Wayward albatross looking for love in N.J.

Bird usually found in Southern Hemisphere

June 18, 2000|By E. Vernon Laux | E. Vernon Laux,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- A wayward yellow-nosed albatross that apparently strayed from its marine habitat in the Southern Hemisphere has turned up in the New York metropolitan area, and has been spotted flying along the median strip of the Garden State Parkway.

The albatross -- a seagoing species with wingspans up to 7 feet -- is usually found in the South Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and is an extreme rarity in the North Atlantic. But recently, bird experts have been astonished by reports that an albatross has been seen visiting estuaries and shorelines in the Northeast and sitting on local beaches with sea gulls.

"This bird is doing exactly what it should be doing, only in the wrong ocean and at the wrong time of year. The dude is confused," said Peter Alden, a noted ornithologist from Concord, Mass., who called the bird's trip through the region "unparalleled and unbelievable."

The distinctive bird was first reported by two biologists monitoring terns on Penikese Island, in Buzzards Bay off Massachusetts, on May 9. It seems to have been making its way south ever since.

But bird-lovers should not count on a close-up view. Unlike New Jersey motorists, the albatross does not interrupt its travels frequently. In fact, it comes to land only to find a mate, lay an egg and raise another albatross.

The albatross may have thought it found a willing partner off Long Island. Several rangers at the Fire Island National Seashore were amazed to discover it sitting in a group of herring gulls on the ocean beach on May 15.

A week later, early in the afternoon of May 21, Shawneen Finnegan of Cape May, N.J., was driving along the Garden State Parkway just south of Shellbay Landing in Cape May County when she spotted an albatross flying along the median strip in a group of laughing gulls.

After this sighting, no one knew where to look for such a bizarre-acting albatross. But it apparently turned up again on the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay. More than 30 birders got a good look at it at Reeds Beach and Highs Beach. At this time of year, horseshoe crabs come ashore in abundance to lay their eggs, which are a culinary treat for shore birds.

The bird's travels to the Northeast may have left it somewhat disoriented. In its natural habitat in the Southern Hemisphere, it is now fall.

Knowledgeable birders, including Paul Lehman, a former editor of Birding magazine and Finnegan's husband, said the albatross appeared to have taken up with colonies of laughing gulls on the New Jersey shore, near Stone Harbor, and was flying with them across the narrow tip of Cape May.

Albatrosses are notable not only for their size, but for their life span, as they can often survive several decades. In fact, there is some speculation that the bird spotted recently may be the same one that was spotted in Buzzards Bay 27 years ago.

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