Grey-headed albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma)

French: Albatros à tête grise
GenusThalassarche (1)
SizeLength: 81 cm (2)
Wingspan: 2.20 m(3)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU – A4bd) on the IUCN Red List 2004 (1), and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) (4).

This medium-sized albatross possesses a distinctive combination of a grey head and neck, black bill, dark grey back and tail and a white breast. The underwing is white, but with black on the leading edge. One of the grey-headed albatross’ most distinguishing features is its black bill, which has bright yellow ridges along the top and bottom edges, ending in a pink tip (5). Additionally, a white crescent exists behind the eye. Juveniles have a predominantly black bill and head, a darker nape than adults, indistinct white eyebrows and virtually no white on the underwing (2).

The grey-headed albatross breeds on sub-Antarctic islands along with black-browed albatross (6). The main populations are in the South Atlantic Sector of the Southern Ocean (3), but there are colonies in Diego Ramirez and Islas Ildefonso south of Chile, South Georgia in the South Atlantic, Prince Edward, Crozet and Kerguelen groups in the South Indian Ocean, Macquarie Island south of Australia, and Campbell Island south of New Zealand (5). Found in colder waters during the summer, this species moves northward into the subtropics during the southern winter. These birds have been recorded to circumnavigate the globe, sometimes twice, when they are not breeding (7).

Breeding takes place on steep slopes, rocky shores or cliffs, ususally in areas of tussock grass (2). Otherwise found over the open ocean far from shore, often travelling vast distances (1) (6).

Grey-headed albatrosses normally breed every two years; if a chick is successfully reared the parents will not breed the following year. The nest is made of a cone of mud lined with grasses and all albatrosses lay only one egg. The egg is laid in mid-October and hatches during December. The male performs almost all of the incubation, which he carries out for the first 70 days. The chick takes three to four days to chip out of the egg and is then guarded for approximately three weeks. Most young depart from their natal nest the following May. The youngest recorded breeding bird was seven, and these birds can live to at least 36 years old (3).

This albatross feeds while on the sea surface and, even during breeding seasons when restricted by parental duties, undertakes marathon feeding trips, travelling up to 13,000 km on a single feeding flight (3) (6). The diet consists of fish, squid and crustaceans; although young seem to be fed mainly lampreys by their parents (3).

This species is in sharp decline in all monitored populations, with an estimated overall decrease of 48% over three generations (90 years). As with many other albatross species, this decline is largely owing to mortality on longline fisheries (1). In Australian waters up to approximately 400 individuals (over 80% juvenile) were killed annually between 1989 and 1995 by Japanese longliners. In the Indian Ocean an estimated 10,000-20,000 albatrosses, mainly the grey-headed albatross, were killed in 1997 and 1998 by illegal or unregulated fishing for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides). In contrast, the long-term decline at Cambell appears to be caused predominantly by environmental factors, with rising sea-surface temperatures thought to be causing food shortages (7). Squid fisheries may also impact on populations in some areas (3).

The grey-headed albatross is listed on Appendix II on the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), which states that these species would significantly benefit from international cooperation (4). It is also on Annex 1 of the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), which seeks to coordinate activity to mitigate known threats to albatrosses (8). Population monitoring and foraging studies are being undertaken at South Georgia, Diego Ramirez, Marion, Macquarie and Cambell Islands. Macquarie and Cambell are World Heritage Sites and the Prince Edward Islands are a special Nature Reserve (7). As with all migratory species, however, it is unlikely that conservation action by one country acting independently of other nations will be fully effective, and clearly international action is required (8). Crucially, progress needs to be made in preventing entanglement in fishing gear and bycatch by longline fisheries if this albatross is to flourish once more.

For further information on the grey-headed albatross see:

BirdLife International:

Stattersfield, A.J. and Capper, D.R. (2000) Threatened Species of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona and BirdLife International, Cambridge.

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  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2014)