Above picture: The Black-browed Albatross of Grey-headed Albatross Ridge on an empty nest in January 2014; photograph by Kim Stevens
NOTE: In order to introduce the birds of Marion Island to readers in such a way as to explain the passion that island researchers and photographers, and all the members of the Mouse-Free Marion Team, feel for the island and its birds, the project’s website has established an occasional series of photo essays that features photographs of those seabirds of Marion Island which are being attacked by mice, or are considered to be at risk to them.
In this account, the tenth in the series, post-graduate student Kim Stevens writes about the “other” two species of albatrosses recorded from Marion Island, including the Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophris seen over many years on Grey-headed Albatross Ridge; a locality she knows well from her doctoral research on the globally and regionally Endangered Grey-headed Albatross T. chrysostoma.
Read Kim’s MFM photo essay on Marion Island’s Grey-headed Albatross here. All avian research on Marion Island is conducted by experienced ornithologists under a research permit issued in terms of the island’s management plan and with ethics approval.
Marion Island holds significant breeding populations of four albatross species – the Wandering Diomedea exulans, Grey-headed, Light-mantled Phoebetria palpebrata and Sooty P. fusca. In addition to this, two other species of albatrosses have been seen ashore on Marion Island – Black-browed and Indian Yellow-nosed T. carteri.
A Black-browed Albatross, identified genetically as a female, was first recorded on Marion Island’s Grey-headed Albatross Ridge in 2000; it was metal banded as 9A-16339 on 2 December that year. A plastic colour band (red H53) was added in 2006. Recorded regularly, the bird was last seen in 2020, despite searches for it up to the current (2022/23) breeding season.
More surprisingly, it attempted breeding four times between 2000 and 2009 with a Grey-headed Albatross. The social partner seen at the nest was also colour banded as red H54 in 2006. The pair successfully fledged a chick in 2007 which was metal banded before it fledged, allowing it to be identified when it returned to the colony in 2016 and 2018.
Genetic testing of the chick revealed it to be the hybrid offspring of the female Black-browed Albatross and a different Grey-headed Albatross – not its social partner red H54. From 2009 to 2020 Black-browed Albatross red H53 was seen back on Grey-headed Albatross Ridge, but no further breeding attempts have been recorded. Intriguingly, a different but similar-looking hybrid bird was seen near the mixed pair’s breeding site in 2017, raising the possibility that the Black-browed Albatross had bred successfully with a Grey-headed Albatross on Marion Island more than once.
A second adult Black-browed Albatross was photographed on the cliff top above Ship’s Cove on 29 October 2008. The bird was associating with several Sooty Albatrosses.
The closest breeding site of the Black-browed Albatross is on the Crozet Islands, approximately 1000 km to the east, where they breed in mixed colonies, which include both Black-browed and Grey-headed Albatrosses. At Prince Edward Island, a short albatross flight from Marion, Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses also breed in mixed colonies with Grey-headed Albatrosses.
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross
There are at least 10 records of Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses seen loafing ashore on Marion Island over the years (click here); to date none has ever been observed breeding. An estimated 7000 pairs breed on nearby Prince Edward Island where they are free of attacks from invasive House Mice.
Records of nine Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses ashore on Marion Island by month
15 April 2005, fledgling, King Penguin Bay
May 2014, King Penguin Bay
August 2016, Bullard Beach
15 October 2007, adult, Long Ridge between Sea Elephant and Blue Petrel Bays (click here)
05 November 2013, Sealer’s Beach
26 November 2018, Macaroni Bay
December 2020, adult, Grey-headed Albatross Ridge
03 December 2016, adult, Bullard Beach
18 December 2011, adult, Archway Bay
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses arrive in colonies to commence breeding around the beginning of August and chicks fledge during April and May. The lack of mid-winter records in June and July for Marion Island is thus not surprising. The two records from April and May are likely to be of fledglings, whereas the others are all likely to be of breeding adults that have “gone astray”. All but one of the Marion records are from the east coast of the island that faces Prince Edward, the assumed source of all ten birds. This, however, is to be expected as this coast is more regularly visited and surveyed than elsewhere on the island. The exception is the adult reported from Grey-headed Albatross Ridge on Marion’s southward-facing coast in December 2020. This locality is the main breeding site for Grey-headed Albatrosses, which would be a source of attraction for the vagrant. If Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses are ever to breed on Marion Island, this seems likely where it would take place, given that these two mollymawk albatrosses breed in mixed colonies on Prince Edward Island.
Marion Island is an important haven for many species of seabirds – and the more albatrosses, be they loafing or attempting to breed, the merrier. Ridding Marion Island of its invasive non-native House Mice will allow seabird populations to thrive and perhaps bring other interesting observations like these to light.
With thanks to Linda Clokie, Maëlle Connan, Bruce Dyer, Christopher Jones, Danielle Keys, Kyle Lloyd, Chris Oosthuizen, Lucy Smyth, Michelle Thompson and Eleanor Weideman for their photographs and information.
Jones, M.G.W., Techow, N.M.S., Risi, M.M., Jones, C.W., Hagens, Q.A., Taylor, F. & Ryan, P.G. 2019. Hybridization and cuckoldry between black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses. Antarctic Science 32-10-14.
Oosthuizen, W.C., Dyer, B.H. & de Bruyn, P.J.N. 2010. Vagrant birds ashore at the Prince Edward Islands, southern Indian Ocean, from 1987 to 2009. African Journal of Marine Science 31: 445-450.
Phillips, R.A., Cooper, J. & Burg, T.M. 2018. Breeding‐site vagrancy and hybridization in albatross. Ibis 160: 907-913.
Ryan, P.[G.] 2009. Sixth albatross species breeding on Prince Edward Island. Africa – Birds & Birding 14(2): 14.
Ryan, P.G., Jones, M.G.W., Dyer, B.M., Upfold, L. & Crawford, R.J.M. 2009. Recent population estimates and trends in numbers of albatrosses and giant petrels breeding at the sub-Antarctic Prince Edward Islands. African Journal of Marine Science 31: 409-417.
Van Zinderen Bakker Sr, E.M., Winterbottom, J.M. & Dyer, R.A. (Eds) 1971. Marion and Prince Edward Islands. Report on the South African Biological and Geological Expedition / 1965-1966. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema. 427 pp.
Weimerskirch, H., Jouventin, P. & Stahl, J.C. 1986. Comparative ecology of the six albatross species breeding in the Crozet Islands. Ibis 128: 195-213.
Kim Stevens, FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town, South Africa, 07 February 2023
The Mouse-Free Marion Project is a registered non-profit company (No. 2020/922433/08) in South Africa, established to eradicate the invasive albatross-killing mice on Marion Island in the Southern Ocean. The project was initiated by BirdLife South Africa and the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. Upon successful completion, the project will restore the critical breeding habitat of over two million seabirds, many globally threatened, and improve the island’s resilience to a warming climate. For more information or to support the project please visit mousefreemarion.org.