Saturday, January 24, 2009


"I now belong to a higher cult of favored mortals, for I have seen the albatross"..."Lying on the invisible currents of the breeze, the bird appeared merely to follow its pinkish bill at random." -
Robert Cushman Murphy

I cannot have a post about albatrosses without at least one quote from Mr. Murphy. Actually I probably can't get through any post about seabirds without a quote from Murphy. He is a pioneer seabird biologist and the author of the classic, and one of my favorite books of all time, The Oceanic Birds of South America. I have a copy of this two volume set that was given to me by one of Montana's pioneering ornithologists, Clifford Davis and I treasure them for the wealth of information they contain as well as where they came from.
Murphy explored South Georgia onboard the whaling brig "Daisy" which resulted in much of the material for the Oceanic Birds of South America, but also resulted in "Logbook for Grace" a wonderful account of the trip written from his diaries (Grace was his wife's name). More recently, Murphy's daughter Eleanor Mathews wrote Ambassasor to the Penguins, an expanded account of Murphy's South Georgia adventure complete with photos Murphy took while onboard the Daisy.

The most common albatross on any voyage to Antarctica is undoubtedly the Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris). They are like the Pintado - they arrive behind the ship before we clear the Beagle Channel and stay with us throughout most of the trip. They are suberb aeronauts, as are all the albatross, and Murphy says "Every movement revealed the constant, delicate reactions of the mechanism of balance - the gentle, almost unnoticeable rocking and seesawing of the wings with the bird's body as a fulcrum, the gauging of the angle of the wings-axis with horizon according to the sharpness of a turn and their feat of "shortening sail" at a critical moment, the last capability being due to the structural advantage of jointed planes, which man has thus far been unable to build into his imitation aircraft."
In the photo below you can see quite well the jointed planes Murphy described. The wings are so thin that when viewed head on, you can see quite well the joints projecting above the plane of the wing.

Below is an immature Black-browed Albatross.

The Gray-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma) occurs throughout the range of the Black-browed Albatross but is much less common. They don't seem as interested in following the ship as the Black-browed either, often just showing up for a pass or two. I don't have many photos of this species and I had hoped to do better this trip. I managed to get a few photos, but I wish the light would have been better (it was overcast for most of our Drake Passage crossings, particularly when I was up and about).

Next is my favorite of the albatrosses. The Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata). I once saw them described as "gentle beauty" and it resonated with me for this species. They (along with their close relative the Sooty Albatross) are the most aeronautic of all the albatrosses too. Again Murphy:
"The long tail and long slender wings of Phoebetria are associated with a type of flight which also distinguishes the two species of this genus from all other albatrosses" and "During the morning four Sooty Albatrosses joined us and remained near-by for five hours, appearing to have no other purpose than to play in the howling wind for the admiration of us on board. Their ease and precision, and particularly their ability to vary their speed and to "stand still" in the air, put them in a class by themselves."

These two joined us in a snowstorm off of Adelaide Island.

And last, but certainly not least, is one of the big guys, the Southern Royal Albatross (Diomedia epomophora epomophora). They, along with the Wandering Albatross (Diomedia elegans) have the largest wingspan of any living bird, nearly 3.5 m (11.5 feet). We didn't have many of these guys come close to the ship on this trip and so this was the only large albatross I got decent photos of. We did see a couple of Wandering Albatross too, but I don't have photos of those.


Camera Trap Codger said...


Ever hear Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross"?--it's the perfect instrumental for viewing "tross" pics.

KLR said...

I love the photos, John. Even more, I love that you are treasuring a gift from Clifford Davis, who I felt was the best instructor I had at Montana State--and this from an English major! I was able to credit him that way when THE COLLEGIAN chose to use my letter of recommendation of him in one of its issues. He wrote me such a nice letter of thank-you, which I treasure also. And I love the carving of the Western Meadowlark that he did and I have perched on my kitchen windowsill in anticipation of spring here!
Kitty Lou Rusher

John Carlson said...

Hi Kitty Lou,
What an interesting loop of people. It is ironic that I consider you the best instructor I had in high school and you feel the same about Cliff. I too have a bird carving from him - a Kentucky Warbler - although I can't seem to get it out of Mom and Dads house!

John Carlson said...

Chris, I am sure I have listened to "Albatross" but I cannot recall it exactly. I am going to have to dig it up and try it out. Maybe next time on my MP3 for watching them in the flesh from the fantail of the ship.