We don’t see them often and when we do, they are in trouble. The only reasons a Northern Gannet comes ashore will be injury, illness, starvation or blown off course by a storm. When one becomes too weak or unable to fly, it will float on the ocean until the tide carries it to shore. Northern Gannets are the largest indigenous seabird in the North Atlantic with wingspans of 68 – 70 inches and weigh in at 6 – 8 pounds. They spend most of their lives at sea. This magnificent pelagic seabird, that reaches adult maturity in 5 years, is known for its gorgeous pale blue eyes accentuated by a ring of bare, bluish-black skin and contrasting snow white body with black wing tips and is so strikingly beautiful it’s a visual gift. Gannets are among the world’s most renowned divers, descending from heights of up to 130 feet as they plunge into the ocean at 60 plus miles per hour. 68% of the world’s population of Northern Gannets breeds off the coasts of Great Britain and Scotland, but there will be ‘companies’ of Gannets wintering off North Carolina’s coast with some of our local Solan Geese, which is a name of Scandinavian origin given to Northern Gannets. Some colonies will be as large as 60,000 pairs. Occasionally a Gannet will be admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport and upon receipt of the bird, we know it will be a touch and go situation. Recently that was the case when a Good Samaritan rescued a beached adult Gannet, unable to fly who showed no signs of injury when examined but was only half his expected body weight. Gannets eat any small fish such as sardines, anchovies, haddock, smelt, Atlantic Cod and the young of larger fish species. Squid is also a menu choice for these vertical divers. They dive into the sea as straight as an arrow with wings and feet retracted and tucked tightly against their body. The Gannet has highly developed lungs, secondary nostrils that close and a long, strong sternum protecting their internal organs when impacting with the water. These anatomical features are perfect for the high speed and deep diving they are capable of. Individual Gannets have a subcutaneous fat layer, dense down and tightly overlapping feathers that help them withstand low temperatures. The reduced blood flow in the webbing on their feet also helps maintain their body temperature when they swim. Their feathers enjoy a higher level of waterproofing than other seabirds that need to dry out between foraging sessions. Northern Gannets produce an impermeable secretion in their sebaceous glands which they spread across their body using their beak or their head. Gannets breed in large colonies along the Atlantic, and boaters have witnessed spectacular displays of plunge-diving for fish by Gannets in the hundreds. Once beneath the water, it uses its wings and feet to swim in pursuit of a meal. They grab food with their long, strong, conical bill and always eat it under water. They never fly with a fish in their bill. Northern Gannets nest offshore, and most often, nests are found tucked into inaccessible cliffs. Some breeding colonies are recorded as being located in the same place for hundreds of years. The cliffs containing gannetries, when seen from a distance, appear to be covered in snow, due to the extraordinary number of nests present. Constructed of compacted mud, seaweed, grasses, feathers and their own waste matte, a Gannet’s nest is definitely a testament to the value of recycling! The males usually collect the materials necessary for nest building. Off the coast of North Carolina, because cliffs are not available, Northern Gannets will nest on islands or flat surfaces, however, they find it more difficult to take off from these locations, requiring them to often cross an area occupied by an adjacent nest which causes stress and aggression from the pair occupying a trespassed nest. Despite bold assertions of the group toward one another, Gannets always nest close together. There are no loners during breeding season. Northern Gannets will lay only one egg rather than 2 or 3 like most seabirds. If two eggs are found in a Gannet’s nest it’s the result of two females laying an egg in the same nest or an egg has been stolen from another nest. Incubation takes 42 to 46 days and occurs under the webbing of their feet, flooded with warming blood. An infant can take up to 36 hours to break through the thick eggshell. At this time, the adult will release the egg from its feet to prevent the egg from breaking under the adult’s massive weight. Northern Gannets learn the hard way in their first breeding year that if they aren’t cautious about that, the chick may die. The warm webbed feet are also used to cover the newborn, which is rarely left alone by the parents. A hatchling will spend about 13 weeks in the nest with the parents where it is fed regurgitated fish and is fiercely monitored to prevent attack or death by Black-Backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Ravens, Ermine, Red Fox or other Northern Gannets. Nature can be harsh! Fledglings are brown with white wing tips, and they have white spots on their heads and backs. Once a Northern Gannet fledges from its nesting colony and is on the water, it will remain there for as long as two weeks because it has not learned how to take off from a water runway yet. While flying muscles comprise 20% total weight for most seabirds, Northern Gannets’ flying muscles are less than 13% which demands they warm up before they fly and that they calculate and rely on the wind, especially wind produced by the front of a wave. Bobbing in the water is also a safer place for a youngster to be than risk accidently tripping into Gannet breeding ground. They are not sturdy on their feet as land walkers due to the location of their legs so far back on the body. Gannets are swimmers and flyers! The young have a fat reserve, allowing them to go without eating for up to 2 weeks, but don’t worry; the parents are still close by for further fishing and flying training. The maximum lifespan known for a Northern Gannet is 35 years. Adult Gannets are not heavily preyed upon, but when it happens, an eagle, shark or seal is usually the bandit. If you ever get the opportunity to see a Northern Gannet, savor that momentary visual gift because it may never happen again!!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Everyone!!
Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of