Saturday, April 30, 2011

Take a Gander at Gannets

  Unlike their cousins, the boobies, gannets seem shy around people. This is the closest we got.
First, our whereabouts: We're headed north to Manasquan, NJ. If all goes well, we'll go "outside" (into the open Atlantic!) on Sunday and cross to New York Harbor. Then Monday, we'll cruise up the Hudson to dock at the 79th St. Boat Basin.

But weather can change--and so can this plan!  Please check back for further updates.

Earlier this week we spent two days windbound in Atlantic City. Stuck our nose out Friday and bounced north up Barnegat Bay to dock in Forked River, NJ  (say "FORK-ed," two syllables, or they'll know you're from away).  One aid to navigation: The more-than-300-foot-tall venting stack of the Oyster Creek nuclear plant--and more on THAT tomorrow!

But today, just for fun, I want to talk about gannets. If you're NOT a birdwatcher, you're saying, "Uh, you mean the news service?" Naw, I mean the bird--the large, fast, and very interesting bird.  We've seen lots of them here on the Jersey Coast, and in contrast a lot of wildlife I've mentioned in this blog (manatees, wood storks) gannets are NOT on the endangered species list.  Hey, a good-news story!

Like I said, gannets are shy. CLICK HERE for a closer look
From a distance, a gannet looks a bit like a wood stork: a large bird with slender white wings with black tips.

But where wood storks sort of cruise comfortably, like a family sedan, gannets are aggressive flyers, more like Fast Eddie Rendell's Lincoln Continental with official state plates whipping down the Pennsylvania Turnpike--twenty miles over the speed limit and lots of lane changes.

Get a closer look at a gannet, and you might say, Oh! very large gull! Dives after fish, sits on the water with wings folded.

But nope, a gannet's closest relatives are NOT gulls, they are the tropical birds called "boobies." (Doesn't every politician have a crazy cousin in the closet?)

Here are some fun gannet factoids:

You've heard the expression "billing and cooing?" Courting gannets "fence" with their bills. Looks very dangerous!

Lots of seabirds plunge-dive after fish, but gannets do it from about 100 feet in the air, hitting the water at 60 mph.  These are big birds, so it's quite a sight!  Local fisherman watch gannets to learn where the big schools of fish are.

Like loons, gannets can stay under quite a while and pursue fish underwater.  They'll gulp down several fish in one feeding bout.  Get this: Sometimes gannets eat so much, they get too heavy to fly. They have to bob around on the water, digesting, until they offload some excess baggage and become flight-ready again.

And speaking of "too fat to fly," gannet parents really stuff their babies. In autumn when it's time to head south, the youngsters leave the nest even though they are too bulky to get airborne. (OK, also their wings are not fully developed).  Instead, the young gannets just paddle along south, using their webbed feet.  (You've heard of SlowBoat? At this point in life, these are SlowBirds). Often they mosey 30 miles or more before they lose enough flab (and gain enough wingpower) that they can rev up and launch.

I  found it amusing that nesting gannets keep their eggs toasty warm by wrapping their feet around them.  Maybe that's because I have perpetually cold feet.

Gannets are just here in New Jersey for the winter.  (It's their Florida-vacation equivalent.)  They're about to wing north to their breeding grounds, which are rocky cliffs in the western reaches of the North Atlantic. (In North America that means Nova Scotia and points north).  Check this webpage for some striking images of nesting gannets.

Gannets are numerous and populations are stable.  But in the 1880s, they were in a spot of trouble. Fisherman would visit the nesting colonies to collect eggs to eat, and also to club the adult birds to death, then cut them up as cod-fish bait.  The naturalist John James Audubon gives a vivid account in his iconic "Birds of North America."

In the 20th century, Canada passed laws to protect the birds--and of course, more recently the cod fishery has pretty much failed, so gannet bait is not in demand. As for modern problems, gannets are not vulnerable to oil spills; oil on the water hides the fish, which means the birds are not tempted to dive into a slick.

So gannets are doing well, with populations growing around 3 percent a year.  Next time you see a big white bird take a power dive on the Jersey Shore, look a little closer, and maybe you'll get a gander at a gannet.

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