I COULD HARDLY BELIEVE MY EYES. An astonishing 20,000 of my favourite seabirds, all preening and prancing and jostling for space! A sold-out standing-room-only gannet get-together! Elegant adults in their bright-white best, with black-tipped wings and their trademark yellow heads … hungry black-faced chicks in their powder-puff fluff, with only one thing on their minds: food!
The noise was almost deafening: a raucous, throaty vibrating – aarr-aarr and krok-krok – plus a joyful clacking of beaks by courting couples.
And the smell? Eye-wateringly strong!
We were clifftop-high on Hawkes Bay’s Cape Kidnappers, overlooking the largest mainland nesting site in the world. These massed gannets were so close we could smell the fish on their breaths and see the blue eyeliner on their superbly painted faces.
My camera and I were in bird heaven …
I must have inherited my fondness for gannets from my father. He could spot them a mile off from our white sandy beach. He’d point them out with pleasure as they swooped and soared and circled on their two-metre wingspan – then he’d get all excited as they made their dramatic plunging dives into the churning sea below.
“Did you see that?” he’d chuckle, hoping I hadn’t missed the moment. And, still today, I get buzzed by the streamlined spectacle of gannets on the wing.
There were airborne birds everywhere that Monday on Cape Kidnappers. Mature adults, mostly, back from fishing at sea. Hard to believe they could find each other in this crowd of identical twins, but they did … gliding in over the nesting site, then angling down to their waiting families.
Gannets mate for life. And, from August to April each year, they gather here on the Cape to make love and have babies. They build nests on the ground (out of seaweed, grass, whatever) … add gannet-poo to shape it into a mound … then lay a solitary egg, taking turns to keep it warm. A tiny naked chick emerges 44 days later. And, at 15 to 16 weeks, that fattened-up young gannet takes its first solo flight – migrating 2800km to Australia. Those that survive this ordeal return to their birth colony when they’re two or three years old, decked out now in their gorgeous grown-up colours. They spend the rest of their lives in this area – ranging widely over the ocean during winter, then settling on land to breed.
Gannets are one of the fastest seabird-hunters on the planet. And their eyesight must be off the scale! They make it look easy, cruising effortlessly on the shifting winds. But in search of takeaways they’ll sometimes cover 500km a day (at 50-60kph), seeking out shoals of pilchards, anchovies or squid. And they dive like high-powered missiles, making split-second corrections before hitting the water at breakneck speeds of 100kph or more.
They’re no slackers underwater, either: they can chase their prey for up to 45 seconds, at depths of 25 metres or more.
Don’t you just love gannets? I sure do! So, next time you see one, please let me know …
JOHN COONEY, GRAPEVINE’S FOUNDER, RECKONS LOUIS ARMSTRONG HAS HIT THE RIGHT NOTE: “AND I THINK TO MYSELF, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD …”