Albatross Identification: Salvin's or Buller's?

Peter Pyle sent three photos of taken on Midway Atoll (NW Hawaiian Islands) on 8 April 2003. There is currently a debate on whether it is a Salvin's Albatross or Buller's Albatross.

Introduction by Angus Wilson: Obviously this is one of the mid-sized southern hemisphere albatrosses (often called Mollymawks), and depending on the taxonomy you follow, may include Shy, White-capped, Salvin's, Chatham, Grey-headed, Buller's and Pacific Albatrosses. The paler upper-ridge on the bill and orange flesh at the base of the bill suggest this bird is an adult, consistent with its presence in a colony of Laysan Albatross. The identification is complicated by the fact that we have no images or notes on the patterning of the underwing. The bird was found by a non-birder and these are the only available photographs.

Presuming this is an adult, the pale crown and forehead argue against Grey-headed and Chatham, both of which have solid gray hoods that are sharply defined from the white breast. The head is not pale enough for adult Shy or White-capped Albatrosses, which are large birds and show an immaculate and obvious white 'cap'. This is supported by the brownish-yellow rather than blue-green sides of the bill.

This leaves Salvin's and Buller's/Pacific, all of three of which nest in New Zealand, although a few pairs of Salvin's nest on Crozet in the Indian Ocean. Adult Buller's/Pacific have bold yellow (sometimes orangey) plates along the top of the bill (culminicorn) and lower half of the lower mandible (ramicorn below the sulcus), clearly not the case on this bird. Separation of Buller's (which nest primarily on the Snares group) and Pacific (from the Chatham Islands) is tricky and in my experience, over-simplified in the literature. Pacific's tend to have a less clearly defined cap but differ from Salvin's from the same reasons as Buller's. The lower band of yellow on the bill also differs but this is very subtle and is next to impossible to judge on lone birds.

These simplified arguments leave Salvin's Albatross at the top of the list, depending of course on the correct aging of the bird.

Fig. 1. The mystery bird (left) alongside an adult Laysan Albatross. Midway Atoll (NW Hawaiian Islands) on 8 April 2003.

Fig. 2. Side profile of the mystery bird showing the tail to better effect. Midway Atoll (NW Hawaiian Islands) on 8 April 2003.

Fig. 3. More distant shot of the mystery bird. Midway Atoll (NW Hawaiian Islands) on 8 April 2003.

For more on the look-alike species, check out these links:

Salvin's Albatross, Buller's/Pacific Albatross, Chatham Albatross, White-capped Albatross, Shy Albatross.

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