February 2016 Bird Photo of the Month

Off to lunch © Cara Woods
Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)

The artistic black lines of the bill, facial mask extending beyond the gape along with the subtle apricot shading between crown and its long white body are striking features of the Northern Gannet. A most remarkable sight is the feeding behavior of large flocks of gannets as they plunge–dive at 60-mph from great heights (50-130 feet), intent on catching schooling sardines, mackerel and herring 10-15 feet deep. These large seabirds are confined to the Atlantic Ocean, coming to land only when chasing fish, during gale-force winds, or when breeding in large colonies. Only six colonies are established in North America, along the coasts of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Separate populations breed at 32 sites along eastern Atlantic coasts from Norway to France, especially in Scotland.

The male gannet finds a nesting site on a rocky cliff, attracts a mate, and bonds monogamously for life, assuming equal parenting duties. The female lays one egg that both parents take turns incubating with specially vascularized (and thus warm) feet. By late September, the chick, 13 weeks old and covered with brown feathers, leaps from the cliff into the sea. Because its wings are not yet full grown for another week, it swims with other juveniles migrating southward to the mid-Atlantic along reef edges. By December, the western North Atlantic gannets reach Florida’s east coast wintering grounds, some on to the Gulf and Mexico.  All gannets begin their return migration by April.

In February, when fishes at low tide were concentrated and plentiful, the Sebastian Inlet attracted many diving, feeding Gannets. Cara Woods using her Canon 5D Mark III photographed this Northern Gannet lifting off. Notice the black wing tips of the primary and secondary feathers. Many white birds have black wing-tips as black pigment strengthens, reducing feather wear.

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon Society

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