Albatross astern!

A couple of months ago, I would hardly have known the difference between an albatross and an armadillo. Well, that’s not entirely true, I’ve been used to skipping impatiently past the albatross plates in my field guides for the past 30 years as my dry-land birding in grassland, savanna and forest offered little prospect of seeing birds that require howling seawinds to stay airborne and live off squid.

But, after two trips out to sea with Hennie Otto’s Pelagic Encounters, I’m slowly learning about albatrosses and their cousins – the petrels and shearwaters. These full-day  excursions head about 80km south from Kleinbaai (just around Danger Point from Gansbaai) on South Africa’s southern Cape coast to where the continental shelf breaks up and greedy fishing fleets trawl relentlessly for hake.

Ocean-going, fish-eating birds have learned to follow the trawlers and they often gather in great numbers to provide an unmatched wildlife spectacle – albeit unnatural as it is dependent on mankind’s pilfering of the sea. And the scavenging habit is not without risk to the big birds –  taking baited hooks from longliners or colliding with cables on trawler nets has decimated most albatross species and virtually all of them are threatened. Good news, however, is that BirdLife International’s Albatross Task Force has found ways to work with fishing fleets and implemented strategies to reduce and even eliminate the dreadful ‘by-catch’ of albatrosses.

Out at sea myself, I’ve been paying attention to the way the different species move – their characteristic shapes and postures, the angles of their wings. I’ve found it impossible to sketch while trying to balance myself on a boat that is bouncing across troughs and being bucked by swells, so I’ve been taking lots of photographs to study and draw from (and for their own sake). Drawing the birds from these reference photographs is a great way to learn about the plumage traits as well as the precise structure and colouration of the bill, and forces me to look more carefully.

Albatrosses are long-lived birds and undergo distinct plumage changes during the first five years and more. Experts – of which I am far from being – can age them quite precisely, up to breeding adult. I’m still making mistakes and overlooking things, but each time I scroll through the photographs I took out at sea, I notice something I missed before.

So it was, that in studying the bill shape of Wandering Albatrosses in my photographs, I came upon an anomaly. A few photographs taken on 22 June when we were surrounded by dozens of albatrosses – Shy, Black-browed, Indian Yellow-nosed and at least six huge Wandering, feeding behind a trawler. Here among them, I now noticed, was an equally large albatross with a gently sloped forehead and a black line on the cutting edge of its upper mandible; the whole bill also looking somewhat paler pink and longer (the Wanderer has a domed forehead and no dark cutting edge on its bill). The black cutting edge is a diagnostic trait of Royal Albatross but this species has been split into Northern Royal and Southern Royal, so which was it? Enter local seabird enthusiast and topnotch birder Trevor Hardaker, who, upon seeing my photograph of the bill, agreed that it was indeed a Royal but needed more imagery to determine whether it was N or S. By this time, I had hauled out my Australian and New Zealand field guides to see what they had to say in addition to Ian Sinclair et al’s Sasol Birds of Southern Africa. Years ago, while still living in the Lowveld, I had traded away my old but unused Seabirds – an identification guide by Peter Harrison, so that was not to hand.

At any rate, there is no difference between the two as regards bill colouration, one needs to see outstretched wings . . . is there a white leading edge to the wing? (that’s Southern) and how extensive is the black patch on the white underwing near the carpal joint (‘wrist’)? If there is a decent amount of black, it is Northern. There are other details too, the amount of black on the tips of the short tail feathers, the degree of speckling on the white back. . . . Luckily, the photographs were enough for Trevor to confirm the bird as a young Northern Royal Albatross – I’d learned a great deal, and snagged a ‘new’ bird!

Duncan Butchart

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