Watching The Albatross

I'm not sure I'd go quite as far as Robert Cushman Murphy who in late 1912, asserted that he now belonged to "a higher cult of mortals" because "he had seen the albatross", but I do consider myself to be lucky to have seen a variety of albatross over the last couple of years.

My first sighting of the albatross was from MS Fram heading south from Ushuaia towards the South Shetland Islands in November 2007 - on that trip I saw four different species (Wandering, Black-browed, Sooty and Grey-headed). However, I saw all of these at a distance and, truth be told, I was pretty reliant on the accompanying naturalists to confirm which I was seeing.

Those first sightings were enough to encourage me to head back down to the Falkland Islands earlier this year so I could get a look at one of these species at close quarters.

I spent a few days staying at the Neck on Saunders Island in the northwest corner of the Falklands.  The attractions on Saunders include colonies of gentoo, magellanic, rockhopper and king penguins, as well as Johnny Rooks (striated caracaras), king and rock cormorants - but the real draw is the huge breeding colony of black-browed albatross. These awesome birds nest on mud-turrets on a steep hillside facing northwards towards South America - and I was able to sit close to the colony (which they share with both rockhoppers and cormorants) watching the adult albatross sweep dramatically back in from the sea. They stumble through a landing process, most charitably described as ungainly, before going through their welcoming rituals with their partners and then turning their full attention to childcare. The beak-tapping ritual reinforces the bond between the adults - but the real magic is the delicacy of touch demonstrated after feeding when the adult's huge curved beak is used to pick away left-overs from around the chick's head.

I was at the colony in February when the down-covered chicks are not yet quite ready to fledge, but are almost the same size as the adults. The chicks spend much of the day sitting balanced high on their mud look-out posts waiting for the adults to return with another load of freshly caught squid. One of my strongest recollections is walking along the tracks high above the colony aware that many pairs of chick eyes were following me - and if I dared cross the invisible line that the chicks considered to be the safe distance they would very vocally encourage me to take a few steps back up the hill.

A few of the photographs I took around the colony are linked below.

Saunders Albatross February 2009

I spent several days on Saunders Island, and was privileged to be able to spend a lot of hours just watching the comings and goings at the colony, particularly watching the chicks waiting for the adults to return from their long-range foraging trips. This makes the activities of the Albatross Task Force even more important in my mind and I'll be encouraging folks I know who are interested in bird-life to help support the project. We (collectively) need to do everything we can to help protect these magnificent birds as they search for food across the Southern Ocean - I'm trying to figure out how and where I can get to see other albatross up close, but in the meantime I'll continue supporting the ATF.

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