Saturday, September 5, 2015


I saw a gannet off the south coast just recently.  He was out to sea from McCracken’s Rest and easy to distinguish from gulls and mollymawks, even at a distance, by the brilliant white gloss of the wings.  I couldn’t pick up the black wingtips and certainly not the yellow head, but the way gannets fly makes them unmistakeable.
Gannets breed in small numbers on Little Solander Island, Possibly Big Solander and also on The Nuggets.  They probably nested along the south coast too, to the west of the Wairaurahiri mouth.  They are sparse down here which is their southern extreme in the world.  In Bay of Plenty and in the Hauraki Gulf they are abundant.
The gannet has a wingspan of 1.8m but like the mollymawks it weighs almost nothing.  Large air spaces in the body, hollow bones and surprisingly little muscle make the birds light and manoeuvrable.  We find the odd one dead on the beach.  Several of them have been wearing bands.  The young ones are speckled brown but the adults are white with that yellow feathering on the head, and black feet with a green stripe down each toe.  They feed by plunging from a decent height into a school of fish and snaffling one several metres down.  It’s great watching them.  The flocks of shearwaters feeding close to the sea have to keep a weather eye out for what’s happening upstairs.  Every now and again a feathered flechette plunges past and the odd unhappy shearwater has been skewered.  

I took a tourist group from a cruise ship to see the Hawkes Bay colony.  We are at Cape Kidnappers.  We are two metres from the closest of the many pairs of gannets nesting on the clifftop.  There are chicks of all ages.  It’s a moment of revelation for one passenger.  “Oh, they’re birds.”  Admittedly we may not have used the word ‘bird’ in the briefing but subtle clues like wingspan, migration, plumage and chicks should have suggested that we were not going to visit a worm farm.  Here come the questions...
“Where do they nest?” We are staring at a thousand gannet nests and it’s painful resisting a sarcastic answer.  “What’s the fence for?” I’m asked, so I say that it is a reserve.   “For Indians?” she asks.  “No, for gannets.”  “What are gannets?”  “These birds are gannets.”  Someone else wants to know if they come back to the same chick all the time.  “Yes madam, boring as it may seem that is the nature of parenthood – same house, same kids every day.”