Shy Albatross (Diomedea cauta), off Point Arena, California, 23 August 1999

On Tuesday 24 August 1999, birders aboard 'The Tracer' observed a adult Shy Albatross (Diomedea cauta) some nine nautical miles SW of Point Arena, California (38.57.08; 123.55.40). Here are a series of still images captured from digital video together with some discussion of this quite magnificent bird. If accepted by the California Bird Records Committee, this will be the first record for California and the third record for North America. Congratulations to Debi Shearwater and her talented crew (Jim, Lisa, Bert, Peter, Sophie, Vince and Roger) for finding another mega-rarity and for running such a tight ship!


We were on an exploratory two-day (24-25 August 1999) trip between Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg organized by Debra Love Shearwater and Shearwater Journeys. Leaving the harbor at Bodega Bay around 6 a.m., we chugged northwards up the coast through cold fog banks. As the morning progressed, the wind began to rise developing white caps and a moderately steep swell. The route, however was very birdy and there was an air of great optimism. Black-footed Albatrosses and Buller's Shearwaters were everywhere and also we had excellent views of a basic-plumaged Horned Puffin.

Just before noon, we came upon an active drag boat and noticed large numbers of Black-footed Albatrosses resting on the ocean all around. Roger the skipper, reduced the speed so that we could chum some of the albatrosses into the stern of the Tracer. I positioned myself on the port side toward the bow so that I could photograph albatross and shearwaters as they moved relatively slowly upwind. Our position at this time was approximately nine nautical miles SW of Point Arena (38.57.08; 123.55.40). The water surface temperature was 59.5 degrees and our time and distance were 155.300; 43.503.5. Wind conditions were approaching Beaufort 5 and the skies were uniformly high overcast. Suddenly my filming was disturbed by yells that a Laysan Albatross was coming up the wake. The time was approximately 12 p.m.. I turned and began to video the approaching bird over the heads of the excited mob that descending on the stern rail like a barbarian horde at the gates of Rome. Within seconds the screams changed to a frantic chant of "SHY ALBATROSS!!!! SHY ALBATROSS!!!! SHY ALBATROSS!!!......'.

Figure 1 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. Approaching the boat. Notice the very long wings and hefty body. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

I am not sure who made the call first (please step forward), because suddenly everyone was shouting at once. Likewise, I have no memory of how I got through the wall of humanity to the stern rail and apologize to all those whom I must have rudely pushed out of my way! The bird made a couple of close-passes over the forty or so Black-footed Albatrosses eagerly gobbling popcorn in the wake and then landed right in front of us. There it stayed for a minute or two before taking flight again. Vince Orsini, the first mate, began tossing stunned anchovies into the wake and this more dignified comestible caught the Shy's attention. Each time Vince tossed a fish, the 'Big Guy' would power over to the poor Black-footed Albatross that managed to captured the fish and with a menacing braying call "Baaaa" (or perhaps "Waaaa") and open bill, would force the smaller and clearly subserviant albatross to relinquish the tasty morsel. At one point, the Shy Albatross vanished for five or ten minutes before being spotted again over by the drag boat. It returned to our wake for another few minutes (now about 12:25 pm.), before once again flying off towards the drag boat. Sadly by then our time was also up and we had to push on towards Fort Bragg.

Figure 2 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 3 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. Sideview showing the characteristic hunched back of the large albatrosses. Note also the depth of the bill. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 4 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. Notice the 'bull' neck, prominent brow which presumably helps shade the eyes and overall regal appearance. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 5 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. At this angle the bird shows a subtle white-capped appearancedue to a very light gray wash on the sides of the head. The central portions of the culminicorn, latericorn and ramicorn are steely-gray contrasting with the yellow maxillary and mandibular unguis. A narrow strip of black skin extends along the boundary betwee the culminicorn and latericorn as far as the base of the nostril. Similarly there is a neat strip of black skin between the base of the upper mandible and the white feathering of the head. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 6 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. Advancing on a Black-footed Albatross with bill open in a threat display. Note the neat black edging at the base of the bill. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 7 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. Intimidating a Black-footed Albatross into dropping its live anchovie. Notice the distinctive underwing pattern: mostly white with a very narrow black margin and diagnostic black pre-axillary notch ('thumbprint') at the base of the leading edge of the wing where it meets the torso. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 8 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. View of the steel gray mantle and upperwings. Notice the molting inner primaries and how the mantle is paler than the either the flight feathers or upperwing coverts. The tail feather are light gray, and prehaps slightly browner at the tips. The rump and uppertail coverts are white. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 9 The bird used its huge feet as brakes when landing. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 10 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. Another view of the immense pink feet. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 11 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Figure 12 Adult Shy Albatross photographed on 24 August 1999 off Point Arena, California. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Discussion

The identification of the Point Arena albatross as an adult Shy Albatross (Diomedea cauta cauta) is relatively straightforward. The two North Pacific 'black-and-white' albatrosses: Short-tailed Albatross (Diomedea albatrus) and Laysan Albatross (Diomedea immutabilis) can be eliminated based on multiple plumage details and in the case of Laysan Albatross by size relative to the accompanying Black-footed Albatrosses. Elimination of several southern 'dark-backed' albatrosses (mollymawks) requires more care. The near white-headed appearance and yellow-tipped bill indicate a mature bird that has been at sea for at least five years. A faint dusky wash is visible in a number of the video captures off-setting the pure white crown and forehead. This 'white cap' gives nominate Shy Albatross its alternative name, White-capped Albatross. The underwing pattern, specifically the very narrow dark margin, combined with the pre-axillary mark (thumbprint) is diagnostic for the Shy/Salvin's/Chatham Island Albatross species-cluster. Salvin's Albatross (D. salvini) and Chatham Island Albatross (D. eremita) have a similar underwing pattern, however there is more extensive black on the underside of the primaries and both species have an obvious gray hood at all ages.

There are two prior records of Shy Albatross from North America: an adult female collected on 1 September 1951, some 62 km west of the Quillayute River mouth in Washington State (Slipp, 1952) and a second superbly photographed subadult on the Heceta Bank in Lane County, Oregon on 5 October 1996 (Hunter and Bailey, 1997; 1998). To see a photograph of this bird and read a brief account of the sighting click here. Interestingly, there is also a convincing sight record of a Salvin's Albatross (D. salvini) seen from shore at Point Piedras Blancas, California on 28 May 1996 (Field Notes 50: 332). [Note however, that this record was not formally accepted by the California Bird Records Committee.] Given the long-staying nature of Black-browed Albatrosses in the North Atlantic (reviewed in Mlodinow, 1999), it is possible that the Point Arena Shy Albatross is the same individual as the Heceta Bank bird, however it is unlikely that this hypothesis can ever be answered directly.

To read more about Shy Albatrosses click here. There are links to addition photographs, discussion of the taxonomy etc.

Joe Morlan has posted some additional images of the Point Arena bird taken by Luke Cole on the CBRC Recent Rarities page. Additional video captures by Rich Kuehn can also be found on the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society web page.
 
 

Figure 14 Descending on an innocent group of Black-footed Albaross begging for popcorn at the stern of the Tracer. Still image taken from a digital video. Copyright of Angus Wilson© 1999

Literature

Hunter, M.G. and Bailey, D.C. (1998) Shy Conclusions: Some lessons in pelagic birding. Birding 30(3): p234-239.

Hunter, M.G. and Bailey, D.C. (1997) Oregons's first White-capped Shy Albatross (Diomedea cauta cauta). Oregon Birds 23(2): p35-39.

Meeth, P. and Meeth, K. (1988) A Shy Albatross off Somalia. Sea Swallow 37: 66.

Mlodinow, S.G. (1999) Southern hemisphere albatrosses in North American waters. Birders Journal 8(3): p131-141.

Slipp, J.W. (1952) A record of the Tasmanian White-capped Albatross, Diomedea cauta cauta, in American North Pacific waters. Auk 69: p458-459.


Copyright © 1999 All rights reserved Angus Wilson
To the Annotated Seabird List Home Page
To the Marine Mammal List Page
To the World's Best Pelagics Home Page
Back to the Ocean Wanderers Home Page