“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!” – Robert Cushman Murphy, 1912.
Murphy, ornithologist, ecologist, conservationist, was writing to his wife from the whaling brig Daisy in the vicinity of South Georgia. He describes the Albatrosses “Lying on the invisible currents of the breeze” which beautifully portrays their flight in light airs but it’s when the wind rises to a gale that I find them most impressive. When your hands are clasped tightly on the ship’s rail and you hope your pyloric sphincter will maintain an equally strong grip on your gastric contents, the Albatross passes elegantly by demonstrating a complete mastery of its elements. I saw my first Wandering Albatross just outside Sydney Heads and I remember it well.
The Albatross family is one of the four (extant) families making up the order Procellariiformes. When you go to the seaside you encounter numerous seabirds, gulls, cormorants, and gannets for instance, but most of them don’t venture too far out to sea. The procellariiiforms are true ocean goers, they may spend years at a time without coming ashore something that they usually do only to mate.
To get amongst them you have to go to sea. This weekend I did exactly that sailing about 30 nautical miles south of Port Fairy to the edge of the continental shelf.
The largest albatrosses are the Wanderers and the Royals but they didn’t put in an appearance this time out. The largest on this occasion were the Shy Albatross. They were present in good numbers and not at all shy. Slightly smaller and rather more numerous were the Black-browed Albatross …
The black margin on the underwing is broader, the bill a different colour. They come in two subspecies (full species according to some) which can be distinguished by the colour of the iris, yes you do need to get reasonably close. One has a dark eye, the other is honey coloured, both were present.
Smaller still is the Yellow-nosed Albatross …
Sea birds tend to be black, white, gray or combinations of black, white and grey! Diagnosis has its challenges. Albatrosses are actually the easy ones.
All the procellariforms have tubes leading to their external nose. If you look at the top close up of a Shy Albatross you can see that there is a small nostril on the side of its beak. The Albatrosses all have two quite small nostrils, in all the other families that make up the order the tubes merge into a single opening on top of the beak.
The four families are :-
- Family Procellariidae (shearwaters, fulmarine petrels, gadfly petrels, and prions)
- Family Diomedeidae (albatrosses)
- Family Hydrobatidae (storm petrels)
- Family Pelecanoididae (diving petrels)
and at least one member of each family turned up. Here are a few of them …