On 15 August 2015, a live hatch-year juvenile Short-tailed Albatross was found about one mile north of Tatoosh Island, Washington, and sent to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Unfortunately, despite best efforts, the young one did not survive. Interestingly, because the bird was banded as a hatchling on 2 March 2015, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) was able to learn that it came from one of the colonies in the western Pacific Ocean off the coasts of Japan and Taiwan.
Early 20th century museum specimens, traveler accounts and archaeological excavation of middens indicate that Short-tailed Albatrosses were once regular in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and nearshore waters. Now, this pelagic seabird species is rare in the nearshore waters of the Pacific Coast, is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is being considered as a candidate for listing in Washington state. The population of this species was once estimated at one to two million birds in the late 19th century, but the birds were harvested for feathers and oil; the population declined to only a few pairs by the 1930’s. All of the breeding adults in the population were killed in a volcanic event on Torishima, leaving only the subadults at sea to perpetuate the species. The population is recovering (USFWS 5-Year Status Review 2014), but the breeding distribution is concentrated on only two Pacific islands: Torishima (approximately 78%) and Senkaku Islands (approximately 22%) . The main breeding colony is tenuously situated on an active volcanic island, leading to efforts by the recovery team to establish colonies on two other islands that were once also breeding grounds. Short-tailed Albatrosses are also self-establishing elsewhere in the North Pacific. In January 2014, US Fish and Wildlife Service reported that a short-tailed albatross chick hatched at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge on Eastern Island within the Papahānumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Birders’ Short-tailed Albatrosses observations reported through eBird Northwest will be helpful to biologists working to better understand the distribution, dispersal after hatching, and recovery of this listed species. eBirders in the last 15 years in Washington have reported 11 Short-tailed Albatrosses and in Oregon for the same time period only 3. When these birds occur in Washington’s waters, they appear most likely in the Juan de Fuca Eddy off the northern Washington coast. Next time you’re out fishing, whale-watching or birding, keep your eyes and binos ready for Short-tailed Albatrosses and other pelagics and please remember to enter your observations in eBird Northwest. Recording age, noticeable markings, or even bands (in flight) will be very helpful toward recovery.
It’s still a good time for pelagic birding off the Pacific Coast. This is an unusual year in terms of species and abundance as the El Nino has further warmed surface waters and reduced fish populations near the surface. While there are no more organized pelagic trips scheduled for this year for landlubbers to see Sabine’s Gull, South Polar Skua, Laysan Albatross, Pomarine Jaeger or other birds that are never going to show up at your garden feeder, coastal observers should conduct seawatches when possible, particularly after large storms to monitor seabirds [adapted in part from Harry Fuller’s blog post, July 19th, 2015]. Among several pelagic birding resources, there is a new (published 2015) guide to offshore life along the Pacific Coast: Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast by Steve N. G. Howell and Brian L. Sullivan. If you are interested in pelagic trips, be sure to search for a captain and boat which has some focus on birders’ needs, experience in the season you want to go out, and a reputable naturalist on board to help you make the most of your time on the water. Be sure to enter your great day observations in eBird!
For more information on pelagic birds in the Washington State Wildlife Action Plan http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/cwcs/2015/public_draft/appendix_a2_-_birds.pdf
The Oregon State Wildlife Action Plan (revised this year) should be posted online within 2015; we’ll include their pelagic Species of Greatest Conservation Need as that document becomes available.
Article by: Wendy Connally, Bill Tweit, and Scott Pearson (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife); Ellie Armstrong (Klamath Bird Observatory)