ALBATROSSES VISITING SOUTHERN AFRICA

(ORDER PROCELLARIIFORMES - FAMILY DIOMEDEIDAE)

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Fourteen species of albatross are found throughout the world (modern DNA technology recognises 24, but this article makes reference to Roberts VI and Clements 2000 systematics). Most of the albatrosses inhabit the southern oceans, and of the fourteen species, ten have been recorded in Southern African waters. Because of their tameness and awkwardness on land, albatrosses are also known as mollymawks (cf Afr malmok) or gooney birds.
Generally albatrosses are renowned for the great distances that they fly, spending most of their time over the water and only spending time on land during mating and rearing of the offspring. They come to maturity at about 10 years, and a breeding pair will normally only produce one chick every two years, which makes the birds extremely vulnerable to external pressures. The incidental hooking of the birds by longline fishermen is drastically reducing the numbers of these magnificent birds. There is a concerted effort by some concerned countries to introduce fishing methods to reduce the mortality rate amongst albatrosses and other seabirds caused by the longline fishing industry.

The Wandering Albatross, diomedea exulans (Roberts 10, Clements 10.0010), is the albatross immortalised in the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". This is the biggest of the albatrosses, with a wing span of 3,4 m. It nests on islands near the Antarctic and in the South Atlantic. In non-breeding season it roams the southern oceans to about 30E south. It is rare inshore off the SA coast, but more common (although still unusual) seawards. The widespread nature of the bird can be seen in the number of stamps issued (over 30), and the number of countries issuing stamps (18). Among the earlier stamps issued are a 200f stamp issued by the French Oceanic Settlements and a 200f stamp issued by the French Southern and Antarctic Territories. SA has also issued a stamp in its recent Migratory animals issue.

 

The Royal Albatross, diomedea epomophora, ( R 9, Cl 10.0020), is slightly smaller than the Wandering Albatross, with a wingspan of about 3,2 m. The two sub-species are now thought to be separate species. It has been estimated that the birds fly up to 190 000 kms a year. The northern Royal Albatross (d e sandfordi) breeds on the islands near New Zealand and the Otago Peninsula, while the southern Royal Albatross (nominate race) breeds on sub-antarctic islands. The northern race is a rare vagrant to southern African waters, while the southern race has only been recorded once. Aitutaki and New Zealand are the only countries to issue stamps featuring these birds
The Laysan Albatross, diomedea immutabilis ( R 905, Cl 10.0060), is another large albatross with an wingspan of about 3 m. The Laysan Albatross breeds in Hawaii and other Northern Pacific Ocean islands, and is generally only found in the northern Pacific. A single bird was identified in South African waters, southeast of Cape Agulhas. A few stamps have been issued of the Laysan Albatross, although the only country featuring the bird from the Pacific Ocean is Niuafo’ou,

 

The Grey-headed Albatross, diomedea chrysostoma, ( R 13, Cl 10.0080) is one of the black-backed albatrosses. It breeds on the sub-antarctic oceans during the summer, and disperses throughout the southern oceans. It is a rare visitor to southern African, with most of the birds reaching our waters being immature birds. The bird is fairly well represented on stamps (7 stamps to date), mostly from the southern ocean islands and Antarctic territories, including the Australian Antarctic Territories and South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.
The Black-browed Albatross, diomedea melanophris ( R 12, Cl 10.0090) is one of the more common albatrosses to visit southern Africa. Its breeding range is circumpolar on the subantarctic islands. This albatross breeds annually and normally inhabits the southern oceans. It is one of the smaller albatrosses with a wingspan of only 2,3 m. The bird is well represented with stamp issues, with nine countries having issued 20 stamps between them. Among those countries are the Argentine and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories.

 

Buller’s Albatross, diomedea bulleri ( R 928, Cl 10. 0100), is a very rare vagrant to South African waters. It breeds on sub-antarctic and temperate islands off New Zealand during the summer. 
The Shy Albatross, diomedea cauta, ( R 11, Cl 10.0110), is probably the most common albatross visiting southern African waters. It is the largest of the black-backed albatrosses with a wingspan of 2,6 m. The albatross breeds on islands off Tasmania and New Zealand and disperses throughout the southern oceans. It has been recorded occasionally in the northern hemisphere. It has not been well represented on stamps, with only New Zealand (illustrated) and Samoa issuing stamps.
The Yellow-nosed Albatross, diomedea chlororhynchos ( R 14, Cl 10.0120), is the most common albatross in the KZN waters. It is the smallest and most slender of the black-backed albatrossses, with two readily identifiable sub-species, both of which are found off our coast. The bird breeds on southern Indian Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean islands and disperses east and west to New Zealand and South America. Eight stamps have been issued illustrating the bird, with half of them by Tristan da Cunha.

 

The Dark-mantled Sooty Albattross, phoebetria fusca, ( R 15, Cl 10.0130), is a very rare vagrant to southern African waters. They breed annually on the temperate and sub-antarctic islands in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans and disperse throughout these oceans after breeding. They are seldom found north of 40E south. Tristan da Cunha is the only country to have issued stamps featuring the Dark-mantled Sooty Albatross.
The Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, phoebetria palbebrata, ( R 16, Cl 10.0140), is another very rare vagrant to our waters. The breeding is circumpolar in the sub-antarctic islands annually, with the birds dispersing throughout the southern oceans. The albatrosses are more southerly than the closely related Dark-mantled Sooty Albatross and are seldom found north of the 45E south latitude. The albatross has been featured by six countries, including the Australian Antarctic Territories and the French Southern & Antarctic Territories.