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Laysan Albatross

Phoebastria immutabilis ORDER: PROCELLARIIFORMES FAMILY: DIOMEDEIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

One of the most marvelous sights in the Pacific ocean is the graceful glide of a Laysan Albatross at play among the winds and waves. These expert soarers can travel hundreds of miles per day with barely a wingbeat. They nest on islands of the tropical Pacific, but they may head out to Japan, the Aleutian Islands, or California to feed. Laysan Albatrosses are numerous, though they face threats from longline fishing, plastic trash in the ocean, and predation by dogs, rats, and cats.

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Keys to identification Help

Gull-like
Gull-like
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Laysan Albatrosses are very large seabirds (though they are among the smaller albatrosses). They have very long, very narrow wings. The neck is thick and the head is large.

  • Color Pattern

    Laysan Albatrosses are white-headed birds with dark gray-brown upperwings and mostly white underwings (with variable dark markings). The underparts are clean white. They have a dark patch around the eye. In flight, note the dark back, white rump, and dark tail.

  • Behavior

    They fly by dynamic soaring: gliding low over the waves and then wheeling up into the sky to take advantage of the wind. They rarely flap their wings. They feed by sitting on the water, often at night, catching squid and other small prey with their bills.

  • Habitat

    Laysan Albatrosses spend most of their time on the open Pacific Ocean, spanning tropical waters up to the southern Bering Sea. They nest on open, sandy or grassy islands, mostly in the Hawaiian Island chain.

Range Map Help

Laysan Albatross Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult and chick

    Laysan Albatross

    Adult and chick
    • Large seabird with long, hooked bill
    • Sooty brown back; white head and underparts
    • Dark patch around eyes
    • Chick dark brown with pale feather tips, gray bill
    • © Daniel Barton, Islote Zapato, Isla Guadalupe, Mexico
  • Adult

    Laysan Albatross

    Adult
    • Large seabird with very long, slender wings
    • Dark sooty brown back and tail
    • White rump, head, and underparts
    • © Doug Sonerholm
  • Adult

    Laysan Albatross

    Adult
    • Large seabird with slender wings and long, hooked bill
    • Mostly white underwing with variable dark markings
    • White underparts
    • Feet typically project beyond tail in flight
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Monterey Bay, California, August 2010
  • Adult

    Laysan Albatross

    Adult
    • Large seabird with very long, slender wings
    • Expert soarer; rarely flaps wings
    • White head and rump
    • Dark back, upperwing, and tail
    • © Mike Thirkell, Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Kauai, Hawaii, February 2013

Similar Species

  • Adults with Laysan Albatrosses

    Black-footed Albatross

    Adults with Laysan Albatrosses
    • Head, underparts, and wings dark sooty brown
    • Darker bill than Laysan Albatross
    • Laysan (background) always has white head and underparts
    • © weedmandan, Eastern Island, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, December 2010
  • Adult

    Black-footed Albatross

    Adult
    • All dark sooty brown above and below
    • More common off the West Coast than Laysan Albatross
    • © Doug Sonerholm , May 2012
  • Breeding adult

    Western Gull

    Breeding adult
    • Much smaller, with smaller head and bill, than Laysan Albatross
    • Much more likely to be seen on shore or near shore
    • Wings dark gray with black wingtips
    • © Lew Ulrey , San Diego County, California, February 2008
  • Breeding Adult

    Western Gull

    Breeding Adult
    • Much smaller, with shorter and broader wings, than Laysan Albatross
    • Smaller head and bill
    • Less adept soarer; flaps much more often than Laysan Albatross
    • Black wingtips and different pattern of white on underwings
    • White tail
    • © Gerry Matthews , Malibu coast, California, August 2012

Similar Species

Black-footed Albatrosses are all dark above and below, whereas Laysan Albatrosses are always white below and on the head and rump. Short-tailed Albatrosses are endangered and rarely seen in North American waters. Adults have white backs and yellow along the head and neck, instead of the Laysan’s dark back and all-white head. Juvenile Short-tailed Albatrosses are all sooty brown, without the Laysan’s white head and underparts. Other species of albatross typically do not occur in the northern Pacific Ocean. Western Gulls are considerably smaller than Laysan Albatrosses with much shorter and broader wings. Gulls such as the Western Gull typically occur close to shore, whereas Laysan Albatrosses are rarely seen from shore. Gulls have a very different flight style, with much more regular wingbeats compared to an albatross’s masterful soaring.

Find This Bird

Laysan Albatrosses are pelagic birds of the open Pacific Ocean. Your best bet for finding one off the continental United States is to take a pelagic birding trip from the West Coast. Note that you are more likely to see Black-footed Albatrosses, but Laysan Albatrosses are fairly regularly seen as well. If you are in Hawaii, there are breeding populations on Oahu and Kauai where you can see the birds from land if you visit in the appropriate months (roughly November to July).

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Masters of the Wind and Sea: Taking vital steps to save the world's magnificent albatrosses. Story and photos in Living Bird magazine.