ARTICLES ON HAWAIIAN AND
PACIFIC BIRDS, BIRDWATCHING AND
Salvin's Albatross on Midway Atoll - The First Record for the Hawaiian Islands, with notes on occurrence, Identification and Taxonomy.
A sub-adult Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche cauta salvini), the first for the Hawaiian Islands Archipelago, was found by John Klavitter, the refuge biologist on Midway on April 8th 2003 and photographed the same day by Rich McCarthy. The bird was only seen for a few minutes and unfortunately not seen again. Salvin's Albatross is currently regarded as a subspecies of the Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta cauta) which is an Australian and New Zealand species which has a population of between 800,000 and 1,000,000 birds (del Hoyo et al. 1992). These birds nest on a few rocky islands off the coast of Tasmania and New Zealand and the species ranges widely in southern waters and has been recorded regularly off South Africa and less commonly off Atlantic South America. The taxonomy of this form is currently debated but the AOU (1998) still considers White-capped (nominate cauta), Salvin's (salvini), Chatham Island (eremita), and one other from New Zealand (steadi) as belonging to one species, the Shy Albatross. Although genetic distances in some of these (particularly salvini/eremita vs. cauta/steadi) have been found to be greater than some songbirds that are considered species, these four forms clearly have a common ancestor and it may be premature to split them as some suggest, until more is known about correlations between genetic and biological relatedness.
This short article briefly discusses the taxonomy of the species (as at August 2003) and the identification of the species, as well as a brief synopsis of other "out-of-range" records for the Shy Albatross complex. Those interested in further information on the Shy Albatross complex should read the paper by Luke Cole in North American Birds 54: 124-135 (2000): A first Shy Albatross, Thalassarche cauta, in California and a critical re-examination of Northern Hemisphere records of the former Diomedia cauta complex.
Taxonomy of the Shy Albatross complex
It is stated by del Hoyo et al. (1992) that Shy Albatross is sometimes split into three subspecies on grounds of differences in colouration, ecology and non-breeding ranges. The population of Auckland Islands have been assigned a separate subspecies, steadi, but that it is doubtfully valid. They state that three subspecies are usually recognised: White-capped Albatross (cauta), Salvin's/Bounty/Grey-backed Albatross (salvini), Chatham Albatross (eremita) and Auckland Islands Albatross (steadi). It appears likely that cauta & steadi and salvini & eremita form species pairs, as these pairings exhibit close plumage and ecological similarities. It should be noted however that eremita, which is restricted to nesting sites only on Pyramid Rock in the Chatham Island group and a non-breeding range to nearby adjacent waters, is unlikely to wander far, and so birds resembling steadi far from its range are more likely to be variants of cauta. Again Cole (2000) has a detailed history of the former Diomedia cauta (now Thalassarche) complex, from its discovery in 1798 by Matthew Flinders up to the present day.
Salvin's Albatross with Laysan Albatross on Midway, April 8th 2003. The first record for the Hawaiian Archipelago. Note the size of the bird compared with Laysan Albatross, being a little larger-headed, broad-necked and larger-billed, all pointers towards Salvin's Albatross rather than the similar but noticeably smaller Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri).
Photograph © Rich McCarthy
Identification of Salvin's Albatross
Shy Albatross is the largest and stoutest-billed of the "Mollymawks" and exhibits a dark eye patch, a dark grey upperwing, a white underwing with narrow black edging and a diagnostic squarish black patch or "thumb-mark" where the leading edge meets the body. The white cap is more or less obvious and most of the head can be white. Juveniles are much like adults but the bill is greyish with a black tip.
The different subspecies can be identified by wing and bill measurements (see Cole 2000) as well as in the field by the head/bill colouration. In the simplest terms salvini often has a less white crown, and appears less capped and more frequently hooded (note the white cap and grey hood of the Midway bird, as well as yellow on the culminicorm base); eremita appears strongly hooded with a smaller yellow bill, and often a dark smudge on the mandibular anguis. Both salvini and eremita have darker under surface to primaries than cauta/steadi. It should be noted however that according to some authors (eg. Reid, Robertson) there is some overlap of the features of bill and head colour on some individuals. Cauta and steadi exhibit white heads with pale grey "masks" and cheeks (see photos below) and variable bill colouration (also see below). Cole (2000) and Harper and Kinsky (1978) give an in-depth discussion on Shy Albatross sub-specific identification. There is also the added confusion of subadult birds of both subspecies which have been noted to have a dark grey mandibular unguis, and less dark grey on the maxillary unguis.
Bill Colouration and Shape of adult birds
In steadi birds originating in New Zealand the bill is horn-coloured, with yellow confined to the nail and unguis only. In Australian cauta the bill is the same density of yellow in the nail, unguis and the base of the culmen plate, joined in between on the culmen plate by a variable amount of pale yellow. The exact colouration and distribution of colour on the bill is very important, but is often mis-quoted in publications. Cole (2000) states that " the color of the base of the culminicorn is perhaps the only definitive characteristic observable in the field (C.J. Robertson, G. Nunn, pers. comm.). Tim Reid (pers. comm.) remains skeptical of this field mark, however, believing there to be some overlap in bill coloration between birds exhibiting plumage characteristics of T. steadi and T.cauta."
Diagrammatic drawing of Albatross bill features (from Harrison 1985)
1. Nostrils (displaced on either side of #2)
3. Maxillary Unguis
5. Mandibular Unguis
Another useful fieldmark may be the colour of the mandibular anguis of adults. In steadi it remains dark grey or black and contrasts with the sides of the bill to form a dark tip, whereas in cauta the sides tend to be pale grey or horn-coloured with a distal yellow adjacent to the bill tip.
In salvini the bill usually exhibits a yellow tip to the bill (maxillary unguis), a yellow base to the culminicorn and variable amount of yellow along the top of the culminicorn plate, as well as the grey-hooded effect on the head.
There is also an obvious diagnostic feature that separates the Shy Albatross complex from Buller's Albatross irrespective of its age: The black skin across the base of the culmen forms an obvious black line between the yellow of the bill and the silver-grey forecrown.
Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche cauta salvini) on Midway, left, and White-capped Albatross (T.c.cauta) off Point Arena, California, right. Note the grey wash to the head of the Midway bird and the white-capped appearance of the California bird, as well as the yellow base to the culminicorn. The Midway bird exhibits a dark grey side to the bill, indicating that it is probably a sub-adult individual, whereas the Point Arena bird can be aged as an adult. Also note the black line between the bill and forehead - diagnostic in the Shy Albatross complex.
Salvin's Albatross photos © Rich McCarthy; White-capped Albatross photos © Luke Cole.
Differences between Salvin's Albatross and Buller's Albatross and Grey-headed Albatross
Two other species of Albatross in the southern Pacific resemble Salvin's Albatross, Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri) and Grey-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma). Grey-headed Albatross is circumpolar in the Southern Oceans and breeds between August and May on Cape Horn, South Georgia, Marion, Prince Edward, Crozets, Macquerie, Kerguelen and Campbell Island. It has been recorded as a vagrant in South Africa. Adult Grey-headed Albatross tends to exhibit an overall darker grey head than Shy or Buller's and in adult plumage tends to lack the white forehead of those two species. In flight the underwing pattern exhibits more black on the margins. The bill has narrow yellow or orange upper and lower mandible edges on the culminicorn and ramicorn with dark (black) latericorn and upper ramicorn, which at a distance makes the bill appear almost wholly black.
Adult Buller's Albatross is found in Australasian seas and disperses east to the Humboldt Current region west to Tasmania and rarely north of 30°S, although the species exact movements are little known. The species breeds from December to August at Solander, Snares, Chatham Island and Three Kings off New Zealand. Buller's has a similar underwing pattern to Salvin's Albatross but lacks the diagnostic thumb-mark. The head tends to have a slightly darker grey wash to it with the white front being much more prominent than the Midway bird, but some may resemble Salvin's. The bill of Buller's has bright yellow culminicorn, maxillary unguis, mandibular unguis and ramicorn as shown by Grey-headed and the Shy Albatross complex, but tends to be wider and much brighter and intense in colour. The latericon and mandibular unguis are black, contrasting considerably with the yellow on the bill. The bill of Buller's would also be more slender than the Midway Salvin's.
In juvenile or sub-adult birds the bill colouration tends to be darker and more subdued, with perhaps no yellow or orange colouration being exhibited until almost completely adult. The underwing pattern also tends to exhibit much more dark feathering, with just a small white or off-white strip present on the inner portion of the underwing in some instances.
There is also fortunately an obvious diagnostic feature that separates the Shy Albatross complex from Buller's irrespective of its age: The black skin across the base of the culmen forms an obvious black line between the yellow of the bill and the silver-grey forecrown. This black skin line is a feature of all of the 'cauta' species group.
Although it is hard to judge differences in size at sea, if a bird is seen alongside another species (or seen on land) it can be easily seen that there is quite a size difference between the three species: Salvin's has measurements of length 95cm (37in.), wingspan 250cm (98in.); Grey-headed: length 81cm (32in.), wingspan 220cm (87in.); and Buller's: length 78cm (31in.), wingspan 210cm (83in.). (Measurements from Harrison 1987). These measurements show that Salvin's is a larger and longer-winged species, which fits with the appearance of the Midway bird.
Distribution of Shy Albatross and Northern Hemisphere records
The Shy Albatross complex is confined as a breeding species to Australia and New Zealand and has a population of between 50,000 and 60,000 breeding pairs. These birds nest on a few rocky islands off the coast of Tasmania and New Zealand and the species ranges widely in southern waters and has been recorded regularly off South Africa and less commonly off Atlantic South America. Due to the difficulty of identifying many individuals to sub-species, and the fact that many in the past were simply recorded as Shy Albatross with no sub-specific identification, the distribution of the fours members of the complex are not well-known, and some published photographs are debated amongst seabird experts, further clouding the species position and movements. Cole (2000) discusses in detail the distribution of the species and the movements of the four sub-species, he states that "it is possible to determine that off the breeding grounds, the Shy/White-capped Albatross, is circumpolar and ranges widely at sea in the southern Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, north to about 25°S, but primarily south of 40°S (Harrison 1985, 1987a,b, Tickell 1995). South of Australia and New Zealand, it is found in northern sub-Antarctic waters to at least 52°S (Bretagnolle and Thomas 1990). Both the Shy and White-capped Albatrosses are found in southern African and South American waters. In the breeding season the Shy Albatross breeds only in Australia, with nesting colonies on Albatross Island of the northwest tip of Tasmania, and on two rocky islands, the Mewstone and Pedra Branca, off its south coast (Croxall and Gales 1998, Trounson and Trounson 1989). Once breeding age is attained, Shy Albatross ranges less widely than do young birds (Brothers et al. 1987, Croxall and Gales 1998). Band recoveries for birds banded on Albatross Island and the Mewstone show that the Shy Albatross ranges up both coasts of Australia to about 25°S (Brothers et al. 1987). However, the large numbers of cauta-type albatrosses and the measurements of cauta-type albatrosses taken in Eastern Australian waters indicate that some on this coast are T. steadi from New Zealand (Marchant and Higgins 1990, Brothers et al. 1997). On the other hand, Croxall and Gales (1998:54) reported that T.steadi "appears to be confined to New Zealand seas". T.cauta from the Mewstone have also been found off New Zealand (Marchant and Higgins 1990). The White-capped Albatross, T.steadi, breeds on Disappointment Island in the Auckland Islands group south of New Zealand."
Salvin's Albatross with Laysan Albatross on Midway, April 8th 2003. The first record for the Hawaiian Archipelago.
Photograph © Rich McCarthy
White-capped (nominate cauta): Has nesting colonies on Albatross Island of the northwest tip of Tasmania, and on two rocky islands, the Mewstone and Pedra Branca, off its south coast, and ranges to adjacent waters off Southern and Eastern Australia and is circumpolar out of the breeding season, and wanders widely in the southern Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, north to about 52°S and is frequently recorded off South Africa, although its migration route and strategy is very poorly known.
New Zealand (steadi): Breeds on Disappointment Island in the Auckland Islands group south of New Zealand, and ranges to adjacent waters, possibly regularly to Eastern Australia and possibly into Southern Indian Ocean.
Salvin's (salvini): Breeds on Crozet, Snares and Bounty Island, New Zealand, ranges to coasts off western South America as far as Chile where it is common in the zone of the Humboldt Current, it has recently been recorded in the southern Atlantic Ocean, but has apparently not been recorded at Cape Horn. Several Shy Albatross have been recorded in California in the past 3-4 years including at least two thought to be Salvin's Albatross. Peter Pyle (pers.comm) stated "this might be the "expected" species of the three since the others have yet to be recorded in the N. Pacific (if not the N. Hemisphere)". However, one bird at least, that seen off Point Arena in 1999, has been identified as T. cauta and so clearly all birds need to be studied closely to try to assign them sub-specifically, as the "expected" subspecies may not be the one that necessarily occurs.
Chatham Island (eremita): Breeds only on Pyramid Rock in the Chatham Island group, it ranges to nearby adjacent waters, and apparently does not wander far.
The species is not globally threatened but the population was decimated at the turn of the 20th century by plume hunters, especially in Tasmania, where by 1903 only about 300 nests remained. Presently there are about 3300 pairs at 3 colonies and the population is still recovering. On Bounty Island there are 76,000 pairs, on Auckland Islands there are 64,000 pairs and on Chatham Island there are 4000 pairs, which according to del Hoyo (1996) gives a total population of 800,000 - 1,000,000 birds! Although the calculations would seem to indicate an adult population of only about 300,000 adults by the above totals.
Washington, USA, 1951: An adult female was collected on 1st September 1951 by J.W.Slipp, 65 km west of the Quillayute River, Clallam County, Washington State. The specimen appears to be a White-capped Albatross (T.steadi).
Israel, 1981: An immature male cauta/steadi (probably cauta) was seen on 20th - 26th September from Taba, Egypt and Eilat, Israel in the Gulf of aqaba. the bird was seen again on March 2nd and was later found dying on a salt pond at Eilat on March 7th and was collected a s a specimen and is now kept at Tel Aviv University Museum (specimen 9659).
Tanzania, 1985: One was seen in November 1985 (Scopus 13: 115).
Somalia, 1986: One was seen from a freighter, 18 nautical miles off Cape Guardafui, Somalia (11°50'N, 51°35'E) on 18th September. The field notes do not allow the bird to be assigned to any specific sub-species beyond "Shy Albatross", although it has been suggested that it fitted Salvini most closely.
Kenya, 1986: One was seen in November 1986 (Bull. Brit. Orn. Cl. 108: 18-19).
Kenya, 1989: One was seen in August-September 1989 (Scopus 13:139).
Oregon, USA, 1996: A sub-adult was seen well over the north end of Heceta Bank, 40km west of Yachats, Lincoln County, Oregon on 5th October and was thought to be a bird in transition from juvenal to subadult plumage. It could not be assigned to any subspecies as it was in transitional plumage.
[Point Piedras Blancas, California, 1996: A Salvin's Albatross (T.c.salvini) was reported on 28th May from shore at Point Piedras Blancas, California but was not accepted by the CBRC.]
Point Arena, California, USA, 1999: One was seen and photographed approximately 15 km west-south-west of Point Arena, Mendocino County, California on August 24th 1999 and was assigned to T.cauta.
Washington, USA, 2000: One was seen on January 22nd from a birding trip out of Washington State and was observed at 46°54'N and 124°54'W off Westport, Grays Harbor County. The bird was identified as a cauta/steadi-type.
Cordell Bank, California, 2000: A salvini-type was reported off the Cordell Bank, California on 29th July.
Cordell Bank, California, 2000: A different bird to that seen in July (based on photographs) was seen on 10th and 17th September in the same general area.
Cordell Bank, California, 2001: A salvini-type was seen off the Cordell Bank, California on 27th July.
Oregon, USA, 2001: One, an adult cauta-type, was seen off Perpetua Bank, 32 nm W of Yachats, Oregon, on October 7, 2001. This is in the same area as the record in 1996. It has been suggested that some of the 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2001 U.S records of cauta refer to one individual "stuck" in the North Pacific.
Midway Atoll, Hawai'i, 2003: One of the subspecies salvini, was seen and photographed on one day only, April 8th on Midway Atoll.
Aleutian Islands, USA, 2003: A Shy "Salvin's" Albatross was observed, photographed and videotaped by observers on board the M/V Tiglax near Kasatochi Island (~55 miles West of the Aleut village of Atka), central Aleutians, on 4th August 2003. Observers included Brad Benter, Dan Barton and others. From the video footage it has been suggested that the plumage of this bird closely resembles the Midway bird - perhaps the same individual?
Regarding the Israel sighting, which is undoubtedly the most unusual of the seven recorded north of the Equator, Harrop (1994) suggests that the occurrence of the Shy Albatross was a result of its being carried into the Arabian Sea by the Southwest monsoon (compare records from Somalia and Kenya). Shirihai (1996) says "Seasonal winds in the Indian Ocean could explain the appearance of other seabird species, especially tubenoses, at Eilat, but additional factors besides this presumably combine to cause such birds to reach the top of the Red Sea. For a start, the species' normal migratory pattern (eg. transequatorial movement; or latitudinal movement across southern oceans; or pelagic wandering by immatures) may be such that it commonly finds itself well north in the Indian Ocean at a particular time of the year, and meteorological circumstances, such as changes in wind regime, could then divert it into the Red Sea. Southeast trade-winds blowing towards the western Indian Ocean and/or the coasts of southern and central Africa are usually a positive factor driving seabirds from the south and east (including the Pacific) into these regions, and even further north and west (into Arabian Sea), almost throughout the year; in summer, these ocean areas are also dominated by the Southwest monsoon, which remains constant for some time, and this coincides with the timing of vagrancy of seabirds at Eilat (eg. Streaked Shearwater, Pale-footed Shearwater). The westerly winds in latitudes below southern Africa apparently also contribute towards Atlantic seabirds straying into the Indian Ocean (eg. Gon-gon, Madeiran Storm-petrel) and are probably also an influencing factor behind the annual appearance of Cory's Shearwater."
The North American and Hawaiian records can more easily be explained as many seabird species pass through the eastern and western Pacific in circulatory migrations every year, and presumably the Midway bird was following a similar route, when perhaps it joined Laysan Albatrosses foraging in the open ocean and returned along a similar path to the Laysans, which of course happened to be heading to their nesting grounds. The short stay by the Midway Shy Albatross is probably as a result of the bird not finding any other individuals and deciding to move off in search of them or simply to continue on its journey to wherever it was heading, as there seem to be no meteorological conditions at the time to have affected the bird and to have pushed it off course to the Atoll.
For photos of Salvin's Albatross, see:
http://www.oceanwings.co.nz/albatross2.htm : note there is no contrast between bill sides and edges.
http://www.oceanwings.co.nz/albatross5.htm : note fairly yellow culminicorn.
For photos of the Point Arena Shy Albatross, see:
http://www.lukecole.com/Birds/SHYAL.htm also check out Luke Cole's website at
For photos of the Shy Albatross seen off Oregon in 2001:
For photos of Buller's Albatross, see:
For Grey-head Albatross, see:
http://www.oceanwanderers.com/Gryh.Alb.html : scroll to bottom for adult.
Photographs of all the World's Albatross species:
Information on taxonomy of the World's Albatross species:
Salvin's Albatross on Midway, April 8th 2003. The first record for the Hawaiian Archipelago.
Photograph © Rich McCarthy
Shy Albatross, Thalassarche cauta, August 24, 1999, 9 miles WSW of Point Arena, Mendocino County, California. This is the first Shy Albatross for California. Note the massive size compared to the Black-foots. Photograph © by Luke Cole
Shy Albatross, Thalassarche cauta, August 24, 1999, 9 miles WSW of Point Arena, Mendocino County, California. The bird was determined to be T. cauta, in the strict sense (as opposed to the very similar T. steadi) based on the yellow in the base of the culminicorn. For further information on this bird and separating the cauta complex, see below for citation to Cole (2000). Photograph © by Luke Cole
Shy Albatross, Thalassarche cauta, August 24, 1999, 9 miles WSW of Point Arena, Mendocino County, California. The crisp white underwing and black "thumbprint" at the base of the wing is diagnostic of all birds in the former Diomedea cauta complex, including Shy (Thalassarche cauta/T. steadi), Salvin's (T. salvini) and Chatham Island Albatross (T. eremita).
Photograph © by Luke Cole
Shy Albatross, Thalassarche cauta, August 24, 1999, 9 miles WSW of Point Arena, Mendocino County, California. Again note the black thumbprint at the base of the wing. Photograph © by Luke Cole
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Thanks to Peter Donaldson for originally posting the report and the photographs on the Hawaii Birding Chatlist and thanks to all those who commented on the record and the bird's identification including Peter Pyle, Robert Pyle, Alvaro Jaramillo, CJR Robertson and Dr P.J. Milburn. Special thanks to Luke Cole for information on the Shy Albatross complex and use of his photographs of the Point Arena bird, and of course thanks to John Klavitter and Rich McCarthy for finding and photographing the bird in the first place.
Christian Melgar, Worthing, West Sussex. 2003.