Walking along the Ohope beach of a morning, I often see gannets working just beyond the breaking waves. Large white birds with long black tipped wings and a golden head and neck, they are easily recognisable by their noble profile when flying, so unlike the pedestrian gulls that hang about the beach in gangs.
The gannet, according to the ornithologist W.H.Oliver, presented itself for discovery by Europeans at the most fitting time, at least for the crew of Captain Cook’s ship the Endeavour, during its first voyage to New Zealand. The incident is described in Sir Joseph Banks’ diary: “24th December 1769. Land in sight. An island or rather several small ones, most probably the Three Kings. From a boat they killed several gannets or solan geese, so like European ones that they are hardly distinguishable from them. As it was the humour of the ship to keep Christmas in the old–fashioned way, it was resolved to make goose–pie for tomorrow’s dinner.
“25th, Christmas Day: Our goose pie was eaten with great approbation; in the evening all hands were as drunk as our forefathers used to be upon like occasions.”
The gannet family or Sulidae is related to the shags and pelicans and contains mainly the tropical boobies. There are three subspecies, bassana of the North Atlantic, capensis of southern Africa and serrator of New Zealand and Australia. Morus serrator breeds in New Zealand, the Norfolk group of islands and Australia. In New Zealand they breed in 28 colonies, the largest being Gannet Island, west of Kawhai, and White Island in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
To see a company of gannets working a shoal of fish is a memorable sight. At one moment flying perhaps a 100 feet above the waves with a steady rhythmic beat and then swooping to just skimming the waves before lifting high again, steadying itself and then, with astonishing speed, diving, head first into the water with a splash. They will reappear a few seconds later and then rise from the water with consummate ease and grace to start the hunt again. Just before entry into the water they fully stretch their wings backwards, entering the water at tremendous speeds. Inflatable air sacks beneath the skin on the lower neck and breast absorb the shock of entry. In shallow water they dive at an angle.
The diet of gannets is mainly small fish such as pilchards, anchovy and jack mackerel from shallow water and saury from deep water. They are almost entirely marine, feeding primarily over the continental shelf and inshore waters but they may also enter harbours and estuaries. They are classified as a protected native bird.
Gannets have not suffered the depradations of other birds in New Zealand. The habit of nesting on islands protects them. The breeding colonies are generally deserted during most of the autumn and early winter. The date breeding birds return varies according to where the colony is. The first birds appear in late July and the breeding population steadily increases reaching a peak by mid November. Male birds return first to sites they occupied the previous year.
Even a short visit to a gannetry shows the intense activity of breeding birds and their ritualised displays, the way they present seaweed to each other, the impressive greeting ceremonies and solo dances which studies have revealed are essential for maintaining ownership of the nest site and consequently the ability to rear a chick.
Gannets generally mate for life and the presence of the male on the nest helps him renew contact with the female when she arrives. Young birds arrive last and are forced to establish nests on the colony’s boundary or sometimes on a few inner sites left unoccupied by the death of older birds.
Once the pair bond is established, the male begins to gather material for the nest while the female defends the nest itself. Analysis at White Island and Cape Kidnappers has shown the nesting material to be of coarse brown seaweeds. The nest is constructed just beyond the pecking range of neighbours and during incubation the sitting bird’s excreta cements and consolidates the nest structure.
A single egg is laid which may be replaced if broken or rolled out of the nest. Both the male and female incubate the egg in turn with the webs of both feet placed over the egg although towards the end of the incubation period of 42–44 days the egg is transferred to the top of the feet. The naked blind and helpless chick is fed by gurgitation by both parents; one guarding the nest while the other is out gathering food.
Banding of gannet chicks has provided information on the movements of young gannets and on their survival rates. The Australasian gannet migrates westward to the eastern and southern coasts of Australia. Some birds have been recorded as far away as northern Queensland and Freemantle in Western Australia. The perilous journey is taken without parental guidance on the young bird’s first flight but as many as 30 per cent survive.
Immature gannets return to New Zealand when 2–5 years of age and breed from 4–7 years of age. With an estimated life span of 25–38 years, gannets are one of the longest living sea birds.
89 cm., 2.3 kg., white with buff yellow head and black flight feathers, bill pale blue, feet grey; juvenile spotted.
Where to find: —
Largest breeding colonies, White Island, Kawhai, Cape Kidnappers. Common around the coast.
Youtube video —
May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care's hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet's clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews' singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides 'mid burghers some heavy business,
Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft
Must bide above brine.
Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,
Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then
Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now
The heart's thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
Moaneth alway my mind's lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there's no mood-lofty man over earth's midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful
But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare
Whatever his lord will.
He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world's delight
Nor any whit else save the wave's slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying,
He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow,
The bitter heart's blood. Burgher knows not -
He the prosperous man - what some perform
Where wandering them widest draweth.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood 'mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale's acre, would wander wide.
On earth's shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O'er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That any earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man's tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body.
And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after -
Laud of the living, boasteth some last word,
That he will work ere he pass onward,
Frame on the fair earth 'gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, ...
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain 'mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life's-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
Days little durable,
And all arrogance of earthen riches,
There come now no kings nor Cæsars
Nor gold-giving lords like those gone.
Howe'er in mirth most magnified,
Whoe'er lived in life most lordliest,
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low.
Earthly glory ageth and seareth.
No man at all going the earth's gait,
But age fares against him, his face paleth,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o'ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.
— Ezra Pound
translation from the anglo-saxon
Credit for the photograph: —
Illustration description: —
Gould, John, Birds of Australia, 1840-48.
Lewin, William, Birds of Great Britain, 1st edition, 1789.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Page date & version: —
Thursday, 28 October, 2010; ver2009v1