By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
"Oh my God -- look at the whales!" The guy in front of me was shouting with excitement and the crew of birdwatchers on our ocean birdwatching trip surged toward the bow of the boat. Indeed we could see a sea of spouts erupting ahead of us, too many as a matter of fact. The more experienced birders started laughing out loud, for what we were seeing was a flock of gannets, whistling straight down into the water, creating a vertical splash ten or fifteen feet high. Whales would have been nice, but after all, this was a birding trip.
Northern Gannets have always had special significance to people who love to be on the beach on Nantucket. Birders and fishermen alike enjoy these black and white, primitive-looking birds. Fishermen look for them because, like terns, they tell them where the fish are hiding. Gannets feed exclusively on fish, so when they are diving, there are fish near the surface, mackerel and herring, possibly driven up by bluefish below.
Although gannets resemble gulls, they are not close relatives, being a completely different family -- along with the warm water loving 'boobies'. Since scientists feel they are an older group of species, they fall earlier in the birding checklist. Gannets are also quite huge, with a wingspread of six feet.
An adult gannet is virtually unmistakable. From a distance, they appear solid white, with jet-black wing tips. They never stray from salt water. For that matter, the only time they touch land is during their summer nesting cycle, and this is accomplished on almost inaccessible islands, mainly up in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Young gannets are much different -- brown, becoming more mottled as they go through their teens. It's not until they reach their third winter that they reach their black and whiteness.
Northern Gannets have only recently regained their numbers after disastrous persecution in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Audubon was one of the earliest to write about them when visiting Bird Rock off the coast of Labrador in 1833. At that time, he imagined the top of the island was covered with snow. He reported that fishermen regularly visited the location and they'd been known to bludgeon over 500 dead in an hour. Then the flesh was used for codfish bait.
In 1860, the colony was still estimated at 100,000 birds but then the continued abuse resulted in a precipitous decline -- 5,000 in 1872 and only 50 in 1881. This delayed reaction is related to the long life of these birds. As the population ages, the numbers aren't observed to decline, but without continual replacement by younger birds, suddenly the species seems to crash.
Now, Bird Rock, and the other major nesting spot, Bonaventure Island, are both protected by the Canadian government and gannet numbers have recovered. This same species lives across the north Atlantic. Indeed, the family name, Sulidae, comes from the Icelandic, referring to an awkward fellow. Although marvelous in the air, gannets are clumsy on the ground.
The gannet nesting cycle starts in June with the laying of a single egg in a huge nest that is built upon every year. After being incubated almost six weeks, that egg hatches, but then it isn't until early September that the chicks finally plunge into the terrifying abyss from the edge of the rock and have a controlled crash in the sea. Then they are waterbound for another two or three weeks until they lose enough of their baby fat to actually take off again. It sounds like a perilous start to life, but enough of them make it to sustain the population.
Then they head south, arriving around our island in early October and becoming very common through the month of November. Most desert us in the dead of winter, and many delight the birders in Florida where the splashing dives make people think of whales.
On Nantucket, the best place to see them is off the eastern side of the island, from Tom Never's up to Great Point. Codfish Park in 'Sconset is often a great spot. Sometimes they congregate there by the hundreds, over hapless schools of fish. The birds circle and dive from fifty to a hundred feet up, plunging straight down and then closing their wings and arrowing into the water at the last moment. After five or six seconds, they pop back up buoyantly, swallow their catch and then scamper across the water to become airborne again. The numbers drop rapidly in May with only a few non-breeders hanging around in the summer.
George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.
The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m. from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.