Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Northern Gannet

Northern Gannet photo by Al Wilson,
I’m headed to Florida’s Space Coast Birding Festival the last weekend of January. I will be spending a lot of time gawking at spectacular birds so close that I’ll need to crank down my zoom lens to fit them on my camera screen. But whenever I’m on the coast, I’ll be scanning the horizon, trying to pick out a very distant Northern Gannet. In 1988, Russ and I spent Thanksgiving in Florida, and brought our kids to Cocoa Beach. They all went swimming while I manned my spotting scope, searching for any sign of a gannet. After a long search, I finally picked one out, diving far far out in the distance. It’s the only gannet I’ve ever seen in the wild. Russ had already seen several at close range, when he was out on the Atlantic on a research vessel while working on his Ph.D.

Gannets are huge birds, averaging over 3 feet long from tip of beak to tip of tail, with a 6-foot wingspan, and they’re fairly heavy, weighing over 6 ½ pounds. They fly 30–130 feet above the water, and when they spot a fish set their wings in a steep arrow and plunge-dive straight down, hitting the water at a speed of over 60 miles per hour. An extensive network of air sacs between their muscles and skin absorbs the shock of impact. Even from a distance, the sight of this plunge-diving gannet is thrilling.

Northern Gannet photo by

Gannets breed in the seas of the far north. The gannets that breed in North America are concentrated in 6 breeding colonies, three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Québec and three on the Atlantic coast off Newfoundland. During winter, they fly and fish their way down the Atlantic, largely within waters overlying the continental shelf from New England to Florida and then west along the Gulf Coast to Texas and northeastern Mexico. Adults tend to stay much further north than young birds. The Birds of North America entry for gannets says some first-year individuals may remain in tropical waters during first breeding season, but more young gannets remain in the Gulf of Mexico than most scientists realized before the BP oil spill. A paper published in October 2011 in Biology Letters said that using modern bird-tracking techniques, scientists have learned that more than twice as many young gannets winter in the Gulf of Mexico than were believed to, and yet adults are far less common in the Gulf than scientists thought.

Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Northern Gannets suffered the highest oiling among beach-wrecked birds recovered after the spill, as I saw firsthand with one of my friends, Vickie. She and I spent a few hours in August 2010 attending a press briefing at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic near Mobile, Alabama. The only birds we saw in the treatment room were immature gannets.

Northern Gannet getting an  examination

The staff, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service representative briefing us, seemed mystified why so many gannets had become oiled, and why every one of them was an immature, but this was during the height of the breeding season, when adults were thousands of miles north. Gannets fishing are essentially taking random samples of the waters—the spill was so huge, and so dispersed, with some of it well below the surface, that of course a great many of the birds diving deep into the water and swimming about were going to find themselves in oil plumes. Hundreds of oiled gannets washed to shore, a small percentage of the actual number oiled. Gannets live entirely in the deep water far from shore, and most of their bodies aren’t carried so far.

Examining flight feather condition

Fortunately, overall gannet numbers are strong, and assuming we don’t hit them with more Gulf oil spills, they should fully recover. I’m hoping against hope to see one in Florida. I need to cleanse my brain of the images of those poor oiled gannets on clinic tables, wrapped in blankets and struggling for survival. Seeing one flying strong above the ocean, setting its wings, and plunging into the depths is exactly what I need.