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For most of the twentieth century, the Wandering Albatross was considered to be a single species, which went through a number of distinguishable plumage phases in the course of its life. Despite some being clearly separable, not all were (or are), which meant that there were either five or seven ages to the life of a wanderer - and there was further uncertainty as to whether the females ever reached the final phase. In essence, a Wandering Albatross fledges, already over a year old, with brown/black plumage and a white face. As it ages, the body feathers moult to white, as do the wing feathers, which start to pale later in life. An older adult will have an all white body and tail with dark wing tips. See also the Gibson Plumage Index.

Aside: The white in the wing spreads from the centre of the wing, not the forewing. This is an important field characteristic for separating the Wanderer from the Royal Albatross.

However, in recent years, much closer study of these birds on their breeding islands has lead to the realisation that not all birds go through all stages, and that breeding is certainly possible when birds are still in relatively dark plumage. For example, the antipodensis female retains a generally dark brown plumage whilst the males tend to have a brown patch on the crown. In comparison, the gibsoni is paler and the chionoptera is palest.

This last was once known as the Snowy Albatross and considered a different species from the other two - and some bird scientists now wish to split out all three as full species rather than subspecies. There has been some controversy in the birding world as a result. This is not just the traditional argument between lumpers and splitters, as it becomes almost impossible to identify any of the birds at sea. In fact, one of the few confirmed records on antipodensis at sea was a result of the bird actually being brought onto the boat and having its vital statistics measured.

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