by Jamie Walker
I was watching a cloud of Gannets fishing out to sea, their actions an example of evolution’s most immaculate achievements. As each bird spied its target below, it braked, stalled to control its aim and began a fast dive towards the water’s surface.
In the last two seconds of the dive, the bird pulled its wings in tight to its body and sliced into the sea like an arrow. The result looked like it produced a fish every time.
Gannets have an impressive two-metre wingspan; but these were dwarfed by a magnificent stranger in their midst – a snow-white bird with black wings. It shunned the diving melee: instead, it swung in wide, stiff-winged arcs before settling to eat something from the sea’s surface (probably jellyfish or squid). This was a Black-browed Albatross.
Albatrosses are the world’s largest flying birds. Some species have wingspans of up to 3.5 metres. They are also long-lived, surviving for up to 50 years and taking 10 years to reach sexual maturity.
Perhaps most significant, they are birds of the southern hemisphere. Most species rarely travel north of the Tropic of Capricorn. (Paul Fraser’s photograph was taken off southern Tasmania). So, what made my sighting extraordinary was that it took place off the shores of the Cooley Peninsula on Ireland’s north-east coast.
Yet, during their long maturing period, Black-browed Albatrosses wander and, in most years, a handful have been discovered at sites scattered across the North Atlantic. When this happens, it seems that they prefer the society of Gannets and spend much time lost in a crowd at some of that species’ breeding colonies, which can be huge. (Scotland’s Bass Rock supports 75,000 pairs). A few cling to their hosts’ companionship and remain in an area for up to 20 years.
There is no reason to think this has not always happened. We tend to divide the world into sectors to suit our imaginations and the convenience of artificial political divisions, but long before humans began to explore the world, birds were finding their way around – as were fish, whales and insects.
Eventually, each of the Black-browed Albatrosses in the northern seas vanishes off naturalists’ radar. Many people think that the birds cannot return south and are then lost, in the way that natural lives can decline and perish through lack of purpose and motivation.
I prefer to believe that, when they disappear, they have merely breasted a development in their maturing, remembered and then found the way home.