Birdwatch

Northern Gannet

Beautiful Divers who spend most of their lives at sea

By Susan Campbell

This time of year, a number of species forage along the North Carolina coast, in and around the nutrient-rich Gulf Stream. Many are large birds that spend most of their lives at sea — pelagic species that have anatomical and behavioral adaptations that make such a challenging way of life possible. The most abundant of these birds in our waters is the Northern gannet. But you don’t necessarily have to venture offshore to encounter one.

Northern gannets can frequently be seen from the beach. Some birds will patrol inshore and may be close enough to identify without binoculars. Their coloration and profile make them quite distinctive. Watch for birds a bit larger than our largest gulls (great black-backeds) that are white with black wing tips. Immature birds may be gray in color or blotched gray and white. Like our larger gull species, Northern gannets take three to four years to mature, so their plumage may include a mix of immature and adult feathers.

The Northern gannet is one of the most skilled diving birds in the area. They are visual predators that ascend high above the waves to pinpoint their prey. In winter months, gannets spend most of their time on the move, searching for schools of fish such as menhaden. Whales, dolphins or aggregations of gulls may help clue them in to food sources, but once they find food, they are quick to take advantage of the opportunity.

With powerful wings, they fly some 20 feet or more above the water, and then tuck and dive, piercing the surface like an arrow. Although most dives are relatively shallow, individuals can descend to significant depths. When necessary, gannets can utilize both their wings and feet to propel them over 70 feet below the surface.

One of the most dramatic sights along our beaches is a flock of gannets plunge-diving as if in concert. When bait fish are plentiful, large numbers of Northern gannets will appear, seemingly from out of nowhere. They will converge and then rapidly descend, one after the other, from over 100 feet above the water’s surface. The spectacle may last minutes — or hours — until the school has been depleted.

Not surprisingly, these birds have a heavy, muscular neck and a large, strong, pointed bill. They can take squid as well as large fish. Northern gannets ride high on the surface when sitting on the water. Their strong legs and webbed feet allow for good mobility while swimming.

It is also interesting that the North American breeding population comes from a mere six locations along the Atlantic coast of Canada. Young are produced from nests on the high cliffs of offshore islands. However, a percentage of the gannets found here in the winter also migrate from the coasts of Great Britain and Northern Europe.

So before this winter is over, head to the beach and scan the horizon. You may spot a few of these majestic birds soaring above the waves, on the lookout for their next meal.

To learn more about gannets and other pelagic species, all are welcome to join the Cape Fear Audubon Society on Nov. 11 for a special program at the Halyburton Park Event Center, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

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