Light-mantled Albatross (Phoebetria palpebtata)
over Cordell Banks, Marin County, California
On 17 July 1994 we were on a chartered birding trip to the Cordell Banks from Bodega Bay led by Rich Stallcup and Scott Terrill. It was relatively calm with overcast skies and the birding and the mammals were excellent. We had already seen at least 25 Wilson's Storm-Petrels, 3 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, 5 Leach's Storm-Petrels, 2 Craveri's Murrelets, 4 Long-tailed Jaegers, 14 Sabine's Gulls, several Arctic Terns and about 75 Black-footed Albatrosses. Marine mammal highlights included 4 Killer Whales which apparently had created a slick from a recent kill which attracted all the Wilson's Storm-Petrels. We had also seen large number of Pacific White-sided Dolphins along with a few Northern Right Whale Dolphins riding the bow of the boat and leaping out of the water as well as the more expected Dall's Porpoises riding the bow. We also had distant looks at a pod of Baird's Beaked Whales and we saw five species of pinnipeds (Steller's & California Sea Lion, Elephant & Harbor Seal, and Northern Fur Seal) to round out our mammal list. This was already shaping up to be one of the best pelagic trips I had been on in several years, when something happened which took it off the scale of exciting birding experiences.
I was in the stern when I noticed Rich Stallcup come running back excitedly saying something about a "light albatross." I assumed he had seen a Laysan Albatross and started scanning. Some promising looking Western Gulls were sitting on the water, but I saw no Laysan. Scott Terrill said something about a "light albatross" but that it was gray, not a "white albatross." The boat turned rather suddenly. Scott said it was probably an aberrant Black-footed Albatross. I joined the rest of the crowd on the bow and heard somebody mutter something about a possible Short-tailed Albatross. We were at the same place where a Short-tailed Albatross had been seen in November of 1985, also found by Rich Stallcup.
Finally I saw the mystery bird, sitting on the water about 75 yards off the front of the boat and I realized it was something I had never seen before. It had a much bigger head and shorter neck than any Black-footed Albatross, I looked carefully at the bill which seemed all dark. I still had Short-tailed Albatross in my mind and was hoping to see a bright pink bill. Such was not to be. As we approached, the black hood contrasted with a pale gray mantle and slightly darker grayish-brown body. The tail appeared very long and projected well beyond the folded wings, giving the rear-end the appearance of a female Pintail. Scott Terrill suddenly became very excited about the possibility that this really was a LIGHT-MANTLED ALBATROSS.
I was familiar with this species from books and photos, but never expected to see it off California. Scott said to look for an eye-ring. As the boat slowly approached, a small white crescent right behind the eye became apparent and it suddenly hit me that I was really looking at a LIGHT-MANTLED ALBATROSS and probably the first sighting of this species in the Northern Hemisphere. I became very excited and reflexively uttered some profanity for which I hope I will be forgiven considering the circumstances.
Fortunately we had Chris Corben, a native of Australia, on board who had experience with this species and the similar Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria fusca) of the Southern Oceans. He advised us that some immature Sooty Albatrosses can have a very light mantle and can look very much like the Light-mantled Albatross. A key mark to look for, was a pale stripe on the bill. This is blue on the Light-mantled and yellow on the Sooty. It took a long time before we were close enough to see this stripe, but we did eventually get very close to the bird and were able to see the blue stripe running from the gape down along the middle of the lower mandible and fading to a point toward the tip.
The identification was now fully established, and many photographers took lots of pictures. The bird was also documented by at least two video cameras, all at very close range. Some of the photos should show adjacent Black-footed Albatrosses and Western Gulls for comparison. After spending at least a half hour studying this bird, we decided to leave it undisturbed sitting on the water in hopes that others might be able to see it on subsequent days. I took a few notes while watching the bird.
My experience with records committees, suggested there would be a question about the natural occurrence of this bird. Some committee members would inevitably claim there was no pattern to the species migration which could account for it getting to the Northern Hemisphere without human assistance. E.g., the California Committee rejected the Swallow-tailed Gull seen in Monterey Bay in June 1985 because they thought the bird had been artificially transported by ship even though there was no evidence that it had. I think it is quite possible the same argument may prevail with this albatross.
With this in mind, I consulted "A Field Guide to Seabirds of the World" by Peter Harrison and found the range map on page 191 indicated that Light-mantled Albatross ranges in the Humboldt Current north to the coast of Peru. This is the furthest north the species gets. Harrison also says that this bird follows ships. I think it is probable that this bird may have simply followed one or more ships north from the west coast of South America to reach California. Of course the possibility of captive transport can never be ruled out.
[This paragraph inserted Wednesday 20 July: The account in "Oceanic Bird of South America" by R. C. Murphy indicates that this albatross does not take bait on a hook and cannot be caught in the manner of most other species of albatrosses. Murphy also provides a number of accounts documenting this species following ships for prolonged periods of time and feeding on scraps over several days.]
The best documentation will be photos and video tape, but the following description based on notes taken while watching the birds are submitted for the record:
The head was all coffee brown forming a fairly distinct dark hood including the chin which blended on the nape with a pale tan-gray back and inner upper wing coverts (seen when the bird stretched its wings) and with the rest of the body including the foreneck and throat which was medium tan. There was a smooth ripple effect where the darker tan body blended with the gray of the back, but there was no scaling to the plumage. Instead it was a very soft, warm solid coloration. Chris Corben said this made it an adult.
At close range, a bold white half crescent was obvious behind each eye. These crescents extended only slightly in front of the top and bottom of each eye. The eye was black with a very slight hint of reddish. The bill was larger than that of Black-footed Albatross. The culmen was almost straight, only very slightly concave. The bill was all dark except for a neat blue stripe beginning at the gape, and then sweeping down and out the midline of the lower mandible, below the tomium. The nostril tubes were visible on either side, and were rather thin and long compared to Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses which I've seen in the past. A slight hook was evident at the tip of the blunt bill.
The shoulders were very broad and the neck very short, giving this bird a much more powerful appearance compared to the small headed, long-necked Black-footed Albatrosses nearby. The tip of the bill was much closer to the water than on Black-footed. Also the wings were folded differently. On Black-foot the wings are folded on top, concealing most of the back. On the Light-mantled Sooty, the wings were folded low and the back looked relatively flat, quite unlike the humped appearance of the Black-foots.
The wings were very dark coffee brown and contrasted with the warm tan body feathers that covered some of the wing coverts. The outer primary shafts were visible and two or three outer feathers had white shafts. The tail was very long and pointed, sticking out well beyond the folded tail. This gave the rear end a very different appearance from the Black-footed Albatross. At least one rectrix showed a yellowish shaft. When the bird stretched it's wings, the underwings appeared the same dark coffee brown (almost blackish) as the upper-wings although some slight pale mottling was visible. The legs and feet were grayish. We looked for bands on the legs but saw none. There were no obvious signs of recent captivity and no unexpected feather wear although some of the tertials looked a little frayed.
All participants on this trip got excellent views of this beautiful bird. [Added Wed 07-20-94: Other participants included: Bob Baez, Sheri Brodsky, Barbara & Barry Deutch, Ann Dewart, David Dickson, Jack Dineen, Leora Feeney, Gary Fellers, George Griffeth, David Hoffman, Alan Hopkins, Lisa Hug, Leslie Lieurance, Carol Miller, Mike (Benjamin D.) Parmeter, Eleanor Roosevelt, Sabrina Russo, Maggie Seely, Judy Spitler, Linda Terrill, Alan Wight and Ned Wynn.]
This species appears in most books under the name Light-mantled Sooty Albatross but in Appendix B of the Sixth edition of the AOU Checklist it is under the name Light-mantled Albatross. This checklist says "A specimen taken by Townsend near the 'mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon' is the only report for northern waters; the locality has been regarded as erroneous."
[Additional notes added 16 September 2010] The California Bird Records Committee ultimately accepted both this albatross and the Swallow-tailed Gull discussed above. Color photo and CBRC report is here. Field Notes account and monochrome photo here.