Winter Bird Notes: Northern Gannet

Posted on Posted in Birds and Birding, Featured Creature, Winter

I had heard of people watching Northern Gannets diving right near the shore in the winter, but so far, every time I have been watching the beach in the winter, I haven’t been able to catch this in action. Yesterday, I was actually grumbling about that to a friend on the beach when we looked up and saw a Gannet emerging from the waves. After awkwardly running off the water and into the air, the bird rose to a height above the blustery waves, and then plunged headlong into another wave. We watched a few of them for a while, and it really was thrilling. I read something in the paper one winter about people watching them from the Ravenel Bridge.

The Northern Gannet, Morus bassanus, is one of the largest seabirds in our area. They have large webbed feet, and a wingspan of 72 inches. They feed by plunge diving, and can dive from heights of 10 to 40 meters to a depth of 22 meters. According to Cornell University’s All About Birds site,

Most plunge-dives are relatively shallow, but the Northern Gannet can dive as deep as 22 meters (72 feet). It uses its wings and feet to swim deeper in pursuit of fish.

There are only six breeding colonies on our side of the Atlantic, three of them in Newfoundland off the Labrador coast, and three in Quebec in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Adults greet each other by clacking bills together, seen here in this video. Before chicks can fly, they plunge from the cliff nest into the water and begin swimming as part of migration. While there are many predators of Gannet eggs and chicks, the only specific predator of adults is the Bald Eagle. They winter at sea, with many traveling to the waters off Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. In February, migration north begins. They feed on fish schooling near the surface of the water, and they can fly in storms and high wind. Here is a video clip showing them diving from above and below the water. It has a sad ending, but the video footage is great!

Gannets are so striking that they did not escape the attention of early Naturalists to our area. Mark Catesby, an English naturalist who lived in Charleston, wrote of colleague John Lawson, who described the Gannet’s commercial value:

His fat or grease is as yellow as saffron, and the best thing known to preserve firearms, from rust.

Catesby in Natural History of Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, published between 1731 and 1743.

This was a new bird for me… if you are not participating in the Dewees Island Big Year contest, you can join us at any time!

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