Grey-headed Albatross?

Big edit:

Ok – it’s not a Grey-headed, and Nikolas has posted why here. That’s the sort of thing I wanted to hear – a reasoned explanation why.


This is a more detailed post about the juvenile albatross that was seen and photographed on the July Sydney pelagic. At the time, consensus seemed to be that it was just a very dark hooded Black-browed Albatross, but the white cheeks were something of interest. I’ve been going through my photos today, and I’m all but convinced that it is now a Grey-headed Albatross, or that I can’t interpret plumage descriptions and this is just a very dark hooded Black-browed Albatross, or that there’s loads of incorrect ID’s out there on the internet (well, we know that this last part is true, but anyway…).

The bird in question

This shot is almost identical to the bird seen yesterday, and at a similar time of year – yesterday’s bird has a slightly whiter chin, and the cheek patch goes back a little bit further. This discussion, and in particular the head of the second bird in the thread is quite similar, and while the underwing doesn’t match yesterday’s bird, the ones further down that are mentioned in Nikolas’ post with photos that Raja took and was ID’d as a 2nd year bird certainly have a similar underwing. The top left and top right bird in Nikolas’ post is all but identical, I would say.

Flight shot showing collar and underwing

HANZAB (vol. 1A, pp. 319-320) describes the juvenile plumage of Grey-headed Albatross and states that the cheeks are the first to go white, and has a description of the neck colouring consistent with this bird. Re: Black-browed Albatross, no mention is made of cheeks going white prior to the rest of the head plumage, which his bird definitely has. On p 320, it states that eye colour is as adult – “dark brown”, and that can be seen in this bird. Contrast this with Black-browed Albatross on p. 298 which states that the eye in juveniles is black-brown. I call this eye light-brown, but colour judgement is always a matter of perception – it may be a light based issue – it was a sunny bright day at sea. The bill description for GHA is “mostly medium to dark brown-grey, contrasting with grey-black ungues” which this bird has. For BBA, the description (p. 298) is “culminicorn and ungues black-brown… rest of bill, dark olive-brown”. The image of GHA on page 305, plate 20, looks pretty good for a match with this bird – I accept that the plate image has a darker hood than this bird.

Shirihai doesn’t go into extensive discussion about seperating juvenile/immature GHA’s from similar species, but in the top left image on page 125, does mention that when plumage is “still fresh, the grey hood appears more complete (often with characteristic pale fore-cheek area) and easily eliminates juv Black-browed/Campbell Albatross. … unlike later note uniform dark bill.” – which is what this individual doesn’t have – a uniform dark bill.

Harrison doesn’t offer too much to the discussion apart from stating that on “average: juveniles show a darker head, breast band and underwing, but there is some overlap (especially in D.m. impavida underwing). Most reliable character at this age is bill colour: Grey-headed fledge with wholly blackish bills, Black-browed with greyish or horn-coloured bills, tipped black)” (Harrison, 1983, p 231). As the discussion above and HANZAB mention, the bill colour isn’t an entirely complete ID factor.

Onley and Schofield state that juvenile GHA’s have a “hood paler than adult[s], usually with whitish cheeks. … Underwing mostly black, with slightly pler grey central panel to inner wing. Bill dark blackish-grey with dark tip.” (Onley & Schofield, 2007, p. 138). For Black-browed Albatross, no mention is made of a white cheek as part of the moulting/aging sequence.

This page has all the shots of the bird I’ve got here, and some others, at a larger size. I’ve done nothing to these images – they’re straight off the camera, converted from RAW to JPG and resized – nothing else has been done. I can provide the original images if they’ll help the discussion.

I am entirely open to this bird not being a Grey-headed Albatross and just being a particularly dark-headed Black-browed Albatross – as noted in many places on the net, these are difficult birds to separate at these ages. If this is your belief, please give reasons – I’m just trying to learn more about differentiating juvenile and immature albatross.




Harrison, P. (1983). Seabirds, an identification guide. Beckenham, Kent: Croom Helm.
Onley, D., & Scofield, P. (2007). Albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters of the world Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Shirihai, H. (2008). The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife (2nd ed.). London: A&C Black.
Steele, W. K., Davies, S. J. J. F., Ambrose, S. J., Marchant, S., Higgins, P. J., & Peter, J. M. (1990). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic birds. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

5 thoughts on “Grey-headed Albatross?

  1. Pingback: Sydney Pelagic – 14 July 2012 | Troy's Birding Blog

  2. Nikolas Haass

    Hi Troy and Joshua,
    I’d like to clarify a few things:
    (1) Because of the field marks I mentioned on my most recent post on the SOSSA website I still believe that the bird we saw last Saturday is a Black-browed Albatross.
    (2) Yes, I did link to Lindsay’s discussion of “white-headed Grey-headed Albatross” (in the SOSSA website). And yes, I did put up a potpourri of birds that were identified as 2nd year Grey-headed Albatross. But not by me. I still believe that all birds I put up in that discussion were Black-browed Albatross. I only added them to the discussion to show how controversial this was.
    (3) Murray Lord’s picture that you linked to as well, is undoubtedly a Grey-headed Albatross! Very different from the bird we saw off Sydney last Saturday and very different from the birds I posted in Lindsay’s discussion. Yes Murray’s bird is a juvenile. Juvenile and adult Grey-headed Albatross are easy to identify. The difficult ones are the 2nd and 3rd year ones.



  3. Troy Post author

    Hi Nikolas,

    Thanks for the reply.

    I’m entirely happy to accept that this bird isn’t a Grey-headed Albatross for the reasons you’ve outlined. I’ve left this more here because I spent a day and a bit researching it, and to add some weight to the argument that these birds are difficult to separate.


  4. Nikolas Haass

    Hi Troy,

    I forgot to mention that the story becomes even more difficult once you add Campbell Albatross to the group. Your eye colour description “light brown” should exclude both BBAL and GHAL (see HANZAB) and rather indicate CAAL (Campbell Albatross). However, as you already had mentioned, the sun was too bright to really judge the eye colour. Even a full adult BBAL could show a lighter brown iris in such strong light. So, there is a good chance that the bird is actually a young CAAL!



    1. Troy Post author

      I also hadn’t paid as much attention as I probably should’ve to the brow – comparing this bird to Murray’s, there’s a clear brow in the one we saw, whereas it’s all but absent in Murray’s bird, and th more I look at the books,the more I see no mention of a brow, nor presence in shots.

      I’m now convinced that we just had a very dark hooded young Black-browed/Campbell Island Albatross.

      Many thanks Nikolas for your input.

      To anyone else reading this, I hope you’ve learnt as much as I have!


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