Walt Disney Dives Deep

Please consider all images to be copyrighted and ask permission to use. Thank you, DEClapp

It was many decades ago that Walt Disney decided to photograph and display nature to the public and he started with the goose-sized, fish-eating diving bird called Northern Gannet. We all know Canada Geese; large, chunky, dark, and pretty big for a bird. They eat grass and hang out in parks and on golf courses. They used to be a common spring and fall migrant honking and calling in the clear blue skies as the V’s passed overhead; but lots of grassy fields, warmer winters, and much less hunting has allowed many, perhaps most, to become quite sedentary. But I want to talk a bit about gannets – they are a few inches shorter in length than Canada Geese but have a wingspan that is about a foot wider.

The gannets are closely related to the boobies of more tropical parts of the world and the fast, sleek, dives they make into the water brings this group down to where the fish are. They are large and rather ponderous creatures, often traveling in small groups but part of a large migratory movement. I had well over a hundred gannets close to shore today and was able to get a few images I’d like to pass along. The all white, well they have black wingtips and a yellowish-green face, plumage take four years to develop. The young are, at first, almost totally dark and when they molt over the next few years and become the shiny white adult. It is interesting to note that the young of the year weigh in at about 150% of the adult weight and are so heavy when they first enter the water that they cannot fly off the surface. They start their first migration by swimming southward.

The feeding dives that gannets make are quite fast and even though the birds enter the water smoothly they need to be cushioned and skilled. The cushioning comes from a sort of bubble-wrap layer that absorbs the shock of diving from fifty-to-a-hundred feet or more at faster than thirty miles and hour. Any of us who have belly-flopped into the water from a diving board or pool edge know that water is really hard and can hurt. The diving skill is learned, though they start off with an innate understanding that they are gannets and this is what they do. Our birds of the western Atlantic all originate in one of only six colonies up in the Canadian Maritimes.

Feeding Northern Gannets hit the water with speed that can carry them more that thirty feet deep. It is here, under water, that they will swim (fly) after shoaling fish and catch their meal. It is swallowed under water. Young birds will migrate south of the adults and they will spend about three years at sea before returning (at about a 95% rate) to the colony site where they were raised. Here on Cape Cod, Massachusetts we are still seeing lots of southward moving birds, both young and adults, as November draws too a close. We will start to see northward moving birds in late February most years.

The Walt Disney reference was to both start the gannet discussion and give credit to Disney for starting the nature TV shows that have given us Wild Kingdom, Nova, National Geographic specials and all the David Attenborough presentations.

The images below show a few of the Northern Gannet and then a couple albatrosses and a Blue-footed Booby (Galapagos) for comparison.

This nearly adult Northern Gannet shows the sleek tropedo-like body and long narrow wings of the species.
This young bird is probably 4-5 months old. As juveniles they will migrate well to the south, further than adults. But as they pass into years 2, 3, and 4 they will stay a bit closer to home. As first year birds the head is entirely brown and transitions into a splotchy white in the first year.
An adult and a few youngsters pass by a Cape Cod parking lot. They rarely fly over land but are comfortable close to shore. In this case there was a low tide, a str=ong wind, and some sort of shoaling fish pushed toward shore. Our gannets will eat squid, mackerel, sand lance, and menhaden as they pass by. They are not picky about the species but they surely favor the larger and oilier fishes.
There4 seems to be no evidence that related birds (families) travel together but the age groups are mixed regularly.
On this particular morning there were about 100 gannets in the air and 20-30 on the water. If the dive is unsuccessful they will usually launch into the air again right away. If they capture a fish they often linger on the surface for a few minutes.
This is almost certainly a bird of the season. Just a few months ago it was fledging into the ocean and now is headed to the Caribbean on its own; although traveling with other gannets.
This is a Blue-footed Booby; one of the highlight birds of the Galapagos Islands. Gannets and boobies are related and further related to pelicans and cormorants. The tropical boobies are smaller than gannets and though they wander quite a bit their migrations are rather short. The shape of the bird is much like that shape of the gannet.
Another look at a Blue-footed Booby in flight
This is a Buller’s Albatross from the coast of New Zealand South Island. Though the albatrosses have very long narrow wings and fly with ease you can see here that their beak is not spear-like at all. It is a thick hooked beak that snares squid and fish near the surface.
This is a Shy or White-capped Albatross also from New Zealand waters. It isn’t really surprising that many sea birds have long wings that make flying easy and almost energy free. The pelicans, boobies, gannets, albatross, and shearwaters all travel great distance looking for food and if you are at sea for days or weeks (or longer) it pays to be energy efficient. The long slightly arched wings provide lift with a minimum of air movement. These birds are superb in the wind.

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