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Short-tailed albatross, not seen locally for 40 years, spotted off Southern California

A rare albatross that breeds on islands off Japan and hasn’t been documented near local waters for more than 40 years was spotted just a few miles from shore over the weekend, thrilling bird enthusiasts and experts who hope the sighting is a good sign for the endangered species.

Diane Alps, a naturist for the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro who typically studies whale species off the California coast, was first alerted to the unusual sighting three miles south of the Port of Los Angeles on Saturday by a commercial fisherman who sent photos and video of the bird.

“Are you kidding?” she first thought when seeing the images.

Similar laysan albatross and black-footed albatross are not uncommon sights locally, but the short-tailed albatross, known for its bubble gum-pink bill, is a rare sight. And this bird had a pink bill.

A rare short-tailed albatross that nests off Japan and hasn’t been documented off local waters for more than 40 years was spotted just a few miles from shore on June 5 and June 6, 2021, first seen about three miles south of the Port of Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Diane Alps)

Alps was able to charter a boat Sunday morning and within 10 minutes sold the nearly 30 spots for an expedition to search for the bird – but finding it took a bit of ocean knowledge, and some luck.

“It was great working with the captain, who isn’t a birder but knows the water and ocean conditions,” she said. “We talked about where it had been seen, the condition and where it might be.”

They went to a known fishing ground that was downwind from where it was seen a day before and looked for gull flocks feeding in the same area.

“I just had a racing in my chest the entire day,” Alps said. “I’ve gone on many wildlife chases, if you will. You think it’s a 50-50 chance. The thrill is just mind blowing.”

The short-tailed albatross wasn’t hard to spot among the other birds searching for food, she said. Its wingspan stretched about 7 feet, the bright pink bill about the length of her hand.

“The joy in some of the passengers, one women was just bouncing,” Alps said. “We all had masks so you couldn’t see her smile, but her eyes were just huge and lit up. To be able to take people out and show people that, that brings me joy just to share it with people. I just love to share pelagic nature with people.”

Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said the short-tailed albatross is an interesting bird species that is not only highly endangered, but at one time appeared to be extinct.

The short-tailed albatross was once a common sight off California waters, especially up near the Channel Islands, but in the late 1800s they became rare, heavily exploited for feathers and eggs.

Another blow to the species came when a main breeding area on an island off Japan suffered a volcanic eruption in the early 1900s, Garrett said.

“It was feared they were extinct,” he said.

But some did return and others were found on another set of islands off Japan, where they created new nesting colonies.

With conservation efforts in place, by the ’70s their numbers started to rebound, with only a handful of sightings off California.

Currently, the short-tailed albatross population is estimated to be 1,200 birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Of these, the total number of breeding age birds is thought to be about 600 birds.

The last known sighting in local waters was in 1977, far offshore west of San Clemente Island, Garrett said. Prior to that was the early 1900s, records show. The other sightings are typically off central and northern California.

“They are really good long-distance travelers,” he said, noting this was a younger bird thought to have hatched last year.

The bird spotted had a band on its leg, likely put on by Japanese scientists to study and track it, Garrett said.

The bird also had one wing that looked weathered, possibly injured from an entanglement, Alps said. “The right wing was heavily beat up, but the left was pristine.”

Alps wondered how this one came to shore, perhaps hitching a ride on a boat or cargo ship or traveling with a boost from recent strong winds.

“It’s not uncommon for a bird to hitch a ride on a boat not knowing its destination,” she said. “Maybe it gets hungry, gets weak and lands on a large cargo vessel. That story isn’t completely uncommon, but it just hasn’t happened with this (species) yet.”

Alps described the bird as “stunning,” noting the white under its eyes contrasting against its darker brown feathers that added to its menacing, intense glare.

It even inched close to the boat, almost as if curious, giving the thrilled bird watchers a good look at its enormous size. They followed the bird to north Orange County off Seal Beach and Huntington Beach before the boat had to get back to its dock.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” Alps said, admitting she couldn’t help but take a selfie with the bird in the backdrop.

A rare short-tailed albatross that nests off Japan and hasn’t been documented off local waters for more than 40 years was spotted just a few miles from shore on June 5 and June 6, 2021, first seen about three miles south of the Port of Los Angeles. Alps poses with the bird for a selfie. (Photo courtesy of Diane Alps)

As population numbers increase, Garrett hopes there will be more sightings in local waters.

But the species still faces conservation challenges, getting caught in nets or on hooks of anglers out at sea, he said.

It’s unknown where the bird went after the sighting. Alps chartered a second boat late Sunday for another group of bird enthusiasts, but they had no luck in finding it again.

It’s unclear if it might hang around or was just passing through.

“These birds move long distances,” Garrett said. “There’s a lot of ocean out there.”

Source: Orange County Register

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