Flying with the albatross

Words by Noah Strycker

A hundred miles southeast of Argentina, on a small ship in the Drake Passage, I’m awake in my bunk at 4 a.m.

The wind is blowing 60 knots, a Beaufort Scale 11, known as a ‘violent storm,’ and the ship is rolling past 35 degrees – as steep as a black diamond ski run. In one lurch, my dresser rips loose from the wall, crashes across the room in semidarkness, and splinters against an opposing wall, flinging my drawers – in both senses of the word – all over the floor. Bracing myself and peering out the porthole, I can discern, between 40-foot-high waves, the magnificent figure of a lone albatross riding the storm. The bird’s wings are at full stretch, embracing the elements. It must be really flying.

A few years ago, a grey-headed albatross with a GPS chip was tracked skirting a Drake Passage low-pressure system north of the Antarctic Peninsula; it averaged 79 miles per hour for nine straight hours, apparently while also foraging for food. Another albatross circled the entire Southern Ocean, rivalling the world’s fastest yacht racers, in a mere 46 days. Just imagine this feat – rest a fingertip below Cape Horn and then spin a globe all the way around.

Albatrosses, like downhill skiers, seldom go straight. They are the champions of a flight style called dynamic soaring. Using gravity and wind gradients, these birds carve elegant, efficient lines across some of the world’s most turbulent oceans. With this method, an albatross can glide a thousand miles without once flapping its wings.

Watching the albatross in the storm, I’m jealous that it will probably reach South Georgia Island well before I do. The bird delicately traces one wingtip along a wave and then banks abruptly upward, turns, and powers into a flat glide with the wind howling at its tail. Our ship rolls in its wake. This creature could be older than me. I wonder what it’s thinking about—its chick at South Georgia, or its mate, or the weather, or nothing at all.

wandering albatross
Midway Island light-mantled Albatross
yellow-nosed albatross

Thirty-five years ago, people knew very little about an albatross’ day-to-day movements beyond the consistently awestruck reports of seafarers. It’s tough to keep up with birds that spend nearly all of their time flying over the Earth’s windiest seas. But technology is changing that. Over the past two decades, researchers have developed new tools to fly along with the albatross.

After a wandering albatross became the first wild bird to be remotely tracked by satellite in the late 1980s, scientists began to appreciate the astonishing distances that these birds travel with very little energy. One of the most-cited research papers about albatross flight is titled, with a hint of wonder, ‘Fast and Fuel Efficient?’. Today, tiny tags, packing some of the same sensors your Fitbit uses, are helping tackle the logical follow-up question: How can we quantify albatross flight?

“Tagging studies really opened up our ability to understand what seabirds are doing,” says Lesley Thorne, an Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “The first big wave of tags, in the early ’90s, showed everyone how epic the movements of an individual albatross might be, like the ones that do laps around Antarctica.”

I met Thorne during one of my trips to South Georgia. On this mountainous, remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean, she is supervising an albatross-tagging project at the Bird Island British research station. This work is designed to shed light on albatross movements on a finer scale than previously possible, and Thorne intends use insights from the project to relate flight performance to other parts of the bird’s life.

Satellite-based animal studies have flourished in this millennium: You can, for instance, visit BirdLife International’s Seabird Tracking Database and make your own map of seabird movements from nearly 15 million GPS points, contributed by hundreds of research groups, representing more than 130 species tagged all over the world. And a new project called ICARUS, using an antenna on the International Space Station, promises to make satellite telemetry easier than ever for smaller species. ICARUS refers to legions of remotely tracked wildlife as the “Internet of animals.”

It’s one thing to pinpoint a bird’s location on Earth, but quite another to understand the intricate, three-dimensional dynamics of how it flies – and how energy flows through the bird and its environment.

Thorne’s team, working independently with a company called EvoLocus, developed an all-in-one biologging device which measures air pressure and GPS position along with an albatross’s heart rate, acceleration, and the surrounding magnetic field on three axes – up and down, forward and backward, and side to side – all at once. It’s like an airplane’s black box, continuously recording details – up to 75 data points per second, for weeks at a time – which can be used to reconstruct a bird’s flight.

“The escapades trying to get that tag modified, tested, and the battery working for our requirements, was a whole field season in itself,” Thorne says. She also collaborated with a German company that markets GPS units for people tracking their pets, hoping to customise them for seabirds. Technology is improving so quickly, especially with the miniaturisation of sensors driven by smartphones, that it helps to be creative.

The first of the modified tags were deployed on albatrosses nesting at South Georgia in 2020 by a field technician working with station scientists. A first peek at the data gives a fascinating glimpse into how animal tracking has evolved over time. Rather than marvelling at the journey of a single albatross, Thorne’s team imports firehoses of information, much of which is impossible to interpret without powerful statistical software. Maybe that’s appropriate: It takes Big Data to capture the flight patterns of a bird which might travel several million miles in a lifetime. Finding meaning in those patterns, however, remains a challenge.

Midway Island Tristan Albatross
Midway Island Laysan Albatross

Everyone who visits South Georgia first sees the island from the sea. On a clear day, its glacier-ridden peaks are visible for a hundred miles, jutting from the ocean like gnarly Andean summits – which they are, geologically speaking – in the latitude sailors call the ‘furious fifties.’ On a stormy day, you might not sight land until cliffs loom right over your head. There is no airstrip, and the island is too far from anywhere to be reached by helicopter. Only birds can arrive by air.

For a few species of seabirds, South Georgia is a convenient oasis near rich feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean, where the Atlantic meets cold polar waters, isolated from land predators. Millions of petrels, storm-petrels, diving-petrels, prions, fulmars, and penguins converge here alongside hordes of seals from November to March, when the island’s airspace and beaches are jammed. Amid the traffic, a flying albatross glides into view like a schooner with all sail set.

Four species of albatross nest on South Georgia: wandering, light-mantled, black-browed, and grey-headed. The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, 11 feet from wingtip to wingtip. The other three are smaller, their wings spanning seven feet, but similarly aerodynamic. An albatross’s glide ratio – the distance it travels forward vs. downward, without flapping – is about 22 to 1, more efficient than an airliner.

Albatrosses build pedestal mud nests, sometimes several feet high, topped with a cup to hold a single, enormous egg. Parents take turns incubating the egg for a week or so at a time, perched atop the nest like kings and queens. Without predators around, albatrosses have little interest in visitors; they just sit quietly, waiting for the egg to hatch, even when a curious human might creep within a few feet. Successfully reproducing is so exhausting that adult pairs often take the next year off. They meander separately across the ocean during that time, scavenging squid and seafood scraps in solitude, before rejoining the same mate the following spring. The oldest known bird, a female Laysan Albatross nesting on Midway Atoll, Hawaii, recently laid an egg – at the age of at least 69 years old.

Thorne’s project tracks black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses during their nesting season, when they take foraging trips out to sea while incubating eggs and raising chicks. The tags are gently taped to a bird’s back feathers and removed a week or two later. The albatrosses hardly notice; these tags are like a couple of quarters on a bowling ball.

One of the project’s long-term goals is to relate albatross flight metrics to their reproductive success, a key measure of population health. But, first, researchers must figure out how to categorise the information they’re gathering.

“Birds use different flight modes in different conditions,” says Melinda Conners, a Senior Postdoctoral Associate working with the data at Stony Brook. “So, how does that relate to their energy expenditure? And how are they responding to broad, regional wind patterns?”

Midway Island wandering Albatross
Midway Island Albatross tagging
Midway Island Laysan Albatross

Simply assigning behaviours – like gliding, flapping, and sitting on the water – to a voluminous stream of numbers is tricky. Conners wrote a whole academic paper about a statistical model designed to do exactly that. The model automatically classifies data collected from accelerometers and magnetometers without involving human beings, who, compared to a computer, are potentially biased and painfully slow at interpreting data. The algorithm can classify an albatross’s behaviour during the time it spends at sea with better precision than a GPS chip alone, and without the need for a person to do it manually. In the bird realm, combining accelerometer and magnetometer measurements is quite new.

“Most similar examples come from the agricultural field,” Conners says. “There are a ton of interesting, machine-learning algorithms looking at cow and sheep behaviour!”

For albatrosses, such complex and high-frequency datasets are cutting-edge stuff. In the bigger picture, Thorne wants to see how climate change affects albatrosses in the years ahead. Wind speeds in the Southern Ocean have steadily increased in recent decades, while latitudes containing the most consistent winds—necessary for albatross flight— are shifting toward the South Pole.

A separate group of scientists working in the Crozet Islands, in the southern Indian Ocean, has reported that stronger winds encourage faster foraging trips for Wandering Albatrosses there, resulting in healthier birds, and that the southward shift may help distance the birds from longline fishing fleets which have had a devastating impact on albatross populations. As wind speeds continue to increase, albatrosses will have to work harder to return to their colonies, with their health and perhaps their very existence hanging in the balance.

Albatrosses in flight navigate an ocean-sized energy landscape. As über-gliders, they exploit that landscape in ways other animals can’t. But there is a high cost of specialisation. Albatrosses live on the edge: Even a small change in energy could imperil their long-term survival.

In Eye of the Albatross, a permanent fixture on my bookshelf, the conservationist Carl Safina writes with awe about a bird that “holds still while being propelled by invisible forces.” Paradoxically, shooting through a hurricane, an albatross barely moves a muscle.

Some things are just impossible to measure. Sailors waxed mystical about albatrosses long before anyone knew that some of them fly so far east they end up where they started. An albatross-shaped monument at Cape Horn, dedicated to mariners who die at sea, speaks of their souls sailing “toward eternity, in the last crack of Antarctic winds” on outstretched wings. The most famous albatross from literature, in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” was hung around the neck of a sailor as symbolic punishment for crimes against nature.

The more we know about albatrosses, the more they seem to live up to their near-mythical status. In the years ahead, as scientists like Thorne, Conners, and others continue to unravel the mysteries of these birds, I wonder: What will the albatross teach us next about their amazing flight—and the world we are fortunate to share with them?

To read more of Noah’s work on Oceanographic, click here.