Antarctic birds: Wandering Albatross

We pick up this series again with one of my favourite birds: the Wandering Albatross. The Wandering Albatross is the bird with the largest wingspan in the world with a maximum wingspan of 3.65m. These birds are massive. It’s always a pleasure to see one of these giants fly behind the ship. Like the other albatrosses, they need wind to be able to fly. You will hardly see them flap their wings, they are built to soar with stiff wings, getting lift from the air currents going over their wings (much like plane wings, but instead of a jet engine, they need wind to create that current). And with their larger weight and size, they need even more wind as other albatrosses. Don’t wish for a Lake Drake, you might not get sea sick, but you won’t see any of these birds either (okay, granted, when you are in bed and very sea sick, you won’t see one either).

A Wandering Albatross in flight

Wandering Albatrosses can be identified from most other large albatrosses by their size. They have a 1m longer wingspan as the much more common Black-browed Albatross, which easily sticks out. Apart from this, in most plumages Wandering Albatrosses have a white back, where the black on e.g. Black-browed or Grey-headed Albatrosses runs all the way from one wingtip to another.

An immature Wandering Albatross in flight

More complicated gets it when the two Royal Albatrosses come into play. They are just slightly smaller (not noticeable in the field) and can look quite similar to Wandering Albatrosses. There are several small differences between the two: Wandering Albatrosses have in most plumages some black on the tail (except for the very old birds), adults have an orange ‘stain’ in the neck and they lack the black line on the cutting edge of the bill which is diagnostic for both Royals.

Tristan Albatrosses near Gough Island

To make things even more complicated (and work for experts), the Wandering Albatross-complex has been split into several different (sub-)species. The most common in the Drake Passage is the Snowy Albatross, but several other species breed on other subantarctic islands (like these Tristan Albatrosses near Gough Island). Identification is very difficult and often identification is done by looking at the geographical range.

Wandering Albatross with chick on nest (note the characteristic orange stain on the ear covers)

Wandering Albatrosses have a ver long breeding cycle which takes over one year. They mate for life after an elaborate courtship display (which is regular repeated after long foraging trips or at the start of the new breeding season) and breed every other year. The egg is laid in December or early January and is incubated for 11 weeks by both parents. After the eggs hatch in March, the chick is fed by both parents for another 7-9 months (through the Austral winter). By now, more as one year has passed, so the couple can only breed every other year. After the chick fledges, it will stay at sea for the first years of its live and will only come back after six to ten years (non-stop at sea for that period) and most will not breed successfully until a couple of years later.

Wandering Albatrosses look very clumsy on land

Like I said above, Wandering Albatrosses spent the first years of their live at sea and make long foraging trips as an adult. One major threat during this time are long-line fisheries. These fishing vessels use very long lines (sometimes hundreds of meters long) with baited hooks every meter or so. When the albatrosses see the bait at the surface, they might try to eat it and get hooked and dragged under water where they drown. Another major threat are the introduced rats and mice that get to their colonies and eat the eggs or chicks. Because of this, the population of Snowy Albatrosses is decreasing and they are listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List (with several of the other species in even more worrying categories, the Tristan Albatros that I showed above is even Critically Endangered). Fortunately, there are more and more programs to get the breeding islands rat and mice free (e.g. South Georgia is already rat free and a program is carried out these years to get Gough Island rat and mice free as well). Fisheries also take measures to avoid bycatch of albatrosses and other tubenoses like weighted lines or only setting out the lines at night. These measures do have an effect and it looks like slowly some of the populations start to recover. Hopefully this recovery continues, so we can enjoy these magnificent birds much longer!

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