Friday, January 10, 2014

Jan 10 (Day 10) - Northern gannet jinx avoided, bonus gannet biography

Ugh, more snow this morning. However, a quick glance at the weather forecast revealed a 3-hour window during which my sea watching plans would still be viable. Sea watching entails standing in one place, normally on a high bluff with a good view of much of the horizon, and scanning back and forth in search of pelagic birds (pelagic generally means "offshore"). This type of birding can be surprisingly difficult as the birds are often very far away making identification difficult. Today I was searching for northern gannet and black-legged kittiwake, 2 birds that I often see on the Massachusetts coast but missed on my recent trip to Cape Ann. I figured that southern facing Point Judith in Rhode Island would be an ideal spot from which to sea watch. I figured that the southern winds would help force seabirds north towards the shore making identification easier. Point Judith is point B on the map. All told I rode another 45 miles today. I also added brant, northern harrier, and sharp-shinned to the year's list.

My first few passes of the horizon yielded very few birds. I was wondering if I had made the best decision to bike out of my way to search for seabirds. WAIT - a bright white flash WAY out on the horizon. It was a gannet well offshore, and by well offshore I mean probably 5 miles. Gannets are big (6' wingspan) and generally unmistakable, but this was probably the furthest away I have ever identified any bird. I could count the bird but it wasn't terribly satisfying. A few minutes later another went by only 1/4 mile out, and over the course of the next 2 hours I saw about a dozen of the birds as they whizzed by Point Judith. I was unable to locate a kittiwake before the rains came. As rain severely compromised visibility, I decided to fold the hand on this bird and instead make some miles west. I am note sure if I will have another shot at kittiwake. I can't get them all, and unlike a traditional big year, I can't go back for them later in the year. Maybe I'll get lucky and get one on Long Island if I head out to that area for a day or two. 

Now for a bit about gannets. Gannets are a bit of an anomaly in the family Sulidae which includes boobies and gannets. All family members are large seabirds with big beaks and spindly wings. They subsist almost entirely on fish, most members of this family prefer the warm, tropical and subtropical climates that latitudes much lower than the Northeast United States provide. In a departure from their tropical relatives, northern gannets nest in eastern Canada, specifically in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Quebec, and Labrador. They winter in along the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico.

The red dots on the map represent gannet nesting colonies. These colonies can be HUGE (>20,000 birds), and they often occupy the most picturesque sites a person could imagine. I was fortunate enough to visit one such colony at Cape St. Mary's, Newfoundlad in June of 2013. The waters around this colony are loaded with capelin and other small fish. The birds need a lot of fish to keep a colony of this size fed. I wanted to show you these photos in the hopes that they inspire you to one day visit these amazing Canadian colonies.

***click on thumbs for larger images***

Cape St Mary's

The colony from a distance

Adult flyby

Showing off aerial agility

Me doing my thing with the gannets

Squabbles between neighboring pairs

A pair "beaking" for courtship. Notice
the right bird is holding the chick
in the nest with a foot!

Tomorrow is going to be atrocious weather wise with heavy rains and high winds. Although I do need a rest day after covering ~120 miles in the past 3 days, I may use the day to bike south since birding in these conditions is not particularly pleasant or productive. The next 3 birds on the hitlist are rusty blackbird, rough-legged hawk, and cackling goose. All 3 have recently been seen along the Connecticut coast, so moving south in that direction could be productive. Stay tuned! 


  1. Looks like you went right past my old house in Charlestown RI today. You're covering a lot of ground, keep up the good work! Tom R.

  2. Loving your blog, your cause and your photos. I put a like to your site on our birding club site for members to follow. Stay safe, get to warmer climate, and stop to have fun.

  3. Love the colony photos from Cape St. Marys!