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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 69

On the Wandering Albatros; with an Exhibition of Specimens, and the Determination of a New Species (Diomedea regia)


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Art. XXVIII.—On the Wandering Albatros; with an Exhibition of Specimens, and the Determination of a New Species (Diomedea regia).

As far back as the 13th February, 1885, I exhibited, at one of the meetings of this Society, a series of specimens of the so-called Wandering Albatros, and expressed my belief that there were two species confounded under the common name of Diomedea exulans, one of them being highly variable in plumage, and the other distinguishable by its larger size and by the constancy of its white head and neck (see Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xvii., p. 450). But, although that was the conviction on my mind, I did not feel justified in setting up the new species and giving it a distinctive name till I could produce incontestable evidence of its existence.

I have recently had an opportunity of examining sixteen beautiful examples, of both sexes and of all ages, and I have no hesitation now in giving this new species the rank to which it is entitled. It is undoubtedly the noblest member of this group, both as to size and beauty, and I have therefore named it Diomedea regia. Of the sixteen examples mentioned above, two (an adult female and a full-grown fledgling) came from Campbell Island, one was brought alive from the Auckland Islands, and the remaining thirteen (most of which were female birds) were taken by fishermen off the New Zealand coast, in the vicinity of Port Chalmers.

In my "Birds of New Zealand" (second edition) I treated this bird as the mature condition of Diomedea exulans; but that I still had my doubts on the subject will appear from the following paragraph on page 192 (vol. ii.): "We cannot suppose that the Albatros is first pure-white, then dark-brown, and, after passing through several intermediate states, pure-white again in extreme old age. Nor would it be altogether safe, from the materials at present before us, to construct a new species. I am inclined rather to account for the differences I have mentioned on the supposition of the existence of dimorphic phases of plumage, as in some other oceanic birds."

In the plate facing page 188 I have given the two forms, the swimming figure representing the fully adult condition of Diomedea exulans, and the standing one being the bird now described as new, which is thus referred to in the text page 231 (p. 192): "Shortly before leaving the Colony, I saw, at Waikanae, a fresh specimen, which had been cast ashore on the coast during a severe gale. It was of small size and evidently a young bird. The whole of the plumage was pure-white without any markings, excepting only the wings, which were black on their upper surface, largely dappled with white, especially towards the humeral flexure; legs and feet flesh-grey. The skin of this bird afterwards came into the possession of Mr. S. W. Silver, of Letcomb Manor, and, with his permission, I have introduced its likeness into my plate of this species, as the back figure standing on a rock."

The two species having been confounded, it may be as well to explain, before proceeding further, that the description given on page 192 of "The Birds of New Zealand" of a "perfectly mature example," received at the Canterbury Museum in 1874, relates to Diomedea regia, as do also the notes contained in the last three paragraphs of descriptive matter on page 193. The description of the young on page 190, and of the ten successive states of plumage in the progress of the bird towards maturity (l.c., pp. 190-192), relate, of course, to the old-established species, Diomedea exulans.

As to the specific distinctness of the two birds there can no longer be any reasonable doubt.

I have much pleasure in submitting to the meeting a series of both species. On one side we have three specimens of the common Wandering Albatros (D. exulans). No. 1 is in the grey plumage of immaturity, with a well-defined white face; No. 2 is in a transitional or progressive state of plumage; and No. 3 represents the fully adult state, with the white plumage prettily speckled and vermiculated on the back and sides. On the other hand we have three specimens of my new species, No. 1 being a full-grown fledgling, with remnants of white down still adhering to the plumage; and Nos. 2 and 3 representing the adult male and female. The latter, I may state, were both taken by fishermen off the Otago coast, whilst the young bird was brought last season from Campbell Island, where it was captured on the nest.

It will be observed at once that the two birds are readily distinguishable. Diomedea regia is appreciably larger than the common species, with a far more powerful bill, which differs further in having a broad black line along the cutting-edge of the upper mandible. In Diomedea exulans even the adult birds are more or less marked or mottled with brown on the crown; in Diomedea regia the head and neck are pure-white from the nest. In Diomedea exulans the bare eyelids are greenish-purple; in Diomedea regia the eyelids from youth to maturity are jet-black. In all other superficial respects the two species are alike; but they keep quite apart on their page 232 breeding-grounds, and do not commingle except when sailing and soaring over the mighty deep, where a community of interest and a common pursuit bring many members of this great family together. So far as I am aware, their breeding-habits are the same; but I am glad to be able to exhibit this evening an egg of Diomedea regia, from Campbell Island, alongside of the egg of Diomedea exulans, from the Auckland Islands. There is a manifest difference in size, as might have been expected. I do not, however, attach any special importance to this, knowing how variable the eggs of the Albatros are as to size. Nor, indeed, can we look for anything very remarkable in the habits of this bird to distinguish it from the common species. There can be no doubt, however, that this royal Albatros is the one singled out for special mention in the following passage in my "Birds of New Zealand" (vol. ii., p. 195): "On my last voyage from the Antipodes, by direct steamer by way of Cape Horn, I made careful observations on the albatroses that followed us. During the first few days from the New Zealand coast (middle of March), and in lat. 56° S., some twenty or more of D. exulans were in daily attendance. Nearly the whole of these were in the dark plumage characteristic of the young birds, the foreneck, breast, and upper parts of the body being of various shades of chocolate-brown, and the face, throat, and abdomen pure-white. In some the brown on the breast was very pale, and in one or more of them was reduced to a mere cloud of speckled markings. One bird, however, and the only one in the white body-plumage mentioned above, was conspicuous among the group. It had the head, neck, back, and all the under-parts of the purest white; and the upper surface of the wings blackish-brown, with a broad white patch at the humeral flexure. It was a bird of considerable size—larger, indeed, than any of the others—and seemed to take much wider sweeps over the ocean, and often approached so near to the stern of our ship that I could detect the pinky flesh-colour of the beak. Its tail was white, with what appeared to be a terminal band of black. In long. 126°, the weather being bitterly cold, all the albatroses had left us. But three days later, lat. 56° 22′ S., long. 107° 9′ W., a pair of young birds (in brown plumage) came up to us about noon; and on the following day (March 21), with a stiff gale blowing, an old one appeared in the midst of a flock of petrels, but did not remain very long. The last appearance of this species was on the 22nd March, lat. 56°, long. 88°, when two birds (one of them in the young plumage) joined us about noon and followed our ship till dark. At this time we were steaming before the wind at a great rate, our log having registered a run of 320 miles for the previous twenty-four hours."

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Captain Fairchild, of the "Hinemoa," who has for some years past made a close study of the Albatros on its breeding-grounds, has long maintained that there are two species. Till very recently he was of opinion that the large white-headed form was only to be found breeding on Campbell Island and other places to the south of the Auckland Islands. Until his last cruise, indeed, he had never found it breeding anywhere but on Campbell Island, whilst the common species appeared to have exclusive possession of the Auckland Islands, Antipodes Island, and the other islands to the north; and he had always found this species nesting four or five weeks earlier than the other—that is to say, the Campbell Island bird commenced to lay about the end of December, and the Auckland Island bird about the first week in February: in other words, Diomedea exulans was commencing to lay in the Auckland Islands just when the larger species was hatching out its young further south. On his recent visit, however, to the last-named group, Captain Fairchild found a colony of Diomedea regia nesting there, but occupying a separate locality, and quite apart from Diomedea exulans. Here, too, in the Auckland Islands, the same difference in the breeding-time was observable, for, whilst the nests of Diomedea regia contained young birds, the other species was only just preparing to lay. On the 7th February a nest of the latter was discovered containing two eggs (a most unusual occurrence), but all the other nests were empty, or occupied by the young bird of the former season. Marvellous as it may appear, it is perfectly true that the young birds never leave the breeding-ground till their parents return to refit their nests for another brood. This is the account of it, amply authenticated, given by Mr. Harris, as quoted by Professor Hutton: "At a certain time of the year between February and June—Mr. Harris: cannot exactly say when—the old birds leave their young and go to sea, and do not return until the next October,: when they arrive in large numbers. Each pair goes at once to its old nest, and, after a little fondling of the young one, which has remained in or near the nest the whole time, they turn it out and prepare the nest for the next brood. The deserted young ones are in good condition and very lively, frequently being seen off their nests exercising their wings. When the old birds return and take possession of their nest, the young one often remains outside and nibbles at the head of the old one until the feathers between the beak and the eye are removed and the skin made quite sore. The young birds do not go far from land until the following year, when they accompany the old ones to sea." The fact is that when the young are left in the nest at the close of the breeding-season they are so immensely fat that they can subsist for page 234 months without food of any kind. Professor Hutton attempted to account for the good condition of the young birds by suggesting that they may be nocturnal in their habits (although the old ones are strictly diurnal) and "go down to the sea at night, returning to their nests in the morning;" but Mr. Harris rejected that theory on the ground that the young birds are incapable of flight, and that the situations occupied by many of them make it impossible to get to the water except by that means.

Captain Fairchild has described to me from personal observation the coming-home of the Wandering Albatros after its long absence from its island sanctuary, and the peremptory manner in which the young bird in possession is ordered to quit the nest, so as to make room for its successor. The ease with which the old birds find their way to their own particular nest among so many is not the least wonderful thing in this marvellous romance of island life. And when I ponder on these strange facts I can only ask, as I have done before,* "What is that divinely-implanted faculty which enables this bird, after wanderings that defy calculation, and perhaps encircle the globe, to find her way back at the right moment, across the pathless deep, to that little speck of rock in mid-ocean where she had cradled her young the season before? Doubtless the same mysterious unerring instinct that guides the swallow in its annual pilgrimage—that leads the pipit, without landmark of any kind, straight to her little nest in the grass, amidst miles of waving tussock—that enables the nesting sea-bird, when she comes back from fishing, to pick out her two painted eggs from amongst the thousands that he upon the barren rock."

Diomedea regia, sp. now

Ad.—Albus: tectricibus alarum nigris vix brunnescentibus, majoribus interioribus plus minusve albis, margine carpali albo et brunneo vario: remigibus brunnesceuti-nigris, apicem versus pallidioribus, scapis flavicanti-albidis: scapularibus albis, ad apicem nigris: supracaudalibus caudâque albis, hac nigro apicata, rectricibus exterioribus basaliter brunneo irregulariter marmoratis: subtus pure albus: rostro albido, carnoso vix tincto, ad apicem flavicanti-corneo: pedibus corneo-albicantibus: iride saturate brunneâ: annulo ophthahnico nigro.

Adult.—General plumage pure-white; upper surface of wings blackish-brown, varied with pale-brown and white along the edges, and with an extensive patch of white on the humeral flexure; primaries brownish-black, with paler tips and page 235 yellowish-white shafts; secondaries brownish-black, largely marked with white on their inner webs; scapulars white on their basal portion, black towards the tips; tail-feathers largely marked with black in their apical portion, and the outer ones more or less marbled with brown; lining of wings and under tail-coverts, like the rest of the plumage of the under parts, pure-white. Irides very dark brown, almost black; bare eyelids jet-black; bill white, with a roseate or pinky tinge in life, yellowish horn-coloured on the terminal hook; legs and feet flesh-white. Extreme length (approximately), 51in.; extent of wings, 122in.; wing from carpal flexure, 28in.; tail, 10in.; bill, following the curvature of upper mandible, 8 5in.; length of lower mandible, 7.5in.; tarsus, 5in.; middle toe and claw, 7.5in.

Young.—Similar to the adult, except that there is less white on the upper surface of the wings, although all the coverts have white margins; the interscapular region is traversed longitudinally with club-shaped marks of greyish-black, increasing downwards, the larger feathers having their apical portion completely covered; upwards, towards the shoulders, these marks diminish till they become mere arrowheads; on the mantle and on the upper tail-coverts there are sometimes marginal bars, but there is no vermiculation. Bill yellowish horn-colour, with a bluish tinge on the upper mandible.

Nestling.—Covered with pure-white down, thick and woolly in appearance.

Obs.—In the extremely-old male specimen exhibited the tail is entirely white; there is an unusual amount of white on the upper surface of the wings, all the coverts being more or less margined with it; and the scapulars are obscurely marbled with greyish-brown. The feathers composing the mantle are faintly vermiculated.

Eggs.—Yellowish-white, sometimes with a darker zone at the large end; ovoido-elliptical, and measuring 5in. in length by 3in. in breadth.

* "Birds of New Zealand," vol. ii., p. 197.