Birds

How an albatross got to Portsmouth Island

Albatross on Portsmouth Island. Mrs. Abner Dixon, teacher of this smallest school with two pupils, Myrtle and Doris Midgette. Photo by Aycock Brown, published in the Ocracoke Beacon, 1941.

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By Peter Vankevich

Visitors to Portsmouth Island may notice a photograph in the school exhibit of a teacher and two students with a large seabird.

It is not clear whether the bird is alive or is a stuffed specimen.

It is not a Northern Gannet nor a large gull. Gannets and several species of gulls, such as the Great Black-backed Gull, which is one of the largest gulls in the world, are common to these waters.

The bird in the photo is an albatross.

Could one have shown up on Portsmouth, possibly seen dead on the beach? If so, it would be an extremely rare bird for this area.

Albatrosses are the world’s largest seabirds with wingspans up to 12 feet. Ornithologists debate about how many separate species there are, but one number is 22. These birds range widely in the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific and are absent from the North Atlantic, though on extremely rare occasions vagrants are seen in the Eastern Atlantic.

This happened on Feb. 5, 2000, when Brian Patterson photographed a Yellow-nosed Albatross off the Outer Banks. Another was photographed in 2014. There are only a few North Carolina photographic records of albatrosses since then including twice off Cape Hatteras.

A Yellow-nosed Albatross off Cape Hatteras, Feb 22, 2014. Photo by Jeff Pippen

Jeff Pippen, a former researcher and teacher at Duke University, photographed a Black-browed Albatross on Feb. 18, 2012. No other albatross species has been confirmed off Carolina waters.

So, what about the mysterious photo of one on Portsmouth?

Aycock Brown came to the rescue in the Dec. 15, 1941, edition of the Ocracoke Island Beacon and provided details in two articles below.

SMALLEST SCHOOL.

The smallest school in North Carolina, from number of students enrolled, (and probably the smallest in the United States) is located at Portsmouth.  One-half of the student body of this school is pictured below, and the queer looking bird is not a gigantic sea gull, but an albatross. (Story about albatross elsewhere in this edition). Mrs. Abner Dixon, teacher of this smallest school, is shown in the insert. The two pupils shown are Myrtle and Doris Midgette, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Joan Midgette, residents of the island community on the south side of Ocracoke Inlet. – (photo by Aycock Brown).

Here is the rest of the story in the same issue:

Elsewhere in this edition today is a picture of Mrs. Abner Dixon, teacher of North Carolina’s smallest school, half of her student body, and a stuffed albatross…. [T]he moth-eaten stuffed bird…at first appeared to be a gigantic sea gull.

But this is the story about that albatross.

When we approached the school house, we saw the moth-eaten stuffed bird which at first appeared to be a gigantic sea gull. Interested we asked Mrs. Dixon about the bird, learned it was an albatross, and then wanted to know the story of how this gigantic seabird, native of the Antarctic, happened to be at Portsmouth, so she told the story.

“Years ago, a group of men arriving at Tom Bragg’s for the duck and geese shooting, received as a joke from some friends who could not come along, the stuffed albatross. They knew that while a live albatross is an omen of good luck that a dead one was an omen of bad luck. Whether the stuffed bird brought bad hunting luck to the party is not remembered.

“After the party left, the big bird was passed from one family to another, each getting rid of it because of the superstition that it was bad luck to have it in the house. Finally, I told them that I was not superstitious, and to let me have the albatross for the school. I cannot see that it has brought the school bad luck.”

Then we asked Mrs. Dixon how many students she had enrolled when she first came to Portsmouth. “About 35,” was her reply. And how many did you have enrolled 10 years ago, we asked. “Fifteen or 20,” she added. “And today you have only four pupils?” we asked. Her reply was in the affirmative.

It all caused me to wonder, if perhaps the stuffed albatross was not bringing bad luck to the school –and that would surely be an indication of something or other—dead albatross or no dead albatross. –Aycock Brown.

So, it is not known where the stuffed specimen came from, but unlikely taken from the Outer Banks.

It is not clear from the photo what species of albatross it could be. Back then, it was not unusual to take a dead albatross and have it stuffed, as in this case.

A check with Rosanne Sims Penley, president of the Friends of Portsmouth Island, Kenneth Burke, renowned scholar on the history of Portsmouth village, and Chester Lynn of Ocracoke with long ties to Portsmouth, showed none knew what became of it.

There you have it.  Visitors to Portsmouth should not assume that this albatross was a rare visitor to the island.

Black-browed Albatross with a Northern Gannet, back left, and an immature Great Black-backed Gull with raised wings. Photographed by Jeff Pippen off Hatteras, Feb. 18, 2012