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Snowy Albatross - BirdForum Opus

A member of the Wandering Albatross complex

Type F Snowy Albatross (D. (e.) exulans)
Photo © by Björn Svensson. Drake's Passage South America, 27 February 2015.
Diomedea exulans


An enormous (107-135cm) seabird with a huge (330cm) wingspan and majestic flight. This is the largest albatross. Plumage varies greatly according to age and can be very difficult to distinguish from Southern Royal Albatross.

Adult: Plumage entirely white except for black primaries and narrow black tips to secondaries although head may be stained pinkish when breeding. Bill fleshy-pink or whitish with horn-coloured nail, legs pinkish to bluish-white.

Immature: Juvenile largely chocolate brown except for white face, underwing white with narrow dark trailing edge and small black tip. Underwing pattern stays much the same but as the bird ages the brown on head and body is gradually replaced with white resulting in a mainly white bird with dark upperwings. These gradually whiten from a white central wedge. Many otherwise adult birds retain dark feathers at the sides of the tail.

Similar species

Southern Royal Albatross at close range will show a black cutting edges of bill. More difficult to distinguish at a distance, but notice that in Southern Royal, the whitening starts from the front of the wing rather than from a wedge in the middle of the wing, and that Southern Royal does not retain dark feathers at the sides of the tail.

Relative to the other species in the Wandering complex, Snowy Albatross has a longer bill without black cutting edge. Tristan Albatross very similar to younger Snowy, but smaller and with shorter wings; does not become as white in wings as the fully developed adult Snowy.


Breeds on South Georgia, Prince Edward, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, McDonald and Macquire islands. At sea may reach as far south as the nearest polar ice and as far north as Brazil but with the majority between 30 and 50 dg. S. They have been known to circle the globe in just 46 days, so can be encountered at any longitude.


The former Wandering Albatross complex is today split into four species:

  • Snowy Albatross (D. exulans) breeds on South Georgia, Prince Edward, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, McDonald and Macquire islands
  • Tristan Albatross (D. dabbenena) breeds on Inaccessible and Gough Islands (formerly also Tristan da Cunha)
  • Antipodean Albatross (D. antipodensis) breeds on Antipodes and Campbell islands; this form includes (D. a. gibsoni) from the Auckland Islands
  • Amsterdam Albatross (D. amsterdamensis) from the Amsterdam Island


This is a monotypic species[1]. Formerly, subspecies chionoptera was accepted, but today it is usually considered a junior synonym.


Breeds on grassy slopes often in wet areas. Spends most of the year at sea. Frequently follows ships.



Squid is main food item and fish second, sometimes refuse from ships.


Mainly happens in December to early January, nest is a large bowl made of mud and vegetable matter. One egg is laid, white, sometimes speckled with red-brown (131 x 78mm). Incubated for 66-77 days and young fed daily by both parents for first 20 days. Feeding gradually takes place less often but with larger amounts of food per visit. Fledges in December and it usually takes five to eight years before the bird returns to the breeding colony, with several more years before actual breeding. Most successful breeders take one year off between attempts.


Generally silent though may utter harsh croaking and braying sounds when competing for food at sea. Claps bill in display.

Snowy Albatross (D. (e.) exulans) courtship
Photo © by Dave Clark Prion Island, South Georgia, 20 January 2012.


  1. Clements, J. F., P. C. Rasmussen, T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, T. A. Fredericks, J. A. Gerbracht, D. Lepage, A. Spencer, S. M. Billerman, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2023. The eBird/Clements checklist of Birds of the World: v2023. Downloaded from https://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
  2. Gill, F, D Donsker, and P Rasmussen (Eds). 2023. IOC World Bird List (v 13.2). Doi 10.14344/IOC.ML.13.2. http://www.worldbirdnames.org/
  3. BirdLife International. 2017. Diomedea exulans (amended version of 2016 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T22698305A110676747. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-1.RLTS.T22698305A110676747.en. Downloaded on 06 June 2018.
  4. del Hoyo, J., C. Carboneras, F. Jutglar, N. Collar, G. M. Kirwan, and E. F. J. Garcia (2023). Snowy Albatross (Diomedea exulans), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (F. Medrano and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.wanalb1.01
  5. Shirihai, H. (2002) A Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife. The Birds and Marine Mammals of the Antarctic Continent and the Southern Ocean. Princeton University Press: Princeton & Oxford.
  6. Thread discussing ID of the former Wandering Albatros complex

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