For centuries, the sighting of an albatross at sea was considered good luck and a sign of an approaching landfall.
When Paul Martin sighted an Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, native to the South Atlantic Ocean, in Kingston, Ont., he thought he'd spent too much time in the long-weekend sun.
"It was one of the craziest moments of my life," said Mr. Martin, an assistant professor in the department of biology at Queen's University who studies birds. "I thought it was some kind of practical joke."
He was so surprised that he was initially reluctant to share his sighting with the birding community, even though the majestic bird made three close passes over his head on July 4. "I was afraid no one was going to believe me," Prof. Martin said. "It was kind of like saying there's a leprechaun in the backyard."
In paying its first recorded visit to Ontario, the albatross somehow managed to stray about 10,000 kilometres off course. Last Saturday, two weeks after the Kingston sighting, it crash-landed on nearby Wolfe Island, emaciated and near death. An island resident brought it to the Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre in Napanee, about 25 kilometres west of Kingston.
Sue Meech, director of Sandy Pines, said Wednesday the adult albatross, which requires a diet of seafood, has lost about half its body weight. A healthy Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross weighs about 2.8 kilograms with a wingspan that can approach two metres.
She started the albatross on clear fluids via a feeding tube and has seen some improvement in the bird's condition, but she is not optimistic about its chances of survival. "It's just not used to human contact and is a very high-stressed bird," she said.
Ms. Meech, who's more used to treating hawks, owls, deer and other local wildlife, has been in contact with seabird experts at the Tri-State Bird Rescue centre in Delaware and at Tufts University near Boston. But even they, she says, have limited experience with such an unusual foreign visitor. "We're all treading on new ground here," she said.
The wildlife centre is not allowing visitors, and Ms. Meech is limiting feeding visits to 15 minutes, four times a day. "The more we stay away the better," she said. The centre has turned down media requests for pictures and turned away a few local birders eager to add a rare checkmark to their list of sightings.
Prof. Martin says if the bird is able to regain strength, its best chance for survival would be for an eventual release off the coast of Argentina. Its normal habitat encompasses the islands in the South Atlantic Ocean between Africa and South America.
"It's a pretty tricky situation," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "It's not easy to keep it in captivity. If it can recover, a whole bunch of people will have to orchestrate a release."
Prof. Martin said there have been past reported sightings of the species in New Brunswick and the Lake Champlain area of New York State. He speculates the bird may have travelled up the Hudson River Valley after being blown toward the northwest by a storm front or strong upper-level winds. It's also possible the bird has a health condition which has caused its internal navigation system to go haywire. Ms. Meech says it's possible the albatross got as far north as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and then flew up the St. Lawrence River to Eastern Ontario.
Prof. Martin was pulling his two-year-old son Sean in a wagon along the Kingston waterfront when he spotted the albatross on the shore of Lake Ontario and had no camera or binoculars with him. He had seen an Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross 10 years ago during a trip to South Africa. "I was stunned," he said. "It really caught me off guard."
The Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross is listed as globally endangered by Birdlife International, a respected list of threatened birds. They breed on Gough Island and the Tristan da Cunha group of islands, with mating pairs producing one egg in September or October.