There was a time when albatross taxonomy was quite simple. Actually, I lie, albatross taxonomy has always been a mess, but there was a period of relative calm, from the sixties to the ninties, when there were about 12 species in two genera. Then taxonomists started using DNA to look at albatrosses, and everyone knows nothing good comes from that. Suddenly there were lots of species, and most confusingly of all, never the same number or types in each book or resource you looked at. Does eBird recognize the same species that Wikipedia does? Does it hell. Does my field guide of New Zealand birds have the same birds as my Handbook of the Birds of the World or the IUCN? You’re joking, right?

Snowy Albatross?This is unambiguously an albatross. Beyond that, who knows?

This makes identification of albatrosses a tricky thing sometimes. Not so hard off California, where there are only three (and quite firmly so), but kind of tricky off New Zealand where there are something between lots and many types of albatrosses. Of particular tricksiness are the wandering albatrosses. Once upon a time there was one kind, the Wandering Albatross, and that was easy. Then someone discovered an odd type of wandering on Amsterdam Island in the Indian Ocean and there were two (barely two, since there are almost no Amsterdam Albatrosses left, but still, two). Then the splitters came and there was the Tristan Albatross, which is found in the Atlantic, the Antipodean Albatross, which breeds around New Zealand, and the Wandering Albatross, which breeds in the Southern Ocean and wanders a lot. Some Kiwis call the Wandering Albatross the Snowy Albatross to reduce confusion. They then elevate confusion by splitting the Antipodean into the Gibson as well, but we’ll draw a line under that for now since it hurts my brain.

white albatrossOkay, so this is a wandering albatross of some kind.

We get lots of Antipodean Albatrosses in New Zealand, which is good since they breed here, and we do get visiting Wandering or Snowy Albatrosses. I haven’t seen one of the Snowies, or have I? They are very hard to tell apart from Antipodeans. The really white birds are supposed to be Snowies, but the bird I’ve been showing you on this page wasn’t positively identified as one by my guide out of Kaikoura. He was good, and if he was hedging his bets it must be a tricky task.

mystery albatross

So, anyone feeling brave? Do I have a Wandering Albatross here, or just a really old Antipodean? I have no idea, but maybe someone else does. Or perhaps, like so many other birds, it will remain a beautiful mystery.

wandering albatrossRegardless what it is, Corey hasn’t seen it.

albie!A very white crown

Kaikoura pelagicSome actual Antipodean Albatrosses mixing it up with the petrels.

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.