My first gannet encounter took my breath away such was the spectacle of both the magnificent sight and smell of a huge breeding colony. anyone with a passion for wildlife should put this bird to the top of their must-see animals
Where you can find Britain’s largest seabird
The northern gannet (Morus bassanus), normally referred to as simply a gannet, is the largest of the Sulidae family, which also includes birds such as the blue-footed booby. An imposing and elegant seabird, it can be seen at a number of coastal locations around Britain. It is easily recognisable against other species inhabiting similar areas due to its sheer presence, particularly when it’s airborne.
Adults have a predominantly white plumage and black wingtips with a light yellow-buff colouring on the head and back of the neck, somewhat reminiscent of a French Foreign Legionnaire’s cap. Gannets have a large, grey and fearsome-looking dagger-like bill that is used to great effect when defending nesting territory. Their appearance is complemented by sky-blue circles of skin around piercing eyes, a feature associated with the bird’s sometimes alternative name of spectacled goose.
Fully grown adults weigh between 2.5 and 3.6 kilograms (5.5 and 7.9 pounds), are around 92 to 110 centimetres (36.2 to 43.3 inches) long and have a wingspan that can measure from 1.7 to 1.8 metres (5.6 to 5.9 feet). While juveniles aged two to three years may appear similar in size to adults, they’re easily distinguishable as they don’t acquire the full distinctive white plumage (especially on their wings) until the completion of successive moults usually over a period of four years or so.
The behavioural activity of these birds is fascinating, both in terms of their feeding
technique and the raising of young. Shoaling fish, such as mackerel and herring, comprise most of their diet, and in the animal world the gannet has a dramatic and somewhat unique way of catching them.
They often go hunting far out to sea in search of suitable shoals of fish, and when one is found the sky above it soon becomes congested with gannets all looking to get in on the act. essentially, they divebomb near vertically into the water, often from a height of around 30 metres (98.4 feet) or more, reaching tremendous speed as they near the surface. Just before entering the water, the head points downward and the wings are drawn closely back behind the body to form a streamlined, almost missile-like shape. They dive up to a depth of some 20 metres (65.6 feet) to catch fish, often targeting more than one individual at a time when submerged by using their large webbed feet to chase their intended prey.
The question of how they avoid injury in using what seems to be a very risky fishing method comes to mind. The answer is that they have a few tricks up their sleeve, so to speak, which enable them to dive relatively safely. For instance, unlike the vast majority of birds, gannets don’t have external nostrils (they breathe through their bill), thus helping to prevent water entry. In addition, prior to impact a strong, transparent membrane instinctively closes over the eyes to protect them during a dive, which can last up to 40 seconds or more.
Furthermore, gannets have a labyrinth of air pockets beneath the skin situated around the skull and neck regions. These provide a cushioning effect not too dissimilar to the way bubble wrap works when the bird impacts with the water. however, given the large number of birds that may be fishing in a rather small area of the sea, and the high impact speeds involved, unfortunately collisions between diving birds do occur, sometimes resulting in their death.
on reaching full adult maturity at five years of age, gannets pair up for life and will use the same nest each year within the gannetry. Nesting colonies typically exist
“Gannets have a large, grey and fearsomelooking dagger-like bill that is used to great effect when defending nesting territory”
on cliff faces or small islands near the coast that are safe from predators. During early april, the established breeding males return to the site first, with the females arriving later, which inevitably leads to a greeting display between the pair to reaffirm and strengthen their bond. The ritual begins with each bird standing and facing each other; the neck is then stretched with bills positioned near vertical, after which they turn their heads from side to side, gently allowing their bills to cross and rub together.
Nest refurbishment begins in earnest shortly after returning to the site. The male gathers most of the material used, which can be a combination of seaweed and grass or other foliage, especially so at coastal cliff locations. Space between nests within the gannetry is very much at a premium and it’s defended vigorously should a neighbour encroach onto it. Such skirmishes break out on a frequent basis, and when they do the trespasser is fended off by their respective gender, males seeing off other males while the female rushes to confront any intruding members of the same sex.
Between late april and the middle of June is when the female lays a single egg. Incubation is shared by both parents and takes approximately 44 days. When the chick emerges from its shell both parents are usually present, one of them wasting no time to give their new-born offspring a first meal of regurgitated fish. after three weeks the chick has grown considerably and has a thick white down.
at this initial stage of its life a gannet chick is not particularly attractive, as in the case of the swan’s ‘ugly duckling’ in the famous children’s song, metaphorically speaking. however, when it’s around 90 to 100 days old its appearance will be very different, for it will have transformed into a beautiful-looking juvenile gannet ready to leave the nest, fend for itself and face its first winter out in the North atlantic.
BeLowAny form of vegetation is used to line a gannet’s refurbished nest I’ve been photographing wildlife for 30 years. Being entirely self-taught, in my opinion knowledge of your equipment, the subject, perseverance, practice and above all patience are key to capturing a great image. My work has been published in various national and regional magazines and I’m also a contributor to stock agencies such as Alamy. Gannet pairs use various behavioural displays tostrengthen their bondPhotographer’s biomichaeltaylorphoto.co.uk
BeLow Nesting space is very limited, and although they appear to be spaced evenly, conflicts between neighbours are never far away
aBove The gannet has a huge wingspan that it uses effortlessly to ride the thermal currents