Advice on identifying Albatrosses from shore

To: "David Adams" <>
Subject: Advice on identifying Albatrosses from shore
From: "Chris Sanderson" <>
Date: Fri, 27 Jun 2008 10:20:39 +1000
Hi David,

While Tony is being tongue in cheek, he is also right.  Seeing the birds in
close quarters and asking the experts what features to use for ID will help
a lot.  It took me several pelagics to start feeling comfortable telling the
various types of Shearwaters and of Albatross apart even at close quarters.
Petrels took longer still.  Prions still confuse me!  And that is while on a
boat, not on a headland with telescopes.  The best thing to do is be
methodical, what is it about that one species that makes it different from
another, and what will you be able to see at a distance.  The under-wing
pattern of most albatross is unique, so you can often tell from a long way
off what species you are looking at, even if you can't see the bill.  But,
not all albatross, and not all ages of albatross.  You can tell Shearwaters
and Petrels apart at distance by the way the fly, but that takes time to

A good book will help - I'm sure not everyone will agree but I quite like
the new Onley and Scofield "Albatross, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World"
book.  The slightly older (and out of print) Harrison "Seabirds: an
identification guide" book is also very good for ID and also covers gulls
and terns but the taxonomy is way out of date and we know a lot more about
distribution too.

Eventually you also have to grapple with the current arguments about
taxonomy (i.e. was that a Salvin's Albatross or a Shy Albatross of the
subspecies savlini?) and whether you want to try and tell very difficult
subspecies/splits apart like Snowy/Gibson's/Wandering Albatross in case they
are split at some point.  I take it as a personal challenge that I should be
able to ID all the species/subspecies on my seabird list, rather than having
been told what I am looking at.

The best advice is to spend time with people who already know how to ID the


On Fri, Jun 27, 2008 at 9:30 AM, Tony Russell <> wrote:

> Dear David, most of us are stumped by seabirds. The only way through the
> problem is to go on pelagic trips, get sick, then listen to what other
> people, who allege to know what they are talking about,  identify the
> passing birds as . You then go home with a list of sightings which you
> hope have some credibility. But you won't be much the wiser, especially
> on some of the more difficult species.
> Tough ain't it.   Tony.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: 
>  On Behalf Of David Adams
> Sent: Thursday, June 26, 2008 5:29 PM
> To: Birding-Aus
> Subject: [Birding-Aus] Advice on identifying Albatrosses from shore
> I'm writing in to ask for some advice on learning more about identifying
> Albatross from shore. I really never go on pelagics (too
> disorganized) so I haven't made a lot of progress. For years I've been
> staring off of headlands at large seabirds with binoculars wondering
> "are those Albatross or are they immature Gannets?" I bought a scope
> last year with a 20-60x zoom and have it mounted on a swivel head so
> that I can track birds in flight. I went out to Blue Point (Bermagui,
> Far South Coast NSW) this morning and end up staring at distant birds
> wondering "are those Albatross or are they immature Gannets?" ;-)
> Actually, with the scope I can tell that some of them aren't
> Gannets...but I have little idea how to go about sorting out which
> species they may be.
> I've had a look at the SOSSA (Southern Ocean Seabird Study
> Association) site which is a good start but am looking for more advice
> or references. (The month-by-month guide at SOSSA is very helpful, by
> the way.) I have lots of bird field guides but none devoted specifically
> to seabirds. Is there something I should be getting? Andrew Isles sent
> along a note just today that there's a new book out on the subject of
> albatrosses but it doesn't sound like a field guide.
> I regularly see reports on this list from people confidently identifying
> various sorts of Albatross they've spotted from shore so there must be a
> way to do it. Are there headlands where the birds come in close enough
> for clear identification or are there a series of distinguishing marks
> that let you sort out the species by process of elimination or some
> other means? Size is basically useless as a field characteristic for
> distant birds over water and some of the other field marks would require
> a close view (color of the bill, color of the tip of the bill, color
> behind the eye, etc.) so I'm a bit stumped.
> Suggestions much appreciated! I suspect others may have the same
> question I do so please post back answers to the list, if possible.
> ---------------------------------------------
>  David Adams
>  Wallaga Lake 2546 NSW
> ---------------------------------------------
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