NORTHERN GANNET (Morus bassanus)
The Northern gannet is a large seabird, at around one meter long (3.3 ft) and with a wing span of around 1.75 meter (69 in.) It is mostly white with usually black wing tips. The bill is sharp and greyish blue, and the feet are black. There can be a light yellow color on the head and face depending on the season. Sexes are similar. The juveniles are dark brown.
The northern gannet dives at high speed (up to 100 km/hr or 62 mi./hr) for fish, sometimes from as high as 40 meters (130 ft), and they do so in large groups. They can also swim in the water down to 10 meters (40 ft). Many videos have been made of the spectacular ‘torpedo’ diving of the northern gannet. Except in the winter, northern gannets are common in PEI.
The Latin word ‘morus’ stands for ‘foolish’ (think ‘moron’ – the French name is ‘Fou de Bassan’) due to the lack of fear of those birds in their nesting colonies. This trait allowed countless bird watchers to closely observe the Northern gannet. It also inspired many artists as well.
The bird establishes its colonies on top of and along the side of cliffs on islands, which are sometimes unaccessible. The largest colony in North America (Île Bonaventure, QC) was estimated at 58,000 pairs in 2013. There is aggressive behavior between females and between males in the colonies.
Conservation: around 25% of the northern gannet population migrates to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter. Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, there has been a decrease in the reproduction success of the Bonaventure colony. The northern gannet has been the most affected bird by this environmental disaster. The birds from that colony also have to fly longer distances (hundreds of km) to reach their feeding areas, thus exhausting them. In spite of this, the northern gannet is considered as a species of ‘least concern’.
The adjective ‘Northern’ in the bird’s name implies that there are other species elsewhere. One is the Australasian Gannet which is found around Australia and New Zealand. Conservation efforts on an island of the latter country attracted a lone male, named ‘Nigel’, who paired with a decoy bird for years before finally dying.
Two photos below of a dead Northern gannet might illustrate one of the concerns in the previous paragraph, but of course only a necropsy would determine if that bird died of emaciation. As per the photographer, there was no visible sign of injury.