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Finding 'Albie' the Black Browed Albatross

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

My Wild Life: April '22

Albatrosses are symbolic of freedom, hope, strength, wanderlust, and navigation.

But 8,000 miles away from home, the exiled wanderer ‘Albie’ the Black Browed Albatross is possibly the only, lonely Albatross anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

On a calm dawn in April, this majestic bird made its grand return to the towering cliffs of Bempton, East Yorkshire. I have been fortunate enough to adore several encounters with this voyager, each one just as precious as the last, filling my tummy with butterflies. The anticipation of approaching the cliff top is always a thrill, and peering over the edge to see ‘Albie’ hunkered on the sloping cliffside is overwhelming. The viewing platforms along the cliff edge brim with nervous excitement, and the pure exhilaration shared between hundreds of eager bird-watchers when the bird takes flight is touching!

Black Browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) soars above a Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) colony

‘Albie’ is thought to be at least eight years old and scientists have two theories as to why. The first theory is that the bird was blown off course from its native home in the remote southern oceans during a storm. The second theory is that prior to becoming sexually mature, the bird voyaged into the northern hemisphere for food, despite the calm conditions and depauperate waters of the tropical oceans that usually act as a barrier to albatrosses moving across the Equator. Either way, researchers believe that it is the same bird first sighted in this hemisphere in 2014, and because of light equilateral winds, it is unlikely that he will ever make it home.

Black Browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) live a mostly pelagic life, returning to land only to breed. They have been known to live over 70 years, and are the most common and the most widespread example of the Diomedeida family. The latin name, Melanophris comes from the Greek words melas or melanos which means “black” and ophris which means “eyebrow,” referring of course to the distinctive black eyebrow the bird sports above their eyes.

In many cultures, it is believed that these birds possess magical properties that can be used in healing. In ancient myths, the albatross was believed to bring good luck to seafarers who spotted it. Thousands of years ago new ships were outfitted with an albatross as a spiritual protector of the ship and the crew. The Albatross would search for land, if it became too tired it would rest on the mainmast. The sailors made it part of their superstition that when the Albatross settled on the mast, they were to give thanks to God or the new albatross would become offended and leave their ship.

Black Browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) with a Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) for scale

The opportunity to photograph such a rare and majestic seabird in Yorkshire is unforgettable, particularly when it is amidst my favourite ethereal weather conditions, but the experience also generates mixed emotions. As a monogamous bird, it is unlikely that it will ever find a mate, and its loneliness and alienation at the seabird colony as a result is sorrowful. However, for many, the opportunity to see such an imperial bird in Europe will never come again.

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