A relatively distinctive species if seen well, although confusion of immatures with Black-footed Albatross and members of the Wandering and Royal Albatross group is possible.
Fig 1. Sadly this is the closest I've got to seeing this magnificent albatross! A wonderful silk murel at the Nature Center on Chichi-jima, Japan. Photo copyright of Naoko Tanese.
Check out Don Roberson' s illustrated essay on Identification of silhouetted dark albatrosses. Don provides lots of clues to the separation of Short-tailed Albatross from the main potential North Pacific look-alike, Black-footed Albatross. Juvenile Short-tailed Albatross are a uniform dark brown with a massive bubble-gum pink bill. Black-footed Albatross (all ages) is a similar dark brown (in good light appears blackish-slate) but has a smaller black bill. Although Short-tailed Albatross is much larger than Black-footed Albatross, size can be very difficult to assess at sea or from a seawatch, and a distant juvenile Short-tailed Albatross may not appear particularly massive (Bert McKee and Debi Shearwater, pers. com).
Like the other 'great albatrosses',
Short-tailed Albatrosses undergo a complex and gradual plumage change as they
mature. The exact sequence remains poorly known, however, this situation should
improve as more birds of known age are followed through color-banding studies.
It probably takes as much as 12 years for birds to reach full adult plumage.
Don Roberson gives a tentative outline of the maturation process (based on a
1973 study by N. Yanagisawa published in the Japanese periodical Yacho (38:
p44), in his 1980 classic "Rare Birds of the West Coast". At first the forehead,
face, chin, throat and front of neck become white and clearly demarked from
the dark torso. With time, the upperwing coverts begin to some whitish flecking
or mottling, which develops gradually into a larger white patch. Likewise, the
whitish primary shafts become more prominent. The underwings remain dark. Note
that juvenile Wandering-type Albatrosses have white underwings.
Where and When
Main breeding island of Torishima which is currently not accessible to birders. A secondary colony of at least 75 birds has developed at Minami-kojima further to the west. In addition, some 1 to 3 per year are found in the massive Laysan Albatross colony on Midway Island, Hawaii, and there have been abortive attempts to nest. Probably the best chance of seeing this specuies at sea is from the ferry (or better cargo ship) from Tokyo to the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands in southern Japan.
As of 1999, the entire world population is estimated at just over 1000 individuals and seems to be steadily rising. Once quite numerous, Short-tailed Albatrosses bred in huge numbers on at least 11 islands in the Izu-Bonin island chains, in the Ryukyu Islands in Japan, in Taiwan and probably on several islands off mainland China. Large quantities of bones have been found in the middens of coastal North American Indians indicating the species was once abundant off the coast of western North America. The dramatic decline is primarily due to wholesale exploitation for feathers from the late 19th century onwards. The entire population was almost completely wiped out by 1930.
At Torishima breeding success has been improved over the last 45 years with grass transplantation to stabilise the nesting area, an unstable volcanic ash slope. The Torishima population is increasing at about 7 per cent per year, but remains vulnerable to volcanic eruptions. Much of this success is creditable to the efforts of Dr. Hiroshi Hasegawa. Efforts are being made to create a new colony at a more stable site on the other side of the island. A proposal to mine sulphur on Torishima was refused by the Japanese government in order to save the albatross. The Short-tailed Albatross has been declared a Special National Monument by the government of Japan.
The recent increase in sightings
of immatures off California is extremely exciting. While it is not clear how
many individuals are involved, these flurry of sightings may herald a return
to the regular Californian avifauna!
Photographs on the web
Immature 3 shots of possibly the same (banded) immature taken 20 mi. west of Bodega Head, Sonoma County, California, 28 August 1998 (photo Dan W. Nelson) and on Cordell Bank, Marin County, California, 26 October 1998 (photos Bert McKee). Both from Joe Morlan's web site.
Immature. This series of photographs by Bert McKee, taken on the October 26th, 1998 Shearwater Journeys pelagic trip to the Cordell Bank, seen about 20 miles off Bodega Head in Marin County, Northern California.
Subadult taking flight Photo by Russell Cameron off the Queen Charlotte Islands in October. The other albatrosses are Black-footed. From Tracee Geernaert's terrific web site.
Small series of adults and various stages of immaturityVery nice shot of an immature with Pacific Fulmars and a Short-tailed Shearwater (upper left corner). Photo by Matt LaCroix in August. Then a subdault by Joan Forsberg. Then from Calivn Blood, an adult with wings raised (with a Laysan Albatross on its right) and a photo of two adults and a subadult together. Both shots from August. Again all on Tracee Geernaert's excellent web site.
Another series taken by Halibut Commission researchers Immature by Risa Latorra, then immature with Black-footed and perhaps a partly hidden Laysan Albatross by Hilary Emberton, two adults and then lastly two subadults. Again all from Tracee Geernaert's web site
More Halibut Commission pictures from 1999 season Fantastic side-by-side comparison of a young immature Short-tailed Albatross with a Black-footed Albatross. Photo by Risa Latorra. Again from Tracee Geernaert's web site.
in flight Photo by Don Roberson taken off California in November. Also a
series of pictures of both adults and subadults in an illustrated essay on the
silhouetted dark albatrosses. All from Don Roberson's fantastic 'Creagrus'
birding web site
Camp, K. (1993) Observations of Short-tailed Albatross Diomedea albatrus in the Bering Sea. Colonial Waterbirds16(2): p221.
DeGange, A.R. (1981) The short-tailed albatross, Diomedea albatrus, its status distribution and natural history. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Section, Seattle National Fishery Research Center.
Hasegawa, H. (1984) Status and conservation of seabirds in Japan, with special attention to the short-tailed albatross. In: Croxall, J.P., G.H. Evans and R.W. Schreiber (eds). Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. ICBP Technical Publication No. 2: 487-500.