Los Farallones

Dispatches from Point Blue’s field station on the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge

First Short-tailed Albatross in 124 years!

On 6 November, 2011, PRBO biologists documented the first Short-tailed Albatross from the Farallon Islands in 124 years. This species used to be the most common albatross seen along California’s shoreline. Historical accounts mention that it was “numerous” in nearshore waters, including around the Farallon Islands. Short-tailed Albatrosses, however, did not breed on the Farallones or anywhere near the California Coast. In fact, its primary breeding grounds were located on islands scattered across the western Pacific Ocean south of Japanand in the East China Sea.
Short-tailed Albatrosses make an amazing 2,500 mile migration from their breeding grounds off Japan to the California Current and the Gulf of Alaska to take advantage of the nutrient-rich upwellings in these regions.  They feed largely on squid and fish on the surface of the ocean, and are often found feeding on the offal discharged by fishing boats. They are truly impressive birds, with a wingspan of seven and a half feet, making it the largest albatross regularly occurring in the northern hemisphere. Juvenile Short-tailed Albatrosses are solidly dark brown and take an estimated six years to attain the largely white plumage and golden head of a breeding adult. 
Short-tailed Albatross mated pair, probably at Torishima Island.
Juvenile at Cordell Bank, Marin Co., 16 Sep 2009 (Photo by Tom Blackman)
There are two other species of albatrosses that occur in California waters to find food, the smaller Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses. Both of these species, though, are relatively common in Californiawaters, and in fact, the Black-footed Albatross is seen regularly from Southeast Farallon Island.
During the second half of the 19th century, feather hunters killed an estimated 10 million Short-tailed Albatrosses on the breeding islands. Due to this intense hunting pressure as well as two volcanic eruptions at its primary breeding colony on Torishima, the species was thought to be extinct by 1949. Thankfully, a few dozen immature birds survived at sea away from the breeding islands, and with a hunting ban in place, the species returned to Torishima and began breeding again in 1954. Coordinated conservation efforts by the Japanese, Canadian, and US governments have allowed the species to undergo an amazing recovery, so that the population estimate as of 2007 has increased to approximately 2,500 individuals. 
Breeding colony of Short-tailed Albatross at Torishima Island 
The majority of these birds breed on the Torishima and Mukojima islands off Japan, but in the last ten years a few individuals have shown signs of breeding on Kure and Midway Atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and just last year a pair successfully fledged a chick on Midway. Despite these successes, Short-tailed Albatrosses are particularly susceptible to becoming by-catch in the long-line fishing industry and consuming plastics that they mistake for food, which can directly kill them or cause them to die from malnutrition. Both of these threats are hampering efforts by conservationists to recover this species.
As a result of the population increase over the last 60 years, Short-tailed Albatross has slowly started to reappear in California waters, with the first record since about 1900 being a bird seen 40 miles west of San Clemente Island on 28 August 1977. Since that date there have been a total of 33 records in Californiawaters, 15 of which have occurred since 2007, and two of which were seen in San Francisco County waters. However, the last time that a Short-tailed Albatross was seen at Southeast Farallon Island was when one individual was collected by an ornithologist on 20 March 1887.
So, you can imagine the excitement when Oscar Johnson spotted a large, dark brown albatross with a huge, pink bill flying behind a fishing boat that was offloading offal about two miles west of the island. After a few moments of disbelief, he yelled into the radio to notify the rest of the island’s residents (Jim, Liz, Sam, and Megan), who ran up to the lighthouse to witness a species that barely escaped the maw of extinction.  With high-fives all around, we watched an immature Short-tailed Albatross fly to within a mile of the island before turning around and heading back west to the deep water zone where albatrosses are normally found.

Immediately after seeing the bird, Oscar sat down and sketched it in his notebook and wrote down some details on how it was identified. Here is a scan of that drawing.