The Wandering Albatross. Possibly my favourite bird. Wait, it is impossible to have just one favourite! I think that changes often, perhaps daily, for many birdwatchers.
I was prompted to write this post thanks to a brief update I recently read on Facebook, posted by the Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association (SOSSA).
I spent many days at sea with SOSSA, during the period 2008-2014. Many trips were undertaken on a couple of vessels based in Wollongong and Ulladulla on the NSW south coast. With one third of the world’s seabirds seen off our south coast, the pelagic birding trips are popular with birders from around the world. The trips give SOSSA an opportunity to conduct bird banding operations. Albatrosses and other seabirds have been banded off Wollongong since 1956!
I went on a deep water pelagic trip off Ulladulla in 2009. There were 22 birders and seven crew aboard the MV Banks, a 101 foot ex-navy ship now used for private charters. It was a 48 hour trip, leaving port at 6.00pm on a Saturday night. Cruising at a steady eight knots, by the time dawn broke we were around 80 nautical miles off shore with no land in sight.
We spent the majority of the two days at sea banding birds. We captured, banded and released at least 33 Wandering Albatrosses!!
Now, when I say Wanderers, I mean Wandering-types. There is still debate about the number of species. Taxonomy is a pain in the backside. The generally accepted species are the Wandering (or Snowy), Tristan, Amsterdam and Antipodean. Some ‘splitters’ reckon there are five species with the Gibson’s split from the Antipodean. Some ‘lumpers’ reckon there is just the one species instead of five!
The 30 plus birds we caught off Ulladulla were a combination of Wandering and Antipodean/Gibson’s.
So, back to the SOSSA update on Facebook. On a recent trip off Kiama, the group recaptured a Wanderer that we had banded in 2009. Aged as at least ten years old at the time of banding, it is now a 20 year old at least. It is very exciting to see such a recapture!
The key aim of any bird banding project is to get the birds back, otherwise we are wasting our time. Reading or observing readable bands, colour bands, leg flags or wing tags in the field is just as good as a recaptured bird in the hand. Any recapture is just gold, especially those of long-lived seabirds that circumnavigate the southern oceans!
The oldest bird I’ve handled was a Black-browed Albatross, recaptured 34 years after it was banded as an adult. Truly impressive.
Even more impressive is the distance some of these seabirds travel. We have recaptured or sighted bands on birds from multiple seabird breeding sites around the southern hemisphere.
Sometimes, individual birds are recaptured often. On the other hand, it can occasionally be an absolute fluke to get a bird back! A Wandering Albatross individual was first banded off Wollongong, as an adult, in August 1979. It was recaptured in September 2014, the first recapture since it was originally banded! The bird is thought to be 40+ years old and is one of the oldest Wandering Albatrosses on SOSSA records.
Coincidentally, just this week I saw an article online about the oldest wild bird in the world. A female Laysan Albatross called ‘Wisdom‘ has returned to her nesting site on Midway Atoll in the northern Pacific Ocean. She was banded as a young bird in 1956. Given her age at banding, she could be 68 years old.
Below is a photo of Wisdom at home on Midway Atoll, and wearing her field readable band ‘Z333’.
Banding an albatross
When talking to people about banding seabirds, the most common question that comes up is “How do you catch them??” Well, the process is reasonably simple, but can require a great deal of patience.
We have found that we can get high diversity of seabird species at the continental shelf edge, and where there is a sharp water temperature gradient. Some species prefer deep water, some are inshore. When our boat arrives at a spot over the edge of the continental shelf we set about attracting birds. There may not be a bird visible in any direction. A small cap full of fish oil, like tuna or cod liver, is dropped in the water. It quickly forms a slick which can spread over scores of metres. Seabirds have an extraordinary sense of smell, as the scent of rotting fish might mean food! Within minutes, as the smell drifts on the wind, birds begin to turn up. Sometimes it might take 20 minutes, other times not much will show up at all.
When it’s all happening and birds are appearing quickly, it’s a race to identify everything. You just never know what might turn up. It’s at this point that we start to feed the birds a bit of berley. The preferred berley is a delicate blend of pet grade chicken mince and ground beef suet, with a bit of tuna oil for good measure. Sounds appetising!!
The photo below shows a group of albatrosses that have been feeding on the berley and are very close to the boat. Can you pick the different species?? We’ll get to the green paint a bit later!
There are three species in the photo. Most are Wandering. The smaller, darker crowned bird in the middle is a Gibson’s. The big one up the back is actually a Northern Royal Albatross!
The berleying process brings the birds very close to the boat. When a bird is close enough, we use a net to grab it and pull it aboard. The net is simply a fishing net on a hoop, attached to a long aluminium pool-skimmer handle. The photo below demonstrates the rather unceremonious capture.
The bird is brought aboard and removed from the net. We do our very best to quickly get a good hold of the bird, for its safety and ours. Grabbing the bill or neck is first. Note that the bill can probably take off a finger! Folding in the massive wings is second, then you’re in control. The bird can then be picked up by the ‘handles’ (the humerus bones). We don’t have the bird standing on the deck for any longer than necessary, as their feet are just not used to hard surfaces.
Below, Lindsay opens up the wing of this wanderer-type.
Another wanderer-type, below, is measured, after having a band placed on its leg. We record multiple bill measurements along with wing and tarsus length. Plumages, including moult, are accurately recorded. There have been occasions where we have had to decide which type a bird is based on its measurements and plumage. After processing, the bird gets a quick spray of green paint on the back of the neck; this allows us to identify which birds around the boat have been banded that day. The birds are so keen on the berley, that once we plonk them back on the water, they’re off to the back of the boat for more food!
A favourite photo of mine below, taken by my friend Stuart. I’m holding a Wandering Albatross as another bird glides around the boat!
This Wanderer is a huge bird, weighing around 12 kg. They are quite placid in the hand (or lap). That is a massive finger-removing bill, but I can hang onto it with light pressure. Here I have hold of the bird by the ‘handles’ as well.
Below, Darryl puts a band on a young Wanderer. This bird is probably in its second year. It is astonishing to think that these birds, once they have fledged from their breeding island, may not touch down on land again for six or seven years until they return to their breeding island. Birds begin breeding at age 11 or 12.
A quick note here on what we are wearing. In the photo above, Darryl and I are wearing full length fisherman’s overalls. They are comfortable, waterproof, and keep you clean. However, one thing has always puzzled me about them. The blue is on the front, while the obvious fluoro green is on the back. This could only mean that if you are missing at sea and rescuers are looking for fluoro green, they obviously expect you to be FACE DOWN in the water!!
Below, a lovely close up of the young wanderer’s face.
Unfortunately, nowadays, we see fewer of the large albatrosses. Over the last six or seven years I have led pelagic trips from Eden, NSW, for the Canberra Ornithologists Group. Even in that time frame, we have noticed that we just don’t see many Wanderers any more.
Longline fishing continues to be the key threat to the survival of large seabirds. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds drown each year on fish hooks, leaving 15 out of 22 albatross species threatened with extinction. Longlines can be up to 100km long and have 10,000 hooks!
The Australian Government declared the incidental catch (or bycatch) of seabirds during oceanic longline fishing operations as a key threatening process in 1995. A threat abatement plan was released in 1998, with revisions in 2006, 2011, 2014 and 2018.
Here is an example of a rare survivor. In the photo below, Darryl holds a Shy Albatross, while I hold the hook that has just been removed from the base of the bird’s tongue. It is possible that this bird may have grabbed a bait as the long line was being dragged in, with a fisherman simply unclipping the snap and letting the bird go. I wonder how long it had survived with the hook in its tongue, with the line and clip dangling alongside. It took us a while to capture this bird, but we were very pleased we did.
Commercial fisheries are now required to have mitigation strategies in place to reduce or avoid bycatch of seabirds and other non-target species. Research into the effectiveness of certain mitigation strategies is ongoing. Even with substantial reductions in seabird bycatch, the threat still exists. Unregulated or illegal fisheries in international waters are of particular concern.
How long do we wait to see if mitigation strategies are effective enough to stop killing birds? So much testing and research is going on around the world, it is difficult to keep track.
Despite the threat, it is comforting to know that there are survivors out there. The recently recaptured 20 year old Wanderer is one of those survivors. As is Wisdom, the bird that has become a world renowned symbol of hope for all species that depend upon the health of the ocean to survive.