Ian’s Bird of the Week – Royal Albatross ~ by Ian Montgomery
Newsletter ~ 6-3-12
It seems only fitting to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth with something appropriate, so here is the Royal Albatross, or Royal Albatrosses if you accept, as most now do, the split into Northern and Southern species. Apart from just the Royal title, these birds are also very long lived (up to 60 years) and travel huge distances, routinely circumnavigating Antarctica. It has been estimated that a 50 year old Albatross has travelled 2.8 million miles which compares quite well with the Queen’s 261 official overseas visits and 96 state visits to 116 countries.
On the Sub-Antarctic trip last November, Royal Albatrosses, mainly Southern like the one in the first photo, were regular and very welcome companions in the Southern Ocean. It was always a thrill to see these huge birds completely at home in the wildest weather that the Ocean could throw at them and soaring apparently effortlessly in gale-force winds. If you look carefully at the first photo, you can see the dark (bluish) line along the upper mandible which distinguishes it from the similar Wandering Albatrosses. The other feature of note is the white leading edge to the dorsal surface of the wing. As Southern Royal Albatrosses age, the amount of leading white increases and this distinguishes it from both the Wandering Albatrosses, where the amount of white increases along the centre of the wing, and the Northern Royal Albatross where the wings remain black, as shown in the second photo.
With a little practice, it wasn’t too difficult to distinguish between Northern and Southern birds. What helped was the fact that Royal Albatrosses do not have a confusing array of juvenile plumages, unlike their cousins the Wandering Albatrosses. The juveniles have black tips to the tale and blackish scalloping on the back (the mantle) between the wings but are otherwise similar to the adults.
On Campbell Island, we had the opportunity to hike up path to a Southern Royal Albatross colony on a bleak, tussocky moorland. As you can see in the the third photo, things were fairly quiet when we got up there in the morning. They got busier in the afternoon when more birds arrived and some people saw greeting ceremonies, but by then, rather wet and cold, I had returned to the ship for a comforting coffee. There were strict rules about where we could leave the designated path and how close we could approach wildlife, but the albatross in the fourth photo stretching its wings flouted the rules and wandered, or blundered – they’re ungainly on land – right past me.
Albatrosses have deceptively gull-like proportions so it is a shock to realise, up-close, just how huge they are. The size record goes to the exulans race/species of the Wandering Albatross, but the Royals are not far behind and an apt comparison is with swans rather than other seabirds, ignoring length where swans have an unfair neck advantage. Southern Royal Albatrosses weight between 6.5 and 10.3kg/14.3 and 22.7lb while the heaviest flying bird, the Mute Swan, ranges between 9kg and 12kg/20 and 33lb. However Royal Albatrosses have a maximum wingspan of up to 3.5m/138in while Mute Swans range up to a mere 2.4m/94in. Just enormous in other words. The contrasting delicacy of the lacy pattern on the back is striking, and the fifth photo shows the tubular nostrils and the dark line along the mandible.
Happily, you don’t have to go Campbell Island to see these wonderful birds. Taiaroa Head, a mere 30km from the centre of Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand, has the only mainland colony of albatrosses in the world. These are Northern Royal Albatrosses and, although I got there too late in the day to gain entry to the Royal Albatross Centre – I gave the local Yellow-eyed Penguins a higher priority – the one in the last photo flew right over me as I stood in the car park.
Enjoy the Jubilee!
Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 firstname.lastname@example.org
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Wow! Did you read the wingspan on those Albatrosses? 138 inches is 11 1/2 feet. That is amazing! I still just sit back in awe when I hear about these wonderfully created birds.
Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings, (Psalms 17:8 NKJV)
Because You have been my help, Therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice. (Psalms 63:7 NKJV)