Shy Albatross (Diomedea cauta)


Traditionally lumped together with White-capped Albatross, Salvin's Albatross and Chatham Island Albatross. This taxonomy may be subject to revision but is adopted here largely to highlight the specific problems faced by the different breeding populations and focus attention on their at-sea identification.



The largest mollymawk. Adults are readily identified by the distinctive underwing pattern with a narrow black margin on an otherwise white underwing. In addition, there is a dark 'thumb print' (pre-axillary feathers) on the leading edge of the wing where it meets the body. This is visible at some distance. The uppersurface of the wings and mantle is steel-gray, lightest across the back. The bill is grey with a yellow tip and base.

Subadults differ from the adult in having a gray hood of variable darkness. The darkest have a full gray hood which is sharply demarcated from the white breast and flanks while paler individuals (older?) have an almost white head and pronounced gray collar tapering from the hindneck to the midline of the foreneck. Many birds are intermediate between these two extremes. Wear adds a brownish tinge to the hood before it whitens. In many subadults, the dark margin of the leading edge of the underwing is extended by dusky markings. According to HANZAB, adult plumage is achieved after four or five years at sea. In 1-2 year olds, the bill has a black tip, eventually developing the yellow patterning of the adult. The side-plates and culminicorn become paler grayish-horn as the tip and sides of the maxillary unguis turns yellow. The dark-tipped mandibular unguis is one of the last signs of immaturity. Separation of subdults from Salvin's Albatross (both adults and immatures) is relatively difficult if not impossible based on current knowledge (Russ and Shirihai 2000).

Where and When

Breeds on Albatross Island, Mewstone and Pedra Blanca in the Bass Strait between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Breeding population estimated at 12,200 breeding pairs with the total world population in the range of 55,000-60,000. Population formally devastated by feather and egg collecting but seems to be recovering. Longline fishing remains a serious threat. Shy Albatross constitute more than 10% of seabird bycatch on Japanese tuna longlines. Most were adult birds. Birds are also accidentally killed by the Australian long-line fleet.  Nest on Albatross Island (max 5000 pairs) which lies NW of Tasmania in the Bass Strait, and also off the southern coast of Tasmania at the Mewstone (max 7,000 pairs) and Pedra Blanca (max 250 pairs).

Eggs laid in September, hatching in December and the chicks fledging in April. Adults may remain around the breeding colonies between breeding seasons. Non-breeders are circumpolar in range, most occur south of 40 deg. S but range north to 25 deg. S along the Humbolt Current off South America and Benguela Current off southern Africa. Banding recoveries indicate that juveniles of the southern Tasmanian population migrate to waters off South Africa.

There are a small number of records from the northern hemisphere. An adult female was collected some 40 miles west of the Quillayute River mouth, Washington State on 1 Sept 1951 (Slipp, 1952), another was photographed at Heceta Bank off Lane County in Oregon on 5 October 1996 (Hunter and Bailey, 1997; 1998) and a third was seen and photographed off Point Arena, California on 24 August 1999. Pictures and a detailed write-up of the first Californian sighting can be found here. Shy Albatross has also strayed northwards in the Indian Ocean and there are records of a subadult at the head of the Red Sea (Eilat, Israel and Taba, Egypt) Feb-March 1981 and a bird off Somalia near the Gulf of Aden on 18 Sept 1986 (Meeth and Meeth, 1988)

Photographs on the web

Adult In flight, detailed view of uppersurface taken in September off Portland Australia by Tony Palliser and posted on his pelagic web site.

Adult on water With Kelp Gull for comparison. Photo taken off Kaikoura, New Zealand by Dennis Buurman (Ocean wings, NZ).

Adult off Oregon 1996 By Tim Shelmerdine on the northern edge of Heceta Bank, Oregon on 5th October 1996.

Photographs in the literature

Enticott and Tipling (1997) p.32 panels 1-3.


Hedd, A. and Gales, R. (2001) The diet of shy albatrosses at Albatross island, Tasmania. Journal of Zoology (London) 253. 69-90.

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.

Russ, R. and Shirihai, H. (2000) The birds, marine mammals, habitat and history of the subantarctic islands off New Zealand. Alula 3(6): 82-147.

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 © 2002 All rights reserved. Angus Wilson

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