Gliding amongst the gannets and the puffins is one of the most glamorous seabirds of the southern oceans, a black-browed albatross. But we’re not here to talk about the southern oceans, in fact this black-browed albatross has found itself at the RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs nature reserve on the UK’s east coast. After a winter of exploring European waters, he’s returned to our shores and set the wildlife scene alight with images and stories of your experiences witnessing this treasured tourist. But what is an albatross doing so far north? Where should they be? We caught up with the BirdLife International’s Marine Programme team to find out more.
Gannet or albatross?
Black-browed albatross and gannet photographed by supporter Phil Palmer
Many of you have been sending in your photos, just like Phil who sent us a selection from a recent trip. But what was Phil looking for when trying to find an albatross among Bempton’s some half a million seabirds?
In terms of wingspan, there’s not much variation between the two. Gannets are one of the UK’s largest seabirds with a wingspan just shy of two metres and hold their own against the notoriously large albatrosses. Black-brows are, admittedly, one of the “smaller” species of albatross but before we go on, just pace out two big steps on your floor - still quite big aren’t they (do one and half more steps for a wandering albatross...). Their black backed wings and airbrushed eyebrows are the big give away that this is definitely not a gannet. Gannets are also built for speed. Perfectly designed with their streamlined bill, head and tucked up wings to enter the water at over 70 mph, diving deep to catch their food. Albatrosses, on the other hand, take a more laid-back approach and are happy bobbing around on the surfacing picking up what they can, choosing not to dive.
Black-browed albatross gliding over passing boat - Phil Palmer
Where are black-browed albatrosses from?
There is a reason we don’t often see these ocean gliders in the UK, they’re not from round here. We caught up with Bethany Clark, Seabird Researcher for BirdLife International, to learn a bit more.
“Black-browed Albatrosses are normally found in the southern hemisphere, travelling around the polar waters of the Southern Oceans. They breed in several remote locations, mainly on the Falkland Islands, Chile and South Georgia. We know a lot about these journeys because scientists from around the world have been using tracking devices to follow these wide-ranging birds for research and conservation. Most tracks belong to adults, but a new project led by scientists at the British Antarctic Survey is shedding light on the movements of juveniles, which spend their first few years wandering the oceans.”
Black-browed albatross natural range across southern Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans – BirdLife International
Beth continued “On a number of occasions over the last few years, a single black-browed albatross has been spotted in East Yorkshire, as well as Heligoland, an island gannet colony in Germany. These sightings are likely to be all of the same individual, it is extremely rare for an albatross to cross over the equator in the Atlantic and spend time in the Northern Hemisphere”.
It is likely that this individual was blown off course following heavy ocean storms and instead of heading east, following oceanic trade winds, it went north. This may have thrown off its internal compass and rather than heading back home each winter has stuck around the North Sea. Beth tells us this isn’t the first time this has happened, but it’s by no means common. “A black-browed albatross turned up on the Bass Rock gannet colony [near Edinburgh] in 1967, and then there were near-annual sightings in Shetland between 1972 and 1995. These sightings were also thought to be one individual, which was named “Albert”. Albatrosses can live a long time, the oldest black-browed albatross was 44 years old.” - There is even one Laysan albatross called Wisdom who is estimated to be around 70 years old... she recently raised her latest chick, one of over 30 across her lifetime.
Introducing the Albatross Task Force
In general, black-browed albatrosses are a seabird success story - they are one of the only albatross species not currently listed as threatened and their global population is increasing. However, they are still at risk from threats such as fisheries bycatch (accidental mortality of birds caught in fishing gear), invasive species (often introduced mammals on islands), climate change and pollution. It is important to monitor their populations and continue working on a global joined-up approach to reduce human impacts. Siran Bains, Communications Assistant RSPB, introduces the team working to reduce these threats.
Threats to seabirds in relation to fisheries – BirdLife: State Of the World’s Birds
“Fishery bycatch is one of the main threats to these birds, tens of thousands of albatrosses are killed in fisheries each year. The Albatross Task Force, led by the RSPB and BirdLife International, is a dedicated team aiming to dramatically reduce bycatch of albatross and petrels, achieving exceptional success in target fisheries. The ATF works with governments, NGOs, fisheries and communities on the ground. They have a network of instructors working onboard fishing vessels and in ports to demonstrate simple measures that, when used correctly, rapidly reduce seabird bycatch. These “bycatch mitigation measures” include techniques such as setting hooks at night when most seabirds are less active, using weights to sink baited hooks out of reach, and flying bird-scaring lines to keep birds away from danger. The Task Force also provide expert technical support to ensure these mitigation measures are included in fisheries legislation.
Juvenile black-browed albatross caught on a baited longline hook, off the coast of Brazil. The bird was released by Albatross Task Force instructor Fabiano Peppes – Fabiano Peppes (rspb-images.com)
“Since the ATF was launched in 2006, seabird bycatch mitigation regulations are now in place in six countries in southern Africa and South America - this is an amazing step towards creating sustainable reductions of seabird bycatch. And the success continues, you may have seen that this year Namibia reported a fleet-wide bycatch reduction of over 98%! There is much work to be done to extend this success to ensure that other governments enforce use of these simple but effective measures.”
How can we all help?
A good place to start is spreading the word. Hands up who read something in the last 10 minutes they didn’t know before. Share this blog, have a look on social media for Albatross Task Force on Twitter and Facebook, or Albatross Stories in Instagram. If you would like to donate to support the work of the Albatross Task Force, you can become a Friend of the Albatross helping projects across the globe in communities and governments alike.
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We know a lot about these journeys because scientists from around the world have been using tracking devices to follow these wide-ranging birds for research and conservation.
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There is much work to be done to extend this success to ensure that other governments enforce the use of these simple but effective measures.
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