- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Wandering albatrosses are well named. They often soar hundreds of miles a day, low over the southern oceans that circle Antarctica, all day, every day, for a couple of weeks straight.
They do this with hardly a wingbeat and without landing, except on ocean swells to grab fish, squid, jellies, crustaceans, and other tidbits from the surface of the water.
Wandering albatrosses are large birds, and the largest of the 12 kinds of albatrosses, all of which inhabit the Southern Hemisphere.
Their bodies are 4 feet long and they have 10-foot wingspans, which are the longest wingspans on Earth and are well adapted to sliding effortlessly on the wind. Their lengthy, narrow wings automatically lock in an outstretched, gliding position, allowing these albatrosses to sail for days with little effort and energy expended.
And wanderers weigh up to 28 pounds and have salt glands above their nostrils that expel excess salt after drinking saltwater.
Wonderful gliders on the wind, wandering albatrosses range farther than any other bird species on Earth. As they sail smoothly and effortlessly over the oceans around Antarctica, time after time, some of them get close to the southern tips of South America and Africa and the southern shores of Australia.
Recently fledged wandering albatrosses soar gracefully over the southern oceans, without coming down on land, for about six years. They only land on the ocean to get food and sleep. They even doze while on the wing!
Some young wanderers in flight circle Antarctica three times a year, clocking about 75,000 miles! They seldom flap their wings in all that time, thus using little energy.
After their years of wandering over the oceans, young wandering albatrosses create new pairs ready to raise young on the Southern Hemisphere islands where they hatched. Wanderers pair for life and begin courting and nest-building activities in November, the start of summer weather in the Southern Hemisphere.
Wandering albatrosses nest in scattered groups on grassy hilltops. During the latter half of December, each female lays one egg in her mud-and-grass nursery. Each pair only raises one chick every two years.
Each pair of parents takes turns brooding the egg or small youngster and going to sea to get food. Chicks are fed regurgitated seafood. And when each progeny is large and strong, both parents go to sea to capture food to feed their young. Each immature bird fledges about nine months after hatching.
About 25,000 adult wandering albatrosses dwell in the Southern Hemisphere. Each bird can live up to 50 years, and most of that time they spend wandering above the southern oceans looking for food.
All life on Earth is miraculous and intriguing. And wandering albatrosses certainly add to that.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.