Albatross Surveys

by Guest Blogger

August 10, 2007

In addition to the exiting undersea research and exploration taking place in the Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons, we are doing bird surveys for biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This involves making observations of the endangered short-tailed albatross, (Phoebastria albatrus) recording the exact location of the sightings as well as differentiating between adults, subadults and juveniles.

Adult short-tailed albatross are large with a wingspan of 211 cm (83 inches), mostly white with golden wash on the head. They have a massive pink bill with a pale bluish tip. Younger birds are brownish in colour and become progressively whiter as they mature. Fortunately for us their colouration makes them quite distinctive and does not lead to confusion with other species.

The total world population of this species is only about 2500 individuals. Long–line fishing continues to exact a terrible toll on these birds as well as other albatross species when they go after the baited lines, become hooked and drown. Short-tailed albatross only breed on islands off southern Japan. In 2004 an unusual discovery was made that amazed scientists:  a large flock of these birds, numbering 150 to 300, was found in the Bering Sea near the Zhemchug Canyon. This observation has demonstrated the need for more observation of their feeding biology whilst far away from their breeding grounds.

Our first sighting of this rare albatross was made on 4 August amongst a flock of other birds surrounding the ship. This led to a flurry of excitement and numerous photographs were taken as we all shared in the delight of finally seeing this magnificent bird. Subsequently we have seen about 15 individuals and will continue our observations till the end of the campaign.

We have also seen the 2 other types of albatross found in this area, namely the black-footed albatross and the Laysan albatross. These large birds are quite easy to identify especially when they are more than twice the size of the commonest seabird seen around the Esperanza, namely the northern fulmar. Every time we stop to do underwater diving operations we are surrounded by hundreds of these fulmars, resplendent in their variable plumage colouration. Two species of gull, the aptly named black-legged kittiwake and the red-legged kittiwake have also accompanied us most of the time, often sitting on the ship’s rail when not soaring gracefully by.

Hopefully the work done both above and below the sea will add to the scientific data base and lead to conservation of these critical habitats.

Clive Strauss
Medic on board and avid birder.  

s in charge of our short-tailed albatross monitoring project.

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