Monday, July 28, 2014

Meeting a Mega: The Story of the Salvin's Albatross

The Chase Is On

We were somewhere north of Pioneer Canyon, cruising through San Francisco waters on a gray afternoon, when the New Captain Pete abruptly made a 180 degree turn. I suspected something was up, but could not have predicted the events that would unfold in the next two hours. As I was staring out at a sprinkling of Black-footed Albatross and Pink-footed Shearwaters, Debi Shearwater walked up to me.

Debi: Did Abe tell you?
Steve: No...tell me what?
Debi: The other boat has a Salvin's Albatross.
Steve: *blank stare, prolonged silence, various expletives*
Debi: They are still on it. We are going for it.

That's how it all started. At first, I did not even have an emotional response to this news. "Salvin's Albatross" was not really registering. I had completely forgotten that Alvaro Jamarillo was on the Hulicat, leading a pelagic trip in the same area that we were in, and Salvin's Albatross was so far off my radar that it bordered on being a brainbird. As Abe Borker and I discussed how things were unfolding, the stoke started to build. Quickly news spread around that the other boat was going to stay on the bird for as long as possible, which was mighty fine and generous of them. It inspired great hope. Debi made the risky (and in hindsight, absolutely correct) executive decision to go for the bird, despite the significant extra cost in fuel that would need to be covered and the fact that it very well might not be there by the time we arrived on the scene.

However, the stoke that was rapidly building up was something I was trying to suppress...we were an hour from where we needed to be, and if I was an especially rare albatross I wouldn't necessarily be loafing in the same place for so long. Shortly after I made a pessimistic comment to Abe Borker about the bird probably leaving before we got there, Abe returned with the news that the bird had flown. The stoke that had been building from a few sparks to a forest fire-sized inferno quickly became extinguished, and the inevitable fear and loathing began to set in. "Well", Abe said unconvincingly, "if it was easy, then it wouldn't be any fun". I disagreed.

Against all odds, a few minutes later Linda Terrill came back with the news that Al's boat had found the bird again. I was stunned. Abe and I quickly came to the consensus that easy things were actually fun. The New Captain Pete was hurtling south now with surprising speed. The chase was on. Finally we could see the other boat on the horizon, and everyone made their way up to the bow. I said what everyone was thinking: "We can see their boat. The Salvin's is right next to their boat. If the bird took off right now, this would be such a bad dip for us that it would become birding legend." A collective shudder was had.

Finally we got close enough to the Hulicat to see the huge raft of albatross loafing next to it. They radioed to us that the bird was off their port bow, on the fringes of one of the groups of Black-footed Albatross. Todd McGrath got on it briefly, then lost it in the swells. Tension was building now, as we sloshed up and down. The bow was crowded and birders were straining. "Does anyone have the bird???", was the question that echoed back and forth among the crowd.

At long last, I spotted the bird as it popped up from a deep trough to the crest of a swell. Slowly but surely, as we lurked closer and closer to the bird, more and more people got on it. Finally the bird was easily visible, and everyone on our boat could see it. The bird was massive, noticeably larger than Black-footed Albatross (typically the largest seabird we see offshore) and had a particular look on it's face that was completely different than the albatross of the north Pacific; Black-footed and older Laysans have very soft expressions, and Short-tailed have this alertly-smug thing going where they appear keenly aware of how wonderful they are. This bird, belonging to a genus I was totally unfamiliar with, had a strikingly stern look, very different from the other white-headed albatross species of this hemisphere. It interacted with several Black-footed Albatross (which are very curious birds), sometimes with mild aggression and sometimes with apparent mutual interest. It flew short distances a couple times, but generally just loafed on the water's surface. Eventually the Hulicat moved on with their trip and we enjoyed the bird for another 15 minutes before it got bored, took to the air, and leisurely zigzagged toward the southwestern horizon.

What The Hell Is A Salvin's Albatross?

The AOU currently considers Salvin's Albatross to be a member of the Shy Albatross complex, which consists of four different subspecies. However, it is very likely that this is about to change, with Shy Albatross being broken into White-capped Albatross, Chatham Albatross and Salvin's Albatross. In a bizarre coincidence, I believe Alvaro of all people wrote the original proposal some years ago to split Shy Albatross. Other ornithological heavyweights already accept this split, and you will not find "Shy Albatross" in eBird.

Salvin's Albatross regularly occur from southeast Australia eastward to the west coast of South America, northward into Peruvian waters. The majority of the population breeds on the Bounty Islands, off New Zealand. A Shy-type albatross seen off Bodega Bay, CA, by a Shearwater Journeys boat some years ago was suspected of being Salvin's, but was subsequently identified as Chatham Albatross. The only other records in the northern hemisphere of this species are from Alaska and Midway Atoll, making this bird a probable first state record and only the second off North America. Amazingly, this bird completes California's trifecta of the Shy complex, as Chatham and White-capped have already been recorded in our waters.

Will Things Ever Be The Same?

It was an epic bird and an epic day. The collective agonized groan of tens of thousands of birders across North America could be heard shortly after we got back to the dock, as they read the shocking news of this sighting that had set the birding community ablaze. Those who had passed on the opportunity to be on the water to meet this bird (and their destiny?) that day have been plunged into a catatonic depression, and have not been heard from since. Props to Al and those aboard the Hulicat for finding the bird, spreading the news and keeping it close until we got there, and to Debi for doing everything that needed to be done to get the New Captain Pete there in time for us to enjoy fantastic looks of this MEGA. Things will never be the same.

You may remember this post from just a few weeks back. I'm not going to say that it is all happening as I have foreseen...but it has been so far. Although this is mere speculation, what hasn't been talked about much is that this bird could potentially be sitting off our coast because of El Niño conditions building off the coast of South America, which is already having effects on seabirds within the normal range of Salvin's Albatross . With pelagic season just kicking off here, who knows what else will show up? We also had a pair of Scripps's Murrelets and multiple Craveri's Murrelets (lifer #2 that day), both of which are associated with warmer sea surface temperatures. Craveri's are a Mexican species that have not been recorded this far north in ten you see where I am going with this? What a great start to what might end up being a singular season of seabirding.


  1. Great story. I found myself reading too fast because I wanted to see how the story ended, even I already knew the ultimate ending. Pretty great that Alvaro was such a team player out on the water. It would have been a huge bummer to be out on the ocean the same day and missed it.

    Welcome back to the Bay.

    1. Thanks Jake. "Huge bummer" is an understatement. How is Stanford treating you?

  2. Good grief, that's an amazing and well-written story - had me sitting on the edge of my seat reading! The excitment was palpable. Incredible for you to be in the right place at the right time.

    1. Thanks Josh. Tremendous luck was involved, no doubt.

  3. "The collective agonized groan of tens of thousands of birders across North America could be heard shortly after we got back to the dock" I know what you're saying; someone wrote on my flickr site 'sickening" And I know where they
    re coming from!
    But we saw saw and here's to us!! Debi and Al and the Albie! - Rauzon

  4. I had no plans for a pelagic this year until you dangled the El Niño carrot along with this albatross. Amazing story!

  5. "We can see their boat. The Salvin's is right next to their boat. If the bird took off right now, this would be such a bad dip for us that it would become birding legend."

    This has actually happened to me. Not the exact same situation, obviously, but one equally evil. It has passed into birder legend, but is not talked about much; I assume because people do not want to call the bad juju to themselves.