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Is Scotland's Lonely Albatross Dead?

Bird On! News
26th April 1996

Since 1972 the huge Gannet colony at Hermaness, Shetland, has had a lonely visitor: Albert the Black-browed Albatross Diomedea melanophrys. He has his own ledge and has normally occupied it for a good part of the breeding season from February or March onwards.

This year he is missing and sadly the local birdwatchers have concluded that he may be dead. These are long- lived birds but if he is the bird first seen during 1967 in another Scottish Gannet colony, Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, he would be well over 30 years old: albatrosses only start visiting colonies when they are about 5 years of age.

Gannets are big birds but Albert weighed in at about 10 lbs (5 kgs). He was twice as heavy and his wing span of 8 feet (about 240 cms) was almost half as big again as a Gannet. He was seen by thousands of keen birdwatchers and, particularly, twitchers who would make an annual pilgrimage to Hermaness to get him on their annual list - the only reliable albatross for the tick-list to be found in the North Atlantic.

Black browed Albatross populations are found all the way round the southern hemisphere but the birds hardly ever penetrate even as far North as the Tropic of Capricorn. There is speculation that Albert may have been carried across the tropics on board ship as these birds use dynamic soaring to fly for long distances, This involves using the power of the wind over the waves to provide lift so that they can fly without expending the huge amount of energy needed for flapping flight. The tropics are relatively windless and so provide a barrier.

Albert will have been flying around the North Atlantic outside the breeding season - as well as on feeding trips from the colony - and he will have travelled well over a million miles over the years. Some days he may have travelled over 500 miles and so that million miles is a very conservative estimate and the real distance could easily be more than two million!

In all that time he will not have seen another Black-browed Albatross. However unlike the sad case of the female Passenger Pigeon, Martha, who died in a zoo on 1 September 1914, about 25 years after the last wild bird was seen Albert had about 2,500,000 other Black-browed Albatrosses happily living in the wild - but in the Southern Hemisphere.

Not all crossings from one end of the world to the other are as unfruitful. It has been proved that the Great Skuas breeding in Scotland - including on Hermaness within a few hundred yards of Albert's ledge - originated from ancestors in the Antarctic. The chance colonisation of the North by these globe-trotting birds probably happened only a few thousand years ago at most and Scotland was colonised as little as a two or three hundred years ago.

One might think that Albert was a lone and lost outcast from Black-browed Albatross-dom but possibly not. For 34 seasons, until it was shot in 1894, there was a Black-browed Albatross in one of the colonies on the Faeroes - if it was Albertina, 90 years and 200 mile to the South-east who is to say there would not have been a few new Berties around?

There is a chance that Albert will return. If he does we will get the story posted as soon as we know on Bird-On! In the meantime you may want to visit the page about Albert from the Shetland Bird Club. The Shetland Bird Club can be contacted through Mrs R. Kim Suddaby, 92 Sandveien, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 09RU, Scotland.

Chris Mead

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