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Tuatara: Volume 6, Issue 3, December 1957

A Guide to the Larger Oceanic Birds (Albatrosses and Giant Petrel) of New Zealand Waters

page 99

A Guide to the Larger Oceanic Birds (Albatrosses and Giant Petrel) of New Zealand Waters

The birds considered here are all, with the exception of the giant petrel, members of the family Diomedeidae, the albatrosses. Although variable in size they are all large birds with long narrow wings and a distinctive energy-conserving method of flight.

The petrel order, Procellariiformes, to which the albatross family belongs, is, apart from a combination of less striking features, characterised by the structure of the bill. This is covered by a number of distinct horny plates instead of a single sheath on each mandible as in other orders of birds, and the nostrils open on the upper bill surface at the ends of short tubes. A dead albatross on a beach may always be recognised by the large bill with a prominent terminal hook, the characteristic covering of plates mentioned above, and by the nostril tubes which are separated by the upper bill plate. At sea, their large size, long narrow wings and characteristic gliding flight are distinctive. The giant petrel is the only other oceanic bird which may be mistaken for an albatross, and although it belongs to another family of petrels, it is included here to avoid confusion with the Sooty Albatrosses.

The distribution of albatrosses is interesting. Of the thirteen species of albatross currently recognised, three belong to the North Pacific, one is equatorial but ranges south into temperate waters, while the remaining nine species with some four races or sub-species, are confined to the southern ocean between 30° and 60° south latitude. Apart from occasional southern species, probably carried north by ships, albatrosses do not now inhabit the North Atlantic, although fossil bones of Diomedea have been reported from Europe in rocks of Lower Miocene age.

Most ornithologists divide the thirteen southern forms into three groups, each containing birds of similar appearance and obvious relationship. It is this arrangement which is followed here. The first group to be considered contains the largest flying birds, the Wandering and Royal Albatrosses (genus Diomedea). Both are of about equal size and easily recognised by their white backs and tails. It is this group for which the page 100 term ‘albatross’, as generally understood, is reserved. The large white albatrosses commonly seen in Wellington Harbour and our off-shore coastal waters are usually Wandering Albatrosses and the species usually credited with a giant wing span. Seventeen feet has been mentioned by quite reputable journals as a normal wing span in Wandering Albatrosses. However, of the large numbers which have been accurately measured by careful workers, none has exceeded 11 ½ ft. Murphy, discussing wing span, observes that ‘the 12 ft. albatross needs verification; the 13 ft. albatross is probably a myth’. Of the few the writer has measured none had a wing span greater than 10 ft. 9 in.

The second group, which also belongs to the genus Diomedea, includes those albatrosses generally referred to as Mollymawks. These are smaller than the great albatrosses and easily distinguished from them by the dark back, wings and tail (see figs. 1 and 2), and the usually more colourful bill.

The Sooty Albatrosses (Phoebetria) make up the third group. These are somewhat smaller than the Mollymawks and uniformly dark in colouration. They have dark bills, exceptionally long wings, and a long pointed tail, this latter in marked contrast to the short square tail of the Great Albatrosses and Mollymawks. Of the two species of Sooty Albatrosses, one is not positively known from New Zealand waters. The other, while not regularly observed at sea except in more southerly latitudes, is sometimes washed ashore on our west coast beaches as far north as the Auckland Peninsula.

While the style of flight is not uniform in the order Procellariiformes, it is similar in the larger members. These agree in having long wings with numerous short secondary feathers. Such a long narrow wing gives a maximum efficiency in gliding flight, which, while fundamentally characteristic of the whole order, is seen most clearly in the albatrosses. The wings are held horizontal or downwards, not upwards as in the soaring flight of eagles and vultures, and are frequently flexed as if adjusting balance. The velocity of the wind appears to determine the speed and ease of flight. A minimum wind velocity of about 10 m.p.h. seems necessary to sustain the type of flight practised by an albatross. Given these minimum requirements the bird rises at a steep angle against the wind, swings across wind with one wing pointing downwards, the other upwards, before finally making a rapid descent downwind and repeating the circular movement. From the water, albatrosses achieve flight by running across the surface with stiffly beating wings until airborne. As a rule the actual launching takes place from the crest of a wave after a short run of only a few yards. However, under light wind conditions, or during a calm, flight may not be attained in under 100 yards, and when achieved is usually laboured with a heavy wing flap, the birds soon settling again on the water, where they are frequently observed with the bill tucked into the scapular feathers and apparently asleep. High wind velocities of 40-50 m.p.h. induce faster, more buoyant flight, accompanied by more rocking in the apparently increased air turbulence. Under these conditions, page 101 wing flap is considerably reduced but wing flexing may be increased. The tail in Albatrosses and Mollymawks is comparatively small, and although somewhat longer in Mollymawks, in neither group does it play any part in normal gliding flight. It is, however, spread when alighting or when gliding slowly down to the water under conditions of near calm.

Most albatrosses inhabiting the southern ocean are ashore, and commence breeding, in spring and early summer months. The Royal Albatrosses, the species most intensively studied and to which the following notes refer, is ashore on its breeding territory in October. The nest is a low mound of soil, peat, and other debris, with a hollow crown on top roughly lined with grass. A single, large whitish egg is produced during late November or early December. Incubation commences immediately, the chick hatching some seventy-nine days later, about the middle of February. For the first five weeks of life, the chick is guarded by one or other of the parents, but thereafter, except for feeding which continues until it flies, it is left to its own devices.

The fluffy down has disappeared by the thirty-fourth week and the fully-fledged juvenile departs between the thirty-sixth and thirty-eighth
Text-Figure Upper surfaces to show distribution of colour. Fig. 1, a mollymawk; Fig. 2, an albatross on which the dark areas may be greater or lesser than shown.

Upper surfaces to show distribution of colour. Fig. 1, a mollymawk; Fig. 2, an albatross on which the dark areas may be greater or lesser than shown.

page 102 weeks of life, usually during the latter half of October, some ten months after the egg was laid. Apparently as a result of the prolonged breeding season (it is spring again before the chick leaves the nest) Royal, and probably Wandering Albatrosses also, breed only every second year. Mollymawks, with a shorter cycle, apparently breed each year.

Immature Mollymawks are not treated here at any great length, as all are difficult to determine either in flight or on the water alongside a vessel. Usually first-year birds have a black bill and a darker head and neck than the adult. Underwing pattern is generally similar to the adult although during the first few months of flight may be partially obscured by a dark flush. Of the great albatrosses, immature ‘Wanderers’ are a rich brown with the face white and a largely white under-wing, while immature ‘Royals’ resemble the adult.

Albatrosses feed chifly on squids and fishes, but also eat other marine animals (including small sea birds) and galley refuse from ships. Fishing vessels in our coastal waters are frequently attended by numbers of albatrosses scrambling for discarded offal.

While the specific status of most albatrosses breeding in the New Zealand region is well understood there still appears some doubt as to the identity of the races of Black-browed Mollymawk breeding on Macquarie Island.

Key to the Albatrosses, Mollymawks, and Giant Petrel

The following key is designed to facilitate identification of adults in flight, or settled alongside a ship. The reference numbers, e.g. 1 (6), are alternatives. Where there is not agreement with 1, refer to 6. Where the agreement is with 6, then proceed to the next number, i.e. 7, etc. The illustrations show colour pattern only, not relative size or necessarily proportion. For details of life-history, etc., the reader should consult the references following the key.
1 (6)Bird dark overall, rump not white.
2 (5)Wings particularly long and narrow, body of moderate size, tail pointed Bill wholly black with a fleshy line (sulcus) along lower mandible.(The Sooty Albatrosses)
3 (4)Head black, back pale greyish brown, wings brownish black, body pale brownish. Mandibular sulcus bright blue. Young less brightly coloured, the sulcus brown or white. The dark head and light back show clearly in flight.Light Mantled Sooty Albatross (Fig. 13) Phoebetria palpebrata
Breeding: Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes and Macquarie Islands and
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Plate I Fig. 3, Diomedea melanophrys melanophrys. Fig. 4, D. melanophrys impavida. Fig. 5, D. melanophrys (probably D. m. melanophrys), juvenile. Fig. 6, D. cauta salvini. Fig. 7, D. cauta cauta. Fig. 8, D. cauta eremita.

Plate I
Fig. 3, Diomedea melanophrys melanophrys. Fig. 4, D. melanophrys impavida. Fig. 5, D. melanophrys (probably D. m. melanophrys), juvenile. Fig. 6, D. cauta salvini. Fig. 7, D. cauta cauta. Fig. 8, D. cauta eremita.

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most other sub-antarctic islands. Ranging into New Zealand waters, but not commonly observed at sea.
4 (3)Head black, no light back, wings and tail brownish black. Mandibular sulcus orange. Young may have the upper basal region of the neck pale.Sooty Albatross
Breeding: Islands of South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Not positively recorded from New Zealand waters, but likely to occur here.Phoebetria fusca
5 (2)Wings not particularly long and narrow, body stout, tail rather blunt. Bill pale horn-coloured with a prominent parallel nostril tube. Body and neck dark brown, face speckled buff brown, eye pale, (juveniles sooty black overall). In flight a groove shows in upper neck. There is often a pronounced notch present at junction of primaries and secondaries. A percentage of white birds with black markings occurs in all populations.Giant Petrel or Nelly (Fig. 14), Macronectes giganteus
Breeding: Most sub-antarctic islands and some south temperate islands. Ranging widely in New Zealand waters and entering harbours.
6 (1)Bird partly white, with a white rump.
7 (10)Back and tail white, bill pink.(The Great Albatrosses)
8 (9)Brownish speckles on head, neck and back. Eyelids white, blue or pink. Tip of tail often brown. Cutting edge of upper mandible clear horn colour. Juveniles brown overall with white faces. Older birds show progressively less brown with age.Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans
Breeding: Antipodes, Auckland, Macquarie and Campbell Islands, and islands of the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Ranging all New Zealand seas and throughout the southern ocean.
9 (8)No brownish speckles. Head, neck, back and tail pure white at all ages. Eyelids and cutting edge of upper mandible black. Tip of tail usually white.Royal Albatross, Diomedea epomorphora
Breeding: Campbell and Auckland Islands — large sub-species, D.e. epomophora. Chatham Islands and Taiaroa Head — small sub-species, D.e. sandfordi. Both sub-species ranging north into New Zealand seas, the smaller sub-species ranging east to Chile.
10 (7)Back and tail dark.(The Mollmawks)
11 (14)Bill mainly grey.
12 (13)Bill pale blue-grey with a yellow hook. Sides of head and upper neck slightly flushed with pale grey. Dark margins of underwing very narrow. A large mollymawk.White-Capped Mollymawk (Fig. 7), Diomedea cauta cauta
page break
Plate II Fig. 9, Diomedea bulleri. Fig. 10, D. chrysostoma. Fig. 11, D. chrysostoma, juvenile. Fig. 12, D. chlororhynchus. Fig. 13, Phoebetria palpebrata. Fig. 14, Macronectes giganteus.

Plate II
Fig. 9, Diomedea bulleri. Fig. 10, D. chrysostoma. Fig. 11, D. chrysostoma, juvenile. Fig. 12, D. chlororhynchus. Fig. 13, Phoebetria palpebrata. Fig. 14, Macronectes giganteus.

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Breeding: Auckland Islands and islands in Bass Strait. Ranging throughout New Zealand seas.
13 (12)Bill sooty grey, upper and lower margins pale horn-coloured. Head and neck pearl-grey, forehead with white cap. Dark margins of underwing very narrow. Salvins Mollymawk (Fig. 6), Diomedea cauta salvini Breeding: Snares and Bounty Islands. Ranging north in New Zealand to at least East Cape and east to Chile and Peru.
14 (11)Bill mainly black, or yellow, but not grey.
15 (20)Bill mainly black, with yellow margin.
16 (17)Upper margin of bill bright yellow, lower margin and remainder of bill black. Head and neck white with a very faint flush of grey of variable extent which wears quickly. Dark leading margin of underwing rather broad, trailing margins very narrow.
Yellow-Nosed Mollymawk (Fig. 12), Diomedea chlororhynchus Breeding: Islands of the south temperate Atlantic and Indian oceans. Ranging east to Australia and straggling to northern New Zealand.
17 (16)Upper and lower margins of bill bright yellow, remainder black.
18 (19)Head and neck dark grey, forehead with white cap. Upper bill plate noticeably expanded at base. Dark leading edge of underwing broad, trailing edge very narrow.
Buller's Mollymawk (Fig. 9), Diomedea bulleri Breeding: Chatham, Solander and Snares Islands. Ranging north to northern New Zealand, south to Auckland Islands and east to Chile and Peru.
19 (18)Head and neck dark grey, no white cap. Front and upper face of bill hook reddish, upper bill plate not expanded at base. Dark margins of underwing relatively broad, the hinder slightly narrower.
Grey-Headed Mollymawk (Figs. 10 and 11), Diomedea chrysostoma Breeding: Antipodes, Campbell and Macquarie Islands, and islands of South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Ranging north to New Zealand and throughout the sub-antarctic zone.
20 (15)Bill mainly yellow.
21 (24)Bill yellow with a pink hook.
22 (23)Head and neck white. Dark margins of underwing very wide. Eye honey coloured. New Zealand black-browed Mollymawk (Fig. 4), Diomedea melanophrys impavida
Breeding: Antipodes, Campbell and (Macquarie ?) Islands. Ranging widely in New Zealand seas.
23 (22)Head and neck white; a greyish collar may be present on back of upper neck, but wears quickly. Dark margins of underwing rather narrow. Eye dark. Black-Browed Mollymawk (Fig. 3), Diomedea melanophrys melanophrys
Breeding: Islands of South Atlantic and Indians Oceans and possibly Macquarie Island. Ranging into New Zealand waters at least as far north as Kaikoura Peninsula.page 107
24 (21)Bill bright lemon yellow, including hook. Head and neck dark sooty grey, no white cap. Dark margins of underwing very narrow. Chatham Island Mollymawk (Fig. 8), diomedea cauta eremita Breeding: Pyramid Rock, Chatham Islands and largely confined to the vicinity. Straggling to New Zealand.

The writer is indebted to Dr. R. A. Falla for helpful discussion and for other courtesies. To Mr. A. J. Black of Dunedin, grateful thanks are due for the many opportunities afforded of observing albatrosses at sea from his vessel ‘M.V. Alert’, and for landings made, often under difficult conditions, on islands where birds were ashore breeding.


Murphy, R. C., 1936.—Oceanic Birds of South America, vol. 1. The American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Richdale, L. E., 1939.—A Royal Albatross Nesting on the Otago Peninsula, New Zealand. The Emu 38, 467-488, illus.

Richdale, L. E., 1942.— Supplementary Notes on the Royal Albatross. The Emu 41, 169-184, and The Emu 41, 253-264.

Sorensen, J. H., 1950.—The Royal Albatross. Cape Expedition Series Bull. No. 2. Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Wellington.

Sorensen, J. H., 1950.—The Light Mantled Sooty Albatross at Campbell Island. Cape Expedition Series Bull. No. 8. Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Wellington.

Fleming, C. A., (Ed.), 1953.—Checklist of New Zealand Birds. A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington.

Jack, A., 1953.— Feathered Wings. A study of the Flight of Birds. Methuen and Co. Ltd., London.

Alexander, W. B., 1955.—Birds of the Ocean, 2nd Ed. Putnam, London.

Oliver, W. R. B., 1955.— New Zealand Birds, 2nd Ed. A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington.