An Albatross, Buttered Popcorn, and County Lines at Sea

The bait

A Tale of Birding Glory and Shame

Last Saturday, word went out that fishermen had photographed a Short-tailed Albatross just a few miles off-shore of Long Beach, California. This was a big deal. The species was declared extinct in 1949, only to be rediscovered on a tiny Japanese island 2 years later. Conservation efforts have brought the global population to over 5,000 birds. But 5,000 birds isn’t a lot.  (A recent study estimated that there are 1.6 billion House Sparrows on Earth.) Moreover, they typically stay in the northern Pacific Ocean. Ebird contains less than half a dozen sightings for Short-tailed Albatross in the waters off Southern California (one of them from 1898).

So it was not surprising that a boat ride was quickly organized for Sunday morning. The cost for the chance to see the bird was $100. My son had a little league playoff game that morning, and I’m just not enough of a twitcher to spend $100 on the chance to see a particular bird, however astounding and amazing it is to watch an albatross fly. And it is astounding and amazing. I was lucky enough to watch them take off, and soar, at Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai a few years ago. 

Laysan Albatross, Kauai, Hawaii

The Sunday boat trip was a success.  Close and sustained looks were had by all aboard the boat. Photos of the Short-tailed Albatross clearly showed some extensive right wing damage. Reports were that the albatross appeared quite reluctant to fly. It was even spotted in both Los Angeles and Orange County waters, rewarding those on board with two county ticks for a mega-rare bird. 

On Tuesday, the story got a little complicated. A former LA birder, and well-known pelagic bird guide, Todd McGrath, posted an email to the LA County birds listserv expressing concerns about what went down on Sunday. [Note: neither Todd, nor I, was on the boat. So all I’m relating here is what I’ve read and heard]. Todd’s concern was that those on the boat put in substantial effort, using popcorn as chum, to lure the albatross several miles from L.A. County waters to Orange County waters. Why would someone do such a thing, risky to the well-being of even a healthy bird, much less an impaired bird? For one reason and one reason only: to add Short-tailed Albatross to their Orange County life list.

A map showing approximate county borders at sea

Todd called these actions regarding a highly threatened and injured species, if true, “inappropriate at best, unethical for sure, and quite possibly illegal at worst.” He acknowledged he wasn’t on the boat, and welcomed anyone who was on it to share their version of events or respond to his concerns. No one has responded, at least not on the listserv. That suggests to me that “lured a threatened and injured bird miles away with popcorn so a few nerds could add it to another list of birds they’ve seen in an arbitrary spot” accurately describes what happened.


If true, it’s a shame. Most of us love our lists, and delight in adding to them. But at the end of the day, they are nothing more than an artifact of our wonderful experiences in the field. To the extent that listing encourages birding and (more importantly) concerns about conservation, then listing has value. But if the list is more important than the birds, you’ve got your priorities mixed up. And if you’re not satisfied getting up-close looks at a globally-threatened species in one spot, but insist on seeing it from a particular spot just a little bit over there, too (and then use human food to lure the injured bird to that particular spot where you want to see the bird), then you’re doing birding all wrong.


  1. Jen

    Yeah, luring rare birds to a close by county is the kind of thing you might joke about doing but should not actually do. I saw yesterday that one of the photographers on the boat is now complaining that someone downrated all his eBird photos of the bird, probably because of how they were obtained.

  2. KDL

    wow – that trip and checklist is becoming quite an albatross around the neck for some folks. And who knew that caring about eBird photo rankings was a thing in the world that matters.

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