastria for the equatorial and north Pacific species, Thalassarche for the mollymawks (such as Black-browed Albatross, right), restricted Diomedea to the giant albatrosses, and retained Phoebetria for the two sooty albatrosses. Using much of the same genetic evidence, and relying on a phylogenetic species concept, Robertson & Nunn (1998) then raised 23 taxa to species level, arguing in part that splitting them would draw attention to the conservation needs of many of them.

While this proposal was not widely accepted by scientists, it was adopted by some conservation organizations. Birdlife International (2000), for example, accepted most of the splits and listed 21 species. These included dividing Wandering into 4 species, Shy into 3 species, and Royal, Black-browed, and Yellow-nosed into two each. Some of these do not appear to be separable at sea, at least in immature plumages.

Penhallurick & Wink (2004) collated cytochrome b sequences for almost 90 procellarids, and provided a matrix of genetic distances tied to a molecular clock suggesting when various taxa diverged. They proposed that taxa which differed by less than1.5% should be considered subspecies, not species, and for albatrosses this was just the original 13 species (relumping Amsterdam Albatross). Rheindt & Austin (2005) disputed the Penhallurick & Wink analysis. They found numerous analytical flaws, and pointed out that if one applied the same genetic-distance analysis to ducks, one would lump almost all of the species of Anas together, even those that are undoubted biological species (e.g., Mallard/Pintail and Blue-winged/Cinnamon Teal taxa diverge by only 0.5 to 1.0%). More recently, Milot et al. (2007) showed that the low genetic diversity in albatrosses was a result of their life-style and past genetic roadblocks, rather than a measure of speciation.

Meanwhile, Burg & Croxall (2004) reviewed the Wandering Albatross set in detail, and supported species status for four species (nominate exulans Wandering, antipodensis Antipodean, amsterdamensis Amsterdam, and dabbenena Tristan) but relegated the fifth taxa (gibsoni) to a subspecies of Antipodean Albatross. Much of the evidence, though, relied on calibrations of an assumed molecular clock. This type of analysis is fraught with error, both statistical and in the calibration starting points (Graur & Martin 2004).

The entire issue is still up for grabs. Dickinson (2003) listed only 13 species, but possibly because the evidence was in such a state of confusion and dispute. The South American Checklist Committee has accepted one split of the basic 13: the separation of white-headed Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta/steadi) from the gray-headed taxa in that group (T. [c.] eremita/salvini), primarily because there a few isolated cases of assortative mating in sympatry. and they are now considering whether to adopt a further split between eremita [Chatham Albatross] and salvini [Salvin's Albatross]. It is hard to predict the future on this topic, and more research is needed. Some may tentatively adopt the 21 species of Birdlife International, but I expect it will be revised downward somewhat. Some proposed species, such as Campbell Albatross T. [melanophrys] impavida, or the separation of the two taxa of Royal Albatross D. epomorpha, seem very inclusive so far.

As albatrosses wander the seas for years, these peregrinations will take some of them far afield. Unexpected albatrosses are among the most exciting vagrants that a birder might encounter. I don't have much personal experience with vagrant albatrosses, but I was on the boat from which this vagrant Sooty Albatross (right) was released off Cape Town, South Africa. It had been found injured in Mozambique; rescued and rehabilitated in Johannesburg, South; and then flown to Cape Town to be released from our boat. It is a major rarity in South Africa [but, of course, it was not 'countable' under our conditions].

Some amazing albatrosses have reached California waters, including Shy, Wandering Diomedea exulans, and Light-mantled Albatross Phoebetria palpebrata.

Photos: The Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche (chlororynchus) carteri, both shots of Shy Albatross Thalassarche cauta, Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophrys, the trawler, and the soon-to-be-released Sooty Albatross Phoebetria fusca were all taken on 4 July 2005 south of Cape Town, South Africa. The Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus was photographed on Monterey Bay, California, on 22 Apr 2007. The six Waved Albatross Phoebastria irrorata were just off Española I., Galapagos, on 29 Oct 1989. The landing Black-footed Albatross Phoebastria nigripes was on Monterey Bay on 16 May 1999. The adult Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans was photographed by Greg Lasley off South Georgia Island on 2 Feb 2000. All photos © Don Roberson, except the Wandering Albatross © Greg Lasley, used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There are at least two family books on the Albatrosses, but I have not seen either one as yet. One is a work by Robertson & Gales (1998) that included the extensive taxonomic revisions discussed above. I am advised by Angus Wilson that it has a separate chapter of each of the 23 taxa with extensive details on biology and conservation. It appears to be both well-researched and expensive. The other is a major effort in Oxford's "Bird Families of the World" series by Brooke & Cox (2004); it covers not only albatrosses but the petrels and shearwaters as well.

A very fine introduction to the family, with a selection of great photos, is in Carboneras (1992). Photographs of all species are in Harrison (1987); Harper & Kinsky (1978) is still useful, and there is much to glean from Murphy (1936). A great popular account of the life of a Laysan Albatross is in Safina (2002), and his National Geographic article (Safina 2007), with beautiful photos by Frans Lanting, is thoughtful and powerful.

Literature cited:

Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Brooke, M., and J. Cox. 2004. Albatrosses and Petrels across the World. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

Burg, T.M., and J.P. Croxall. 2004. Global population structure and taxonomy of the wandering albatross species complex. Molec. Ecol. 13: 2345-2355.

Carboneras, C. 1992. Family Diomedeidae (Albatrosses) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Dickinson, E., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Graur, D., and W. Martin. 2004. Reading the entrails of chickens: molecular timescales of evolution and the illustion of precision. Trends in Genetics 20: 81-86.

Harper, P. C., and F. C. Kinsky. 1978. Southern Albatrosses and Petrels: An Identification Guide. Victoria Univ. Press, Australia.

Harrison, C.F. 1979. Short-tailed Albatross. Oceans 12(5): 24-27.

Harrison, P. 1987. Seabirds of the World: A Photographic Guide. Christopher Helm, Bromley, U.K.

Milot, E., H. Weimerskirch, P. Duchesne, and L. Bernatchez. 2007. Surviving with low genetic diversity: the case of albatrosses. Proc. Roy. Soc. B. 274: 779-787.

Murphy, R. C. 1936. Oceanic Birds of South America. 2 vols. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist., New York.

Nunn, G. B., J. Cooper, P. Jouventin, C.J.R. Robertson, and G.G. Robertson G. G. 1996. Evolutionary relationships among extant albatrosses (Procellariiformes: Diomedeidae) established from complete cytochrome-b gene sequences. Auk 113: 784-801.

Penhallurick, J., and M. Wink. 2004. Analysis of the taxonomy and nomenclature of the Procellariiformes based on complete nucleotide sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene. Emu 104: 125-147.

Rheindt, F.E., and J.J. Austin. 2005. Major analytical and conceptual shortcomings in a recent taxonomic revision of the Procellariiformes — a reply to Penhallurick and Wink (2004). Emu 105: 181-186.

Robertson, C.J.R. and G.B. Nunn. 1998. "Towards a new taxonomy for albatrosses," pp. 13-19 in Albatross Biology and Conservation (Robertson, G. & R. Gales, eds). Surrey Beatty and Sons Ltd.

Robertson, G., and R. Gales, eds. 1998. Albatross: Biology and Conservation. Surrey Beatty, Australia.

Safina, C. 2002. Eye of the Albatross. Henry Holt & Co., New York.

Safina, C. 2007. On the wings of the albatross. National Geographic, Dec 2007 issue: 86-113.




  page created 30 May 1999, revised 9-12 Feb 2008  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved