The short-tailed albatross was listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered throughout its range in 2000. At the turn of the 20th century, millions were harvested by feather hunters, which resulted in the near-extinction of the species. The species breeds primarily on remote islands in the western Pacific. Just two areas currently host most breeding pairs: Torishima Island, Japan, which is an active volcano, and the Senkaku Island Group, northwest of Taiwan. From 2008 to 2012 we worked with our Japanese partners at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology to establish a third breeding colony by translocating chicks from Torishima to a historic breeding location on the island of Mukojima. Recently, there has been limited, yet successful, breeding of short-tailed albatross on Midway Atoll in Hawaii. During the non-breeding season, short-tailed albatross range along the Pacific Rim, from southern Japan, to the west coast of Canada and the United States, primarily along continental shelf margin. Immature birds exhibit two patterns of post-breeding dispersal: some move rapidly north to the western Aleutian Islands, while others stay within the coastal waters of northern Japan and the Kuril Islands throughout the summer. In early September, the individuals that remained near northern Japan in the summer move into the western Aleutian Islands. Once in the Aleutians, most birds travel east toward the Gulf of Alaska, as noted in the 2008 recovery plan. Sightings of individual short-tailed albatross have been recorded along the west coast of North America, as far south as the Baja Peninsula, Mexico, also noted in the 2008 recovery plan.
Although the highest concentrations of short-tailed albatross are found in the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea regions, primarily along the outer shelf, of Alaska, T.J. Guy and others in 2013, noted that sub-adults appear to be distributed along the west coast of the United States. Juveniles and younger sub-adult birds, up to 2 years old, use a wider geographic range than adults. A.J. O’Connor and others documented in 2013 that they can be found in the Sea of Okhotsk, over a broad region of the Bering Sea and the west coast of North America. Sub-adult birds travel greater daily distances than adults, as documented by R.M. Suryan and others in 2007. Post-fledging juvenile birds range widely throughout the North Pacific Rim, and some individuals spend time in the oceanic waters between Hawaii and Alaska, as documented by T. Deguchi and others in 2014.
Short-tailed albatross forage diurnally and possibly nocturnally, either alone or in groups and predominantly hunt for prey by surface-seizing. The short-tailed albatross feeds on squid, crustaceans and various fishes. Chicks are fed a mixture of stomach oil and partially digested, regurgitated food by adults. The short-tailed albatross visits and follows commercial fishing vessels in Alaska. Although commercial longlining bait is not historically a part of their normal diet, it now constitutes a notable portion of the calorie intake for these birds. In addition, albatross chicks and adults eat trash and plastics found in the Pacific Ocean. Albatross chicks often choke and die from eating the plastics.
When these birds follow fishing vessels, they are sometimes hooked or entangled in longline fishing gear and drowned. We have been working with the commercial fishing industry, Washington Sea Grant and National Marine Fisheries Service to minimize take of this endangered seabird. Through this collaborative conservation effort, a type of seabird avoidance technology, called streamer lines, was developed to reduce threat to albatrosses of becoming bycatch by fishing vessels. Streamer lines create a visual barrier that keeps seabirds away from the baited hooks. In Alaska, streamer lines deployed on fishing vessels have led to a major reduction in the bycatch of albatrosses. Fishing vessels that have used streamer lines to ward off seabirds say there is also a financial benefit: the streamer lines keep seabirds from swiping their bait - saving them money in the long run.
Habitat destruction from volcanic eruption also continues to pose a significant threat to short-tailed albatross at the primary breeding colony on Torishima Island. The main colony site, Tsubamezaki, is on a sparsely vegetated, steep slope of loose volcanic soil that is subject to severe erosion, particularly during monsoon rains. In February 2010, the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology documented that a landslide at Tsubamezaki buried up to 10 chicks. Future eruptions or landslides could result in a significant loss to the primary nesting area, and the population as a whole. The threat is not predictable in time or magnitude. Eruptions could be catastrophic or minor, and could occur at any time of year. Climate changes may also affect vegetation and other characteristics of the short-tailed albatross breeding colony sites. Fortunately, the nesting habitats on Torishima Island, the Ogasawara Islands and the Senkaku Islands are high enough above sea level, above 70 feet (21.34 meters, to avoid inundation by projected sea level rise. Models for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands indicate that the nesting habitat that is used by short-tailed albatross on low-lying Midway and Kure Atolls may be at risk due to sea level rise and increased storm frequency and intensity, as documented by Storlazzi and others in 2013.
Other threats to short-tailed albatross include environmental contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls and pesticides, as well as toxic metals, like mercury and lead. These come through atmospheric and oceanic transport. This species is also negatively impacted by petroleum. Oil spills can occur in many parts of the marine range of the short-tailed albatross. Consumption of plastics may also be a factor affecting their survival. Albatross often consume plastics at sea, presumably mistaking them for food items. The 2008 recovery plan notes that the ingestion of plastic pieces can result in internal injury or mortality to the birds. Furthermore, large volumes of ingested plastic can result in a reduction of gut volume available for food and water absorption, which leads to malnutrition and dehydration.
According to the 2020 5-year Review, the population of short-tailed albatross continued to grow with a current estimate of 7,365 individuals and a population growth rate of 8.9%, which is really something to celebrate.
Short-tailed albatross nest on isolated, windswept, offshore islands, with restricted human access. The majority of short-tailed albatross nest on islands near Japan. The only known nesting in the United States occurs in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Short-tailed albatross spend most of their time at sea searching for food. They congregate in areas of upwelling where the churning brings smaller prey to the water’s surface. During breeding, they feed along areas of upwelling, such as continental shelf-break areas that are 200 to 1000 meters deep, where the continental shelf ends and depths begin to increase markedly east of Honshu, Japan. The 2008 recovery plan notes that they also feed in shelf, from 0 to 200 meters in depth, and shelf break areas of the Bering Sea, Aleutian chain and in other waters of the North Pacific.
Having to do with water
Short-tailed albatross are opportunistic feeders, eating mostly invertebrates and fish. They feed on squid, especially the Japanese common squid (Todarodes pacificus), shrimp, fish, sardines, flying fishes, flying fish eggs and other crustaceans. Short-tailed albatross forage diurnally and possibly nocturnally, either alone or in groups and predominantly hunt for prey by surface-seizing. Chicks are fed a mixture of stomach oil and partially digested, regurgitated food.
Short-tailed albatross are expert soaring birds, as they glide on air currents over marine waters and seek out prey. They are not diving birds and must feed opportunistically on prey that floats to the surface of marine waters. Short-tailed albatross can mistakably eat floating debris like plastics and other trash that they find floating at the surface in the Pacific Ocean, and can feed this to their chicks. Albatross and chicks can die from ingesting plastic.
Historically short-tailed albatross followed whaling vessels, and more currently, follow commercial fishing vessels as they look for bite-sized scraps, like discards from seafood processing, and bait like that used in commercial longlining fishing. They sometimes get hooked or entangled in longline fishing gear and drowned. Bait and scraps from fishing vessels, known as offal, now constitutes a notable portion of the calorie intake for these birds.
Adults have a white head and body, and golden cast to the crown and nape. The tail is white, with a black terminal bar. A disproportionately large pink bill distinguishes it from the other two North Pacific albatross species, the Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and black-footed albatross (P. nigripes), and its hooked tip becomes progressively bluer with age. Short-tailed albatross juveniles are blackish-brown, progressively whitening with age and are the only North Pacific albatross that develops an entirely white back at maturity, as noted in the 2008 recovery plan.
The short-tailed albatross is a large pelagic bird with long, narrow wings that are adapted for soaring above the water surface. The short-tailed albatross is the largest albatross species in the North Pacific.
Body length: 33 to 37 in (84 to 94 cm)
Wingspan: 84 to 90 in (213 to 229 cm)
Short-tailed albatross are monogamous and they return to the same breeding site year after year. However, young birds may occasionally disperse from their natal colonies to attempt to breed elsewhere. In non-breeding season, short-tailed albatross disperse widely throughout the North Pacific Ocean. Birds begin breeding between 5 and 6 years of age. Each breeding cycle lasts about eight months. Most birds arrive on breeding grounds in October, but as many as 25% of breeding age adults may not return to the colony in a given year. Instead, they spend the year at sea, often in Alaskan waters.
Parents alternate foraging trips that may last two to three weeks, while taking turns incubating the egg. Hatching occurs from late December through January, as documented by H. Hasegawa and A. DeGange in 1982. The first few days after hatching, the chick is fed on stomach oil, which is rich in calories and vitamin A. This oil also provides a source of water once metabolized. Soon after, the chicks are fed more solid food, like squid and flying fish eggs. By late May or early June, when the chicks are almost fully-grown, the adults begin abandoning the colony site, also documented by H. Hasegawa and A. DeGange in 1982. The chicks fledge soon after the adults leave the colony, as documented by O.L. Austin in 1949 and by mid-July. H. Hasegawa and A. DeGange noted that non-breeders and failed breeders disperse earlier from the breeding colony, during late winter through spring.
Short-tailed albatross are a long-lived species, with a life span of up to 50 years.
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