Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rare Bird: Laysan Albatross

On May 16, 2015 I was aboard Grande for a pelagic trip from San Diego. We were fortunate enough to encounter a Laysan Albatross--very rare in San Diego County waters.

Actually, Laysan Albatrosses aren't overly rare in deeper waters starting about 35 miles west of San Diego. Unfortunately, because of the nearest-point-to-land rule, 35 miles west of San Diego is either in Los Angeles County or the state of Baja California, Mexico. That's because of San Clemente Island, Los Angeles County (75 miles WNW of San Diego) and Los Coronados Islands (9 miles off Tijuana, Mexico and 15 miles south of San Diego). Once you leave San Diego harbor and then find yourself closer to either of those islands than you are to shore at Point Loma, the island's jurisdiction takes over, and your wonderful bird is now in a different county. This is a very serious topic for many birders--especially those known as "County Listers"--who are very interested in keeping exact track of personal bird sightings in each county. Yes, guilty as charged.

Laysan Albatross
Laysan Albatross. Nine Mile Bank, San Diego County, California. May 16, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Laysan Albatrosses nest in the outer Hawaiian Islands, including Midway and Laysan. They first breed when 5-8 years old. Most of the population chooses to spend the non-breeding time in the Aleutians and Gulf of Alaska. A few visit the West Coast in winter and spring.

Laysan Albatross

About 1983 Laysan Albatrosses began breeding on islands off Mexico. eBird shows a growing count of 288 birds on Isla Guadalupe, about 260 miles south of San Diego, on April 14, 2013. Certainly, these birds transit into the California Current off the West Coast. With these birds adding to the millions already in the North Pacific, one can't help but think that these Mexican breeders may be increasing the likelihood of spotting this species on future West Coast pelagic trips.

Laysan Albatross

The dusky marks on the under wing are variable and serves as a "fingerprint" for identifying individuals.

Gary Nunn blogs about this sighting (San Diego Birding -- Nemesis county seabird – Laysan Albatross in San Diego).

And so does Tommy DeBardeleben (Tommy D's Birding Expeditions -- Deep Sea Birding-The Grande Way)

San Diego County records of Laysan Albatross (based on my own very limited research)
1. One on Thirty Mile Bank 8 January 1998 (Brennan Mulrooney, eBird).
2. One found dead on Torrey Pines beach 8 Mar 2000 (Unitt, 2004).
3. One found dead at Camp Pendleton 13 Jun 2007 (NAB, McCaskie & Garrett).
4. One photographed at Nine Mile Bank 27 Aug 2008 (NAB, McCaskie & Garrett).
5. One found dead in the Split Mountain area of Anza-Borrego Desert 26 June 2013 (Steve Bier).
6. One at Nine Mile Bank 3 May 2015 (Dave Povey).
7. One photographed at Nine Mile Bank 16 May 2015 (this bird! Perhaps the same individual as previous sighting?).


  1. I think a juvenile albatross has been hanging out in my neighborhood downtown San Diego. First sighting was on 4/10/20. It was waddling around the intersection. It was large and waddled like a duck but it appeared the size of a goose. It was gray and white and feathers looked like a juvenile's, since they appeared kind of haphazard speckled. A seagull glided by it, and that gave me an idea of its size, as this duck or goose type bird appeared to dwarf the seagull. It then came back a week later in same spot and saw it waddling around. I ran to get my phone to take a picture but then it flew off, so although no pictures, I got to see it fly, and it had very large wings. It then came back today, 4/19/20, perching up on a ledge on across the street. This time I got pictures of it, but they're unfortunately very grainy. Since no way to post them, I made my profile picture one of them. But as you can see, it is definitely NOT a goose or a duck. However, it's also NOT a seagull. And after typing in word descriptions, all that came up was the Lysan Albatross and thought that it definitely looks like one, perhaps a sub-adult or juvenile. This little profile picture of it doesn't really show you the size but it is definitely a big-sized bird, and definitely much larger than a seagull. I know seeing an albatross on land is rare, but I've spent hours trying to identify my mystery bird, and the closest bird is an albatross, but it's almost too hard to believe it could actually be one...

    1. Ellejay1066,

      I did take a look at your profile picture--what a unique way to send a photo!

      Albatrosses are such large birds that their legs are rather short and back farther on the body. They don't really do well on land. They stay at sea for 6 or more years from hatching until they are ready to lay their first egg. They nest on sand beaches on "islands" that are no more than a sandbank up from the bottom.

      The shape of the head is very flat, merging into the bill without a forehead bump. The bill is almost twice as long as the rest of the head.

      Albatrosses cannot take off and fly from land. They need wind and must run a long ways on the water with their wings outstretched in order to fly. They glide with stiff straight-out wings, they don't flap up and down except when taking flight. Otherwise they use dynamic soaring.

      An albatross would have a hard time waddling around and intersection and could never fly away once it was on land.

      Laysan Albatrosses don't change plumage. Males, females, and young birds all look the same, thus their scientific name immutabilis ("unchanging").

      The bird you photographed has longer legs and stands more horizontally than would an albatross. The bill is shorter than the head and the head is very round.

      The bird appears to be a 2nd year Western Gull, as best I can tell.

      Albatrosses are long-winged birds, but the Brown Pelican is probably a more massive bird with equal 7 or 8 foot wingspan. Another large bird off San Diego (rare in the bay) is Brown Booby. It is a bit longer than Western Gull. Otherwise the Western Gull is the largest expected seabird except for the pelican.

      I hope this helps.

      Keep looking!


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