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…).
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.
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.