Sunday, February 19, 2012

New Zealand: Albatrosses and Mollymauks

For my next two entries I want to give you a more detailed look at the birds saw off Kaikoura with Albatross Encounters (see my previous entry for the trip itself).  We'll start with the big boys: the albatrosses, including the smaller species colloquially known as mollymauks.  Here is a nice collection of them: from top, Wandering, Salvin's, White-capped and another Wanderer.  Salvin's and White-capped qualify as mollymauks.

For an overview of all the albatrosses, and indeed of seabirds in general, see the Ocean Wanderers website.

First up are the great albatrosses (Diomedea).  Sorting them out in New Zealand used to be easy: there were two species, the Wandering and the Royal, told apart by the absence or presence, respectively, of a black line along the cutting edge of the bill.

Albatross taxonomy, though, is in a state of serious flux, with many of the separate forms being raised to ful species status on molecular and other grounds.  The Wandering Albatross has been split into as many of five species, three of which show up around Kaikoura, and identifying them is very difficult - not least because Wanderers go through a number of plumage changes and immatures of one form may resemble adults of another.  The Royal has been split in two, and both species are found off Kaikoura.

That's a Northern Royal (Diomedea sanfordi) at left in the photo above, and some sort of Wanderer - perhaps a Wandering Albatross (D. exulans)? - to the right.

Let's start with the Wanderer, one of the most famous seabirds in the world.  Even if you can't judge size, the white back marks it as a Diomedea.

Now comes the hard part.  Which of the three newly-split species are we looking at?  The newest New Zealand Field Guide, by Julian Fitter and the late Don Merton, makes things a bit easier by "lumping" two of them, the Antipodean (D. antipodensis) and Gibson's (D. gibsoni), calling them all Antipodean Albatrosses.  They are less white than Wanderers, and this brown-capped, rather mottled bird is likely an Antipodean, but it is possibly an immature of one of the others.

The pure white head of this bird suggests the "true" Wandering or Snowy Albatross (the pink feathers over the ear apparently mark it a a male).

Perhaps these squabbling birds are Wanderers too.

What about the others?  The Wandering is the whitest of the lot; I never saw one with the largely white wings of an old bird.  Gibson's is whiter than the Antipodean, and adults lose the brown cap - so is this rather mottled bird a Gibson's?  It has a fair bit of black in the wing, as Gibson's is supposed to do.

And these?  They have at least some brown mottling, and more or less black on the wing - young Wanderers?  Older Gibson's?  I'd love to hear your opinions!

The Royals are a lot easier.  The crisp black and white of the Northern Royal makes it, to my mind, the most striking of the great albatrosses.

It is also the only one to breed on the main New Zealand islands.  On my first trip to New Zealand, in 1974, I was taken to see an enormous Northern Royal nestling - a downy chick the size of a swan - at the famous Taiaroa Head colony near Dunedin.

Until my Kaikoura pelagic, 37 years later, the Northern Royal was the only bird species on my life list that I had never seen out of the nest.

The Southern Royal Albatross (D. epomophora), the commoner of the two on our trip (with twice the global population, too), has more mottled wings and finely-barred scapulars, like a Wanderer.

It is the largest of all the albatrosses, but I can't say I was aware of the difference at sea.

On to the mollymawks.  The White-capped Albatross (Thalassarche steadi) is one product of a four-way split of what used to be called the Shy Albatross (T. cauta), largest of the mollymauk group.

I had seen "true" Shys (well, I think so) in my early pelagic birding days in Australia in the 1970s, but how you tell them from this bird at sea I'd be hesitant to say, though the Shy has a yellower bill.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the White-caps seemed to be particularly aggressive.

Salvin's Albatrosses (Thalassarche salvini), another member of the Shy complex, are much greyer birds than the White-capped.

The bill is greyish with a yellow racing stripe along the top and a black spot at the tip of the lower mandible.

On some birds (immatures, I think) the bill is less sharply patterned and the grey of the head and neck a little lighter.

Finally, the most colourful of the lot, the striking Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri).  The bill, striped above and below, is a dead giveaway.

There you have it - if you accept all the splits, that's up to eight species of albatross at close range in one two-hour boat trip (four, though, if you are old-fashioned taxonomically)!  New Zealand is the world centre of albatross breeding diversity, and Kaikoura may be the best place on the planet to see so many kinds so easily.

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