Northern GannetSula bassanus (Linnaeus)
Status Common transient, uncommon in summer. Formerly bred. In the nineteenth century there was a small colony on Gannet Rock off Yarmouth (Bryant 1857). Today it is common in spring and fall off southwestern Nova Scotia and along the Atlantic coast, as migrants pass to and from their nesting grounds in Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The first spring birds arrive in March (average 22 March, earliest 7 March), and the peak of their migration extends from mid-April to mid-May. The relatively small but regular summer population is largely made up of immatures. The return migration begins in early September and reaches its peak between mid-October and early November. However, stragglers are regularly reported in December, occasionally even in early January (latest 9 January 1959, off Bon Portage Island).
Description Length: 87-100 cm. All plumages: Bill longer than head, stout at base and tapering to a point. Adults: White with black wing-tips; yellowish orange suffusion on the head; blackish bare skin in front of eye and on throat. Bill bluish gray. Immatures: In first-year plumage, the juveniles are dark grayish brown, spotted with white. Molts produce various intermediate stages of whiteness. Adult plumage is attained after three years.
Range The Northern Gannet breeds only in the North Atlantic, in Britain, Ireland, Brittany, Norway, Faeroe, Iceland and Atlantic Canada. Our birds winter off the southeastern United States from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico. Immature birds migrate further south than adults.
Breeding Nest: Made of seaweed placed on cliff ledges or the tops of rocky offshore islands. Usually found in large colonies, the nests frequently so close together the birds can touch one another. Egg: 1, bluish white.
The present world breeding population of the Northern Gannet is about 213,000 pairs. Some 32,800 pairs breed at six colonies in Canada: Bonaventure and Anticosti islands and Bird Rocks, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Cape St. Mary's and Funk and Baccalieu islands in eastern Newfoundland. The Canadian population is only a fraction of its former size. Bird Rocks was the largest gannet colony in the world in the early nineteenth century, with over 100,000 pairs. However, the cumulative effects of persecution, the loss of nesting habitat resulting from erosion and the erection of a lighthouse had reduced this population to less than 1,000 pairs by 1900. It now stands at some 5,300 pairs.
Three colonies were completely exterminated during the nineteenth century: Perroquet Island, near the Strait of Belle Isle, and the two "Gannet Rocks" on the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia sides of the Bay of Fundy. Recent attempts to nest at two sites in southwestern New Brunswick have been unsuccessful. Some 20 km off the coast from Cape Forchu, Yarmouth County, lies a barren rock shown on the chart as "Gannet Rock". On 9 August 1935 I visited this bleak spot to check on a report that gannets still nested there. Not one was seen.
On 7 December 1943, E. Chesley Allen sent me excerpts from his records: "Ben Doane recollects being on Gannet Rock and seeing the eggs of Gannets. The year would be about 1865. He estimates the number of birds at 200. Horace Rankin, of Arcadia, and L.B. Wyman, of Yarmouth, two gunners, claim that about 1880 there were about 20 Gannets nesting on this rock. Wyman remembers going on the rock and catching an old bird on the nest. He placed it in his boat and brought it half way to land when it got over the side and escaped. Amos Baker, an aged resident of Yarmouth South, said he could remember the rock white with them. Henry Baker, born on Cape Forchu in 1850, says when he went fishing as a boy with his father between 1860 and 1870, gannets were very common off shore and Gannet Rock was white with them. He says they disappeared soon after the erection of lobster fishermen's shacks on Green Island." Green Island lies about 7 km landward from Gannet Rock; the disappearance of the colony was caused by the persistent egging carried on by the Green Island fishermen.
Remarks These large, white birds with their conspicuously long black-tipped wings, beating tirelessly up and down the coasts in quest of fish make an arresting sight. Having spotted from a considerable height its prey near the surface, it drops headlong with wings half folded like an Osprey. Unlike the Osprey, which strikes the water breast first, the Gannet strikes head first, sending the spray in all directions. It disappears below the surface for only a moment but long enough to swallow the fish, for it usually reappears "empty-handed."
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