“A” is for Avocet and Albatross: “A” Birds, Part 1

“A” is for Avocet and Albatross: “A” Birds, Part 1

James J. S. Johnson

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) by Jim Fenton

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) by Jim Fenton

“A” is for Avocets, Albatrosses, Accipiters, and Alcids (including Auklets and the Atlantic Puffin), — plus Antbirds and a few other birds omitted here. This study now bravely begins an alphabet-based series on birds, starting with a quick introduction to 4 types of birds that start with the letter “A”   –    followed by a few observations of alphabetic patterns in Scripture (exhibited initially by Psalm 119:1-8)   –   then followed by specific information on avocets, albatrosses, accipiters, and alcids. Due to the length of this review, the “A” birds (just mentioned) will be considered in two parts: Part 1, Avocets and Albatrosses, — and Part 2 (in the near future, God willing), Accipiter hawks and Alcids.

Red-necked Avocets ©WikiC

Red-necked Avocet at shore ©WikiC

Avocets” are shorebirds, known for wading into the salty or brackish tidewaters, on skinny stilt-like legs, picking at food with thin upward-curving (the opposite of “decurved”) bills.  Avocets include American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana), Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), Red-necked Avocet (Recurvirostra novaehollandiae), and Andean Avocet (Recurvirostra andina).

Avocets are often grouped with other shorebirds that have similar morphology (shape), who occupy similar eco-niches (similar ecological contexts) and have somewhat similar eating habits – the fancy word for that category of shorebirds is “Recurvirostrids” – a group that includes avocets and stilts.  (For a listing on these shorebirds, with photographs, see Lee’s “Recurvirostridae: Stilts, Avocets

Later, in this article, one avocet will receive special attention, the American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana).

Black-browed Albatross launching into flight from the sea

Black-browed Albatross launching into flight from the sea

[Black-browed Albatross, launching into flight from the sea]

Albatross” is a large tube-nosed seabird type  –  sometimes called “gooney birds” — typically ranging over open-ocean waters, that includes about 20 different species, such as Snowy Albatross (Diomedea exulans, a/k/a Wandering Albatross or White-winged Albatross), Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), Light-mantled Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata, a/k/a Grey-mantled Albatross), the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos), Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), Steller’s Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus, a/k/a Short-tailed Albatross, known for eating juvenile squid), etc.

Regarding albatrosses as a “family” group, with photographs of more than 20 species of albatrosses, see Lee’s “Diomedeidae: Albatrosses.  “Gooney birds” are obviously designed by flying over oceans.  However, on land they can ambulate as they need to, although they may appear “goofy” on shore, as they appear to hobble (or waddle) along, upon their large webbed feet. Yet they live for many decades (e.g., up to 60 years!), unless their natural lives are cut short by a predator.


Albatross (Diomedea) ©Unknown from Siliconvalley


Albatross Study from Ian Montgomery

Albatross Study from Ian Montgomery

For examples of albatross studies, provided by Australian ornithologist Ian Montgomery, see “Ian’s Bird of the Week: Royal Albatross”,  —  and “Ian’s Stamp of the Week: Antipodean Albatross”,   —  and “Ian’s Bird of the Week: Light-mantled Albatross”,  — and “Ian’s Bird of the Week: Campbell / Black-browed AlbatrossLater, in this article, one albatross will receive special attention, Steller’s Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus).


Using an alphabet, to organize a sequence of information, has Biblical precedent.  The perfect example is the “acrostic” pattern of Psalm 119, the longest psalm (having 176 verses!), which has 22 sections (comprised of 8 verses per section), representing the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (Compare that to English, which has 26 alphabet letters, and Norwegian, which has 29 alphabet letters.)

The sentences in each section start with the same Hebrew  letter, so Verses 1-8 start with ALEPH, Verses 9-16 start with BETH, Verse 17-24 start with GIMEL, and so forth.  Here are the first 8 verses in Psalm 119, each sentence of which starts with ALEPH  [an inaudible guttural consonant, usually transliterated into English as an apostrophe that looks like a backwards C = ’ , i.e., like a closed single-quotation mark].  ALEPH is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, so each verse literally starts with that letter as the first letter in the first word (although the first Hebrew word may be differently placed in the English translation’s sentence):

Alphabet in Hebrew of Psalm 119

Blessed [’asherê] are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.

Blessed [’asherê] are they that keep His testimonies, and that seek Him with the whole heart.

Yea [’aph], they also do no iniquity: they walk in His ways.

Thou [’atah] hast commanded us to keep Thy precepts diligently.

O-that [’aḥalai] my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes!

Then [’az] shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all Thy commandments.

I-will-praise-thee [’ôdekâ] with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned Thy righteous judgments.

Thy-statutes [’et-uqqekâ] I will keep; O forsake me not utterly.

Interestingly, Verses 1-3 are narrated in the third person (referring to God as “He”, “Him”, etc.), but Verses 4-8 are addressed to God (“Thou”, “Thy”, “Thee”) in the second person.  Certainly the psalmist appreciates God’s truth as He has  kindly and authoritatively provided it unto His favorite creature, Adam’s race!

Most English Bibles show how the Hebrew alphabet is used to divide Psalm 119 into those 22 sections, although it requires looking at the Hebrew text to see how this was actually done.  Psalm 119 is not the only acrostic psalm – there are others (see Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 145).  In fact, there is a hidden-in-plain-view message in Psalm 145, which deliberately omits the Hebrew letter nûn (that matches our “N”), but that unusual usage of an intentionally incomplete acrostic must wait another day to be explained.

“In the common form of acrostic found in Old Testament Poetry, each line or stanza begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in order. This literary form may have been intended as an aid to memory, but more likely it was a poetic way of saying that a total coverage of the subject was being offered — as we would say, ‘from A to Z.’ Acrostics occur in Psalms 111 and 112, where each letter begins a line; in Psalms 25, 34, and 145, where each letter begins a half-verse; in Psalm 37, Proverbs 31:10-31, and Lamentations 1, 2, and 4, where each letter begins a whole verse; and in Lamentations 3, where each letter begins three verses. Psalm 119 is the most elaborate demonstration of the acrostic method where, in each section of eight verses, the same opening letter is used, and the twenty-two sections of the psalm move through the Hebrew alphabet, letter after letter.” [Quoting J. Alec Motyer, “Acrostic”, in The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Zondervan, 1987), page 12.]

Hebrew Alphabet Acrostic of Psalm 119 ©Zondervan

Hebrew Alphabet Acrostic of Psalm 119 ©Zondervan

Psalm 119 is all about God’s revelation of truth – especially truth about Himself – to mankind (in a comprehensive “A to Z” panorama).  The most important revelation of truth that God has given to us, and the most authoritative form of truth we have, is the Holy Bible – the Scriptures.  (In fact, it appears that Scripture is referred to 176 times within Psalm 119, since 6 verses twice allude to Scriptures.)  Accordingly, Psalm 119 is dominated by references to the Scriptures – using terms like “the law of the LORD”, “Thy Word”, “Thy commandments”, “Thy testimonies”, “Thy statutes”, “Thy judgments”, etc.

Psalm 119 Study Photo

Psalm 119 Study Photo

Of the 176 verses in Psalm 119 there appear to be only 6 verses (actually, there are only 5 exceptions) that omit a direct reference to the Scriptures:   Verses 3, 37, 90, 91, 122, and 132.  Yet, even so, each (of those “exceptions”) refers to some form of God’s general or special revelation:  “His ways” and “Thy way” (in Verses 3 & 37, yet God’s ways are only known to us by His creation, His Word, His incarnation, and His providences, all of which are forms of God revealing truth to us); “Thy faithfulness” (in Verse 90, yet God’s faithfulness is only known to us by His creation, His Word, His incarnation, and His providences, all of which are forms of God revealing truth to us); “Thy ordinances” (in Verse 91, is not really an exception, because it translates for mishpat, a Hebrew noun repeatedly translated as “judgment(s)”, elsewhere in Psalm 119); “surety” (in Verse 122, is the Hebrew verb ‘arōbh, functioning as a noun, yet the concept of God as our “surety” is comparable to His “faithfulness”, noted in Verse 90); and “Thy name” (shemekâ, in Verse 132, which divine name itself reveals God’s character (in the Old Testament Hebrew name for God) as the eternal Being, YHWH, as is emphasized in Exodus 3:14 and further in John 8:58).

Regarding God’s name, the incarnation has revealed God to us as Emmanuel (“God with us”), the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:9-11).  Accordingly, by His name as the incarnate God (i.e., Jesus the Christ), God’s name is necessarily implied even by how we count time on Earth, every time we refer to what year it is, — because the years are denominated as “B.C.” (“before Christ”) and “A.D.” (“anno Domini= “year of our Lord [Jesus Christ]”), ubiquitously reminding us that God has revealed Himself, on Earth, via Christ’s incarnation and earthly ministry!).

Eight Synonyms of Gods Word in Psalm 119

Dusty Bible

In short, Psalm 119 teaches that God reveals truth, and we should expect that we learn 97% of it from the Holy Bible!  (Romans chapter 1 emphasizes that we are taught, by the physical creation, about God’s majestic power and glorious wisdom, and that the message of God’s creation is so strong that to ignore it is to do so “without excuse”.)  Also, since the Hebrew letter ALEPH is derived from the Hebrew word for “ox” (which exemplifies might), it is noteworthy that the first 8 verses of Psalm 119 emphasize who powerfully God’s Word strengthens us for holy living (see Hebrews 4:12).

Now back to the “A” birds (Part 1), Avocets and Albatrosses.

American Avocet - Family group visiting lentic shore

American Avocet – Family group visiting lentic shore

The American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana), like many shorebirds, thrives upon the available edibles on beaches swept back-and-forth by coastal tidewaters.  This dignified shorebird, with its long skinny bill, long skinny legs, and its cinnamon-to-salmon summer plumage (on its head and neck), has already been described by ornithologist Lee Dusing – see “Birds, Volume 2, #1: The American Avocet.

The breeding range of the American Avocet includes most of the states in the western half of America’s “lower 48” states, plus some of western inland Canada (southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and part of Manitoba), with the breeding range situated mostly in Montana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, southern Idaho, western Oregon, northern Utah, New Mexico, far western Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle.  Some breeding avocets have also been sighted in Minnesota.

Avocets migrate south for the winter, either to Florida or to Mexico.  Their migratory passage travels occur in between their wintering and breeding ranges, covering large parts of Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho.

Avocets, being shorebirds, like to eat fish that venture close enough to the shoreline to get caught in the quick bill of an avocet.

Do not think that avocets are merely passive, waiting for food to swim or drift by where they stand, in the shallow water of a pond or lake.

Avocets poke their long stick-like bills into the water, then flex their bills back and forth in the water, stirring the water so that nearby creatures – such as water bugs and crustaceans – are agitated into motion that reveals their presence.   Seeing such creatures reactively move, avocets use their long bills to clamp down on an entrée, such as a small fish!

Avocets also enjoy eating aquatic plants (especially their nutritious seeds) that emerge above the shoreline’s water surface.

American Avocet

American Avocet “Gone fishin” – photo by Ron Dudley

Now for another “A” bird:  the Albatross, specifically Steller’s Albatross, a shorebird that has been listed as “endangered” since AD2000.

The Steller’s Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus, a/k/a Short-tailed Albatross, formerly known taxonomically as Diomeda albatrus) is an North Pacific Ocean-ranging albatross.  This albatross was originally named for the 18th century (AD) German naturalist Georg Steller, for whom the Steller’s Jay is also named.  Georg Steller is likewise the namesake of Steller’s Eider and Steller’s Sea Eagle (and even of two pinniped marine mammals, the Steller’s Sea Lion and the now-extinct Steller’s Sea Cow).  Regarding Georg Steller’s scientific career and “stellar” accomplishments (pardon the pun), see Steller’s Jay: A Lesson in Choosing What Is Valuable.

Steller’s Albatross ©U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service describes the Steller’s Albatross as follows:

“With a wingspan of over 2 meters (over 7 feet), the short-tailed albatross is the largest seabird in the North Pacific. Its long, narrow wings are adapted to soaring low over the ocean. It is best distinguished from other albatrosses by its large, bubblegum-pink bill. Young birds also have the large pink bill, but their feathers are dark chocolate brown, gradually turning white as the bird ages. Adults have an entirely white back, white or light gold head and back of neck, and black and white wings. …

Historically, millions of short-tailed albatrosses bred in the western North Pacific on several islands south of the main islands of Japan. Only two breeding colonies remain active today: Torishima Island and Minami-kojima Island, Japan. In addition, a single nest was recently found on Yomejima Island of the Ogasawara Island group in Japan. Single nests also occasionally occur on Midway Island, HI. Short-tailed albatrosses forage widely across the temperate and subarctic North Pacific, and can be seen in the Gulf of Alaska, along the Aleutian Islands, and in the Bering Sea. The world population is currently estimated to be about 1200 birds and is increasing. …

Like many seabirds, short-tailed albatrosses are slow to reproduce and are long-lived, with some known to be over 40 years old. They begin breeding at about 7 or 8 years, and mate for life. Short-tailed albatrosses nest on sloping grassy terraces on two rugged, isolated, windswept islands in Japan. Pairs lay a single egg each year in October or November. Eggs hatch in late December through early January. Chicks remain near the nest for about 5 months, fledging in June. After breeding, short-tailed albatrosses move to feeding areas in the North Pacific. When feeding, albatrosses alight on the ocean surface and seize their prey, including squid, fish, and shrimp.”

[Quoting USF&W, “Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus)”, February 2001 pamphlet, page 1 of 2.]

Steller’s Albatross 2©U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Steller’s Albatross 3©U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Short-tailed Albatross Map

The Steller’s Albatross, under the name Short-tailed Albatross, has been officially listed as “endangered” (under the Endangered Species Act of 1973) throughout its North Pacific range, as promulgated in 65 F.R. 46643 (Volume 65 of the Federal Register, page 46643-46654, issued 31 July 2000), in conjunction with implementing aspects of the wildlife protection treaty called “CITES” (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

This means that the Steller’s Albatross, and products of its body parts, may not be freely traded (i.e., apart from an appropriate governmental license), regardless of whether they were “taken” from the wild in America — or “taken” from the wild in any other country that is a ratifying signatory of the CITES treaty (which prohibits the trafficking of endangered species and products produced therefrom).

So, if anyone offers to sell you a fancy hat, adorned with Steller’s Albatross feathers – and claims that the bird was obtained outside the United States, don’t buy it!   (It’s contraband, unpermitted possession of which is a federal crime!)

Ironically, as a result of an earlier “administrative error”, this albatross was officially listed as “endangered” throughout its range “except in the United States”! — Way to go, bureaucrats!

At this point we will break our review of the above-mentioned “A” birds.  In “Part 2” of these “A birds” we will review Accipiter hawks and Alcids, God willing!



“A” is for Accipiter and Alcid: “A” Bird, Part 2

Diomedeidae: Albatrosses

Ian’s Bird of the Week: Royal Albatross

Ian’s Stamp of the Week: Antipodean Albatross

Ian’s Bird of the Week: Light-mantled Albatross

Ian’s Bird of the Week: Campbell / Black-browed Albatross.

Steller’s Jay: A Lesson in Choosing What Is Valuable

Recurvirostridae: Stilts, Avocets


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