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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 68

Note on the wandering albatross (Diomeda exulans)

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From the "Transactions of the NZ. Institute," Vol. XXII., 1889.

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Art. XLI.—Note on the Wandering Albatros (Diomedea exulans).

Volume XXI. of our "Transactions," just received in London, contains a paper by Mr. A. Reischek on "The Habits and Home of the Wandering Albatros."

The author of that paper, having visited the Antipodes and Auckland Islands in the Government steamer "Stella" during the breeding-season of that species, seems to have enjoyed exceptional opportunities for studying its history in the adolescent state. But, unfortunately, through an obvious inaccuracy of observation, he has failed to give us any very definite in-formation on the only point that presents any difficulty.

He says (l.c., p. 128), "The albatros takes five years to become fully matured, and in each year there is a slight change of plumage. The young, which are hatched in February, are covered with snow-white down, and a beautiful specimen in this stage exists in the Otago Museum. In the following December they lose their down, and the plumage is of a brown colour, with white under the wings and on the throat. In the second year the plumage is the same, except that there is more white on the throat and abdomen. In the third year there is still more white, although mixed with blotches of brown. In the fourth year they very nearly acquire the full plumage. The male is white with a few very fine dark specks, except the wings, which are dark-brown. In the fifth year they reach their full growth, and the mature plumage is displayed—white with blackish-brown wings."

Mr. Reischek's account of the nestling agrees with Mr. Gould's, which is as follows : "The young are at first clothed in a pure-white down, which gives place to the dark-brown colouring mentioned above" ("Handb. B. of Aust.," ii., p. 433).

But the specimen in the Otago Museum to which Mr. Reischek refers is not, as his remarks would imply, a nestling covered with white down, but a well-grown fledgling, with tufts of white down still adhering to the plumage. This fledgling has not assumed "plumage of a dark-brown colour," but is of pearly whiteness. It is thus described in my second edition of "The Birds of New Zealand" (vol. ii., p. 192) : "A fledgling, page 342 however, in the Otago Museum—obtained at Campbell Island—is entirely without the dark plumage. It has not yet completely lost the dense, fluffy, pure-white down which forms the clothing of the nestling. The head, neck, shoulders, rump, tail, and entire under-surface are of the purest white, having a fine silky gloss; 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 arrow-heads; on the mantle there are numerous marginal bars, but there is no vermiculation. The wings are brownish-black on their upper surface varied with white, all the coverts having white margins, and the quills are black. Bill yellowish-horn colour, with a bluish tinge on the upper mandible."

This is undoubtedly the "beautiful specimen" referred to by Mr. Reischek, because Professor Parker mentions in a letter to me that he had called his attention to it specially after his return from the Auckland Islands. Its condition is quite inconsistent with Mr. Reischek's account of a direct transition from the snow-white down into the dark plumage.

In my account of the species (l.c.) I have described another example, obtained at Waikanae, of small size, and evidently a young bird. This one had the whole of the plumage pure-white without any markings, excepting on the wings, which were black on their upper surface, largely dappled with white especially towards the humeral flexure. It is figured in my plate of the species, being the back figure standing on a rock.

The following was the only explanation I could offer (l.c., p. 192): "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." This view may be the right one, or it may not; and it seems to me unfortunate that, with such excellent opportunities for studying the subject, Mr. Reischek did not place that matter beyond all doubt.

As to its requiring five years for the albatros to attain the mature white livery, this must of necessity be only conjecture. In my account of the bird I have described no less than ten phases of plumage in its progress towards maturity. That it takes a considerable time—probably several years—to developed the fully-adult plumage is perfectly clear, but it is manifestly impossible to fix the annual changes of plumage without having the birds constantly under observation.