Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Shy Albatross

The port of Lakes Entrance at the eastern end of the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria is not known as one from which birders make regular pelagic trips out to the edge of the continental shelf. Well known pelagic birding trip ports include Port Fairy and Portland in western Victoria to access the Southern Ocean and Wollongong and Newcastle in NSW to access the Southern Pacific Ocean. The ocean off Lakes Entrance is the Tasman Sea and is also often referred to as Bass Strait, though the Strait begins further west.

Continental shelves, the area where the relatively shallow coastal seabed plunges to the ocean depths, can be “hot” places for pelagic birds where upwelling of water from the deep can create a rich food chain. From Lakes Entrance, the edge of the shelf is some 80 kms out – a return trip to the shelf of 160 kms is one good reason why pelagic birding trips are not undertaken from Lakes Entrance.

We did not have to go this far to see pelagic birds, in fact the maximum distance we travelled south from the entrance was about 12 kms. Large pelagic birds such as albatross can be found here close to shore, even in calm weather, which is a blessing for birders with uncertain sea legs and makes bird photography a lot easier. 

A Shy Albatross. The long narrow wings are perfect for gliding - they can travel for huge distances without flapping their wings using the wind to conserve energy.
I suspect one reason why pelagic species can be found so close to shore is due to the operation of a large fishing fleet from Lakes Entrance. As the trawlers return to port the catch is sorted and the by-catch is thrown overboard. The larger sea birds have learnt to follow the boats in for an easy meal. There was a good example of this on one trip out.

The narrow dark edge to the otherwise white under wing and dark patch on the leading wing edge where it joins the body are a guide to identifying this as a Shy Albatross.
As we were leaving the entrance a large fishing trawler was just entering the entrance and right behind the boat were about 12 albatross gathering the unwanted fish being thrown overboard, even at this late stage. It was too dark to identify the species of albatross and there may have been more than one species present, however we only encountered Shy Albatross later that day so there is a good chance these were also Shy’s.

Coming in to land - the webbed feet are almost transparent with the light behind and blood vessels can be seen in the webs. Note this bird has a metal band in its left leg.
Same bird as previous image about to land - note metal band on left leg.
Other species of albatross regularly seen off Lakes Entrance during late summer and autumn include Buller’s and Yellow-nosed Albatross. Other species would be present during the winter and spring months.

The Shy Albatross is the only albatross to breed in Australia – on Albatross Island in Bass Strait. The scientific name is Thalassarche cauta. The genus name Thalassarche means ruler of the sea and seems appropriate. The species name cauta was given by John Gould in 1840 and means cautious or wary - from Latin cautus meaning cautious or heedful. As with many bird names shy seems inexplicable given this albatross is far from shy around boats, which they will readily approach, especially if a free feed is on offer. A number of very similar sub species are now recognised, White-capped (steadi) and Chatham (eremita).

The bird from previous image at rest on the water.
There are three sub species Shy (cauta), White-capped and Chatham. You can tell this is a Shy by the yellow base of the upper bill ridge.
The bird behind is an immature Shy Albatross - note the dark tipped grey bill. The adult bird has a fleshy coloured bill with a yellow tip.

Albatross are magnificent birds and with huge wingspans they certainly rule the southern ocean, however long line fishing has decimated their numbers, particularly for some species. Lets hope changes can be made to fishing methods and gear to reduce the losses and allow the populations of these long lived slow reproducers to recover in time.


  1. Ripping shots of some beautiful birds John :-)

  2. You were lucky to see the Albatross so close to land, and I agree about the fishing boats being an attraction for them. Do you know you can report the banded bird if you can read the number on the band? I sent one report which turned out to have been banded by a French team.

  3. There was a newly deceased albatross on Undertow Beach at Cape Paterson this morning 14/7/2014. No sign of dog attack(? - no scattering of feathers etc) but it had skin, feathers missing from its chest area. Beautiful/huge looking bird. First one I've ever seen.