E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Phoebastria albatrus (Pallas, 1769)
Short-Tailed Albatross
Family: Diomedeidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman

Photo of species

© Rick Hibpshman  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #11191)


Distribution of Phoebastria albatrus in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Adult
This plumage is not acquired until ~12-20 years of age. The back, scapulars, rump, and uppertail coverts are entirely white. The outer half of the upperwings, including the primaries, primary coverts, outer secondaries, and outer secondary coverts is blackish, contrasting sharply with the largely whitish inner half of the upperwings (including most of the inner secondary coverts and inner secondaries); there is also a blackish area along the leading edge of the wing, a narrow blackish trailing edge of the wing, and an isolated blackish area on the inner secondaries, as well as a whitish flash on the upperside of the outer primaries due to the whitish feather shafts. The tail is black with a white base. The underparts are wholly white, sometimes with a faint yellowish wash on the breast. The underwings are almost entirely white except for a narrow blackish leading edge, trailing edges, and tips of the primaries. The head is white with a heavy golden-yellow wash on the crown, nape, hindneck, and sides of the neck; the remainder of the head and neck are also sometimes faintly washed with golden-yellow. The iris is dark, the heavy, long, tick bill is bright pink with a pale blue tip, and the legs and feet are pale blue-grey to pinkish-grey.

Sub-adult
Prior to attaining full adult plumage, individuals progress through a prolonged subadult plumage. This plumage is more or less similar to the plumage of the adult but retains some brown on the back of the head and hindneck and has somewhat more extensive blackish and dark brown on the upperside of the wings and, in younger birds, a variable amount of dark mottling on the lower back. The brown wash on the back of the head is the last characteristic of immature plumage that is lost prior to attaining full adult plumage.

Immature
This species goes through a complex series of immature plumages throughout the first 10-20 years of life, gradually acquiring a primarily white adult plumage. Young immatures are similar to the entirely dark brown juveniles but gradually acquire pale feathering on the face and underparts, although these pale areas are often separated by persistent brown feathering across the throat in younger immatures. These young immatures also acquire isolated white patches on the middle secondary coverts on the upperside of the wings. As they mature, the face and underparts continue to whiten, later followed by the underwings, back, scapulars, and rump; a second white patch then appears on the innermost secondary coverts on the upperside of the wings. Individuals at this stage often appear mottled with brown and white on the upperparts, although they retain an extensive area of dark brown on the back of the head and hindneck. The tip of the bill also becomes pale bluish at this stage. Older immatures begin to approach the plumage pattern of the adult in that they are largely white on the underparts, upperparts, head, and neck, but retain a brownish area on the back of the head and hindneck, variable brown mottling on the upperparts, more extensive brown mottling on the underwings, and more extensive blackish or dark brown on the inner half of the upperwings (resulting in an isolated white patch on the middle part of the wing).

Juvenile
This plumage is held throughout the first year. Juvenal birds are entirely dark brown, including the body, wings, tail, and head, although there is often a small amount of pale or whitish feathering on below the eye or, in slightly older birds, around the base of the bill. The feather shafts of the outer primaries are whitish, creating a pale flash in the outer part of the wing. The large bill is entirely bright pink, and the legs and feet are pale blue-grey.

Measurements
Total Length: 84-94 cm
Wingspan: 213-230 cm
Mass: 3,700-6,600 g

Source: Harrison (1983); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sevice (2008)

Biology

Identification

This species is considerably larger and heavier than any other albatross species occurring in British Columbia, and this should be obvious in any side-by-side comparison with other species. Most individuals observed in North America are juveniles or very young immatures, which are most likely to be confused with the much more abundant and widespread Black-footed Albatross. Juvenile Short-tailed Albatross is immediately distinguished, however, by its massive and bright pink bill (bill of Black-footed Albatross usually dark, rarely dusky-pink, but never bright pink). This feature alone should be sufficient to identify virtually any juvenile Short-tailed Albatross. Subadult Short-tailed Albatrosses, with their black-and-white plumage, may potentially be confused with Laysan Albatross, but never show the solidly dark brown upperparts and upperwings of that species (the back and upperwing coverts always show some white patches or mottling). As well, Short-tailed Albatross never shows the dark smudge around the eye as is present in Laysan Albatross, which makes the eye much more prominent on the largely pale or whitish face. The bill of Laysan Albatross is pale and pinkish, similar to Short-tailed Albatross, but is not as bright pink nor is it as massive as in that species.
Vocalizations

The Short-tailed Albatross is generally silent at sea.

Breeding Ecology

This species is a non-breeding visitor to B.C.
Foraging Ecology

Most foraging occurs in areas of upwelling along the edge of the continental shelf, primarily where the water is 200-1,000 m in depth. It rarely forages in waters that are shallower than 200 m or deeper than 1,000 m, and juveniles typically forage in shallower and more nearshore waters than adults. The diet of the Short-tailed Albatross is not fully known, but does include squid, fish, fish eggs, and crustaceans (shrimp, etc.), and it has been observed scavenging blubber at the carcasses of marine mammals. In historical times, there is evidence that it may have scavenged salmon carcasses at the mouths of coastal rivers. Most food is consumed at or near the surface of the water. This species forages alone or associates with mixed-species feeding flocks of seabirds that include fulmars, shearwaters, kittiwakes, and other albatrosses. In areas where it occurs in numbers, it sometimes forms small (or, rarely, large) flocks, but most birds occur singly. Although the Short-tailed Albatross has been reported to be somewhat more timid and less likely to approach ships than other albatrosses, it still regularly follows ships to forage on the discarded offal.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2008)

Habitat


This species was formerly the dominant species of nearshore albatross along the Pacific coast of North America, and the few recent records for British Columbia closely follow this trend. Almost all observations occur along the edge of the continental shelf and along the continental slope, where upwellings associated with submarine canyons and other landforms bring nutrients to the surface and support a very high level of marine productivity. This species is less frequent in the vast, deep offshore waters beyond the continental slope, and evidence suggests that individuals primarily use this area for transit rather than for foraging.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990a); COSEWIC (2003); Environment Canada (2008); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2008)

Distribution

Global Range

This species breeds only on a few small islands off the south coast of Japan (Torishima, Minami-Kojima), although single birds and pairs have attempted to breed recently at Midway Island in the Hawaiian Archipelago. It ranges widely throughout the northern Pacific Ocean as a non-breeder, with most birds residing in waters along the Aleutian Islands and in the southern Bering Sea off Alaska. Smaller numbers occur along the southern and southeastern coast of Alaska as well as farther south along the Pacific coast of North America to California.
BC Distribution

Non-breeding
Rare (but increasing) throughout the year in pelagic waters off the west coast of British Columbia, with records spread more or less evenly throughout all seasons. Most records are from waters along the edge of the continental shelf or above the continental slope, and span the entire length of the coast from the Queen Charlotte Islands and Queen Charlotte Sound south to waters west of Vancouver Island. It is accidental in the sheltered waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There are few records from deepwater habitats west of the continental shelf, but observer coverage in this region is poor and the species is likely regular throughout this region as well. It is currently known from fewer than 30 recent records in the province, but populations are increasing rapidly throughout its range and it is now appearing annually in small numbers off the west coast of North America.

Source: Environment Canada (2008)

Conservation

Population and Conservation Status

Historical accounts suggest that this species was the most abundant and widespread species of albatross in nearshore areas along the Pacific coast of North America, even occurring in the sheltered waters of the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound. This species suffered massive population losses throughout the 19th century, however, due to the harvesting of adults, chicks, and eggs for food on the Japanese islands on which it bred. For example, during the 18-year period between 1885 and 1903, an estimated 5 million Short-tailed Albatrosses were harvested from the breeding colony at Torishima Island, which was only one of 14 islands at which the species was known to breed. It is uncertain how large the entire world population was during the early 1800s, but it obviously numbered well into the millions of individuals, most of which spent the non-breeding portion of their lives along the Pacific coast of North America (especially in Alaska). Massive harvests continued unabated into the early part of the 20th century and occurred to such a scale that the species was feared to be extinct by the 1940s (less than 50 years after numbering into the millions of individuals). In 1950, however, the species was again recorded nesting on Torishima Island, although there were fewer than 10 pairs remaining at the colony that had been estimated to contain 300,000 pairs only a few decades earlier. All harvesting activities were halted and the species subsequently began to make a slow (and, in recent years, rapid) recovery.

Despite being abundant along the coast of B.C. throughout most of the 1800s, this species went unrecorded in the province between ~1889 and 1958. Occasional reports started to again appear throughout the 1960s, although it was not until the 1990s that the species began to be recorded with any regularity. This increase in reports parallels population increases at the primary breeding colony on Torishima Island. The population at this colony has increased at a rate of 6.5-8% annually for the past 50 years and current population estimates now indicate a total world population of 2,500-2,700 birds, of which about half are reproductive adults (totaling ~300-400 pairs). It has recently recolonized another island (Minami-Kojima), which now supports ~30 breeding pairs. The current population doubling time is approximately 10 years, and this species is making a remarkable comeback from the brink of extinction. It is now seen in relatively large numbers throughout the Aleutians and southern Bering Sea of Alaska, where the bulk of the non-breeding population occurs, and some flocks in this region have exceeded 150 individuals. As the population continues to increase at such a rapid pace, it is likely that the Short-tailed Albatross will soon become a regular, and eventually perhaps even relatively common, inhabitant of nearshore pelagic waters off the coast of British Columbia.

Due to its low numbers, this species is currently classified as Threatened by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) and red-listed (endangered) by the British Columbia Conservation Data Centre.

Source: COSEWIC (2003); Environment Canada (2008); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2008)

Taxonomy


This species is monotypic, with no recognized subspecies. With the exception of the two species of ‘sooty’ albatross in the southern hemisphere, all albatrosses were formerly placed in the all-encompassing genus Diomedea. Recently, however, this genus was dismembered and four species of albatrosses found in the northern Pacific Ocean were placed in the genus Phoebastria. All of British Columbia’s albatrosses are now included in this genus.

Source: Sullivan (2006a)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
COSEWIC
NativeS1NRedT (Nov 2013)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References


Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-04-22 10:04:42 PM]
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