Thursday, 31 July 2014

Portraits & Profiles - Buller's Albatross

The Southern Ocean, including around New Zealand and southern Australia, is blessed with a plethora of pelagic (oceanic) seabirds. And there are ample opportunities for sea-birders, either hard-core (they’re a weird bunch!) to indulge their obsession; or itinerants and dabblers, to whet/appease their interest and, usually, add a few birds to swell their life lists. I fall essentially into the latter group, though I am a member of the Australasian Seabird Group (ASG), a member of the Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association (SOSSA), and am coming up for my tenth trip on their renowned/notorious pelagic trips out of Wollongong on the redoubtable Sandra K.

Last year, I participated in the “SOSSA pelagic” on 7 July, my first pelagic since 2002, and my first Sandra K trip with a decent (digital) camera.

My bird of the trip was without doubt the Buller’s Albatross Thalassarche bulleri, of which there were probably up to three or four following the boat at times. Not just because it was my only ‘new’ bird for the trip (number 589 on my Australian List), but simply because it is such a beautiful bird. 

Buller's Albatross is a stunning bird!

Buller’s Albatross is essentially a bird of the seas around New Zealand, though it forages into south-eastern Australian waters and there are seasonal movements by some birds across the southern Pacific to the Humboldt Current off the coasts of Chile and Peru in western South America.

The breeding grounds are located on isolated islets in several of New Zealand’s offshore island groups. These include the Snares (latitude 48.03 S) and Solander Islands (46.57 S) off South Island, the Sisters and Forty-fours of the Chatham Island group to the east of New Zealand (43.75 S), and a small number of pairs breed on a tiny islet, Rosemary Rock, in the Three Kings Islands group off the north-western tip of the North Island (34.18 S). 

The broad yellow bill stripes, top and bottom, are characteristic of the Buller's Albatross.

Birds of the southern population (from the Snares and Solander Islands) lay eggs in January with the chicks fledging in August-September. The more northerly population (Chatham and Three Kings Islands) however, starts earlier, laying in October-November with fledglings in June-July. 

Because of this, the two populations have long been considered sub-species, but recent trends mean they are sometimes considered as separate species – Buller’s Albatross in the south, and Pacific Albatross Thalassarche platei in the north.

Buller's Albatross off Wollongong, NSW, July 2013.

Whatever their specific status, they are very similar morphologically and distinguishing them at sea is probably unreliable, despite the Pacific form being attributed with a larger/wider bill, a silver-grey rather than silver-white cap, and darker hood and feet. Further genetic, morphological and behavioural data may help sort things out. 

Buller's Albatross following the Sandra K - off Wollongong, NSW, July 2013.

The diet of Buller’s Albatross is mainly fish, cephalopods (squid etc), crustaceans and salps (weird barrel-shaped planktonic tunicates - ).

Buller's Albatross scrambling for berley off Wollongong, NSW, July 2013.

There are probably somewhere in the order of 60,000 Buller’s Albatross (approximately 45% bulleri and 55% platei). Young birds may start returning to the breeding islands three years after fledging, but probably don’t start breeding until 10 to 11 years of age. 

Sleek, beautiful lines of the Buller's Albatross.

The Buller’s Albatross is sometimes called Buller’s Mollymawk, and if distinguishing between the two sub-species/species, bulleri is also known as the Southern Buller’s Albatross, while platei might be referred to as Northern Buller’s Albatross, Pacific Albatross or Pacific Mollymawk. If you were French or Spanish it would be Albatros de Buller, and Herr Schmidt would know it as the Bulleralbatros.

Buller's Albatross off the stern of the Sandra K - off Wollongong, NSW, July 2013.

So Mr Buller’s name is firmly attached to this bird, it being given by Walter Rothschild* when naming the bird Diomedea bulleri in 1893 (Diomedea platei was described five years later, in 1898, by Reichenow*).

Diomedea was the original genus name for albatrosses, conferred by Linneaus in 1758, and refers to Diomedes, King of Thrace of Iliad fame, though the connection to albatrosses is a little convoluted and might possibly not have been the best choice. The genus Thalassarche was first raised by Reichenbach* in 1852, when he split the albatrosses into four genera, with Thalassarche encompassing the smaller southern albatrosses or mollymawks. Thalassarche means leader or ruler of the sea from Greek thalassa = sea, and arkhos, -archy = leader or ruler.

But getting back to bulleri, the name honours Sir Walter Lawry Buller*, a New Zealand lawyer and naturalist who dominated the field of New Zealand ornithology. Born in 1838, the son of a Wesleyan missionary, he is best known in ornithological circles for his book, A history of the birds of New Zealand, initially published in 1873, and later expanded and republished in 1888 with chromolithographic plates by J. G. Keulemans.

*  References and links for further reading: (and go to the Buller’s Albatross pdf link)

Albatrosses. WLN Tickell, 2000. Yale University Press.

Australian Bird Names – a complete guide. Ian Fraser & Jeannie Gray, 2013. CSIRO Publishing.
Whose Bird? Bo Beolens and Michael Watkins, 2003. Yale University Press.