Saturday 23 November 2019

Country Matters: Missile birds plunge in the sea swell

LONG BEAKED: Adult gannet. Photo: Birdwatch Ireland
LONG BEAKED: Adult gannet. Photo: Birdwatch Ireland

Joe Kennedy

Gannets, those incredible missile-birds, sheer white with buff napes, were an unexpected squadron over a pebbles-strewn foreshore.

A climb down from where the rocks remained cold and scrubbed from the flying spray of incoming breakers crossed rolling stones smoothed by centuries of friction. Fresh water ran through a stony defile from higher up beyond linking lanes.

The great birds were in a scrambling mass above the swell which obviously promised a bountiful hunt.

The freshly-bleached gannets have black wing tips on a six-foot wide span, cigar-shaped body, pointed head and a long dagger bill that would terrify man or beast if ever confronted. I have read of a beach walker who, having picked up an injured bird, had an eye displaced and face lacerated for his kindness.

Where gannets gather may be found mackerel, sprats, sand-eels, and, in the past, herrings, shoaling in great numbers, a feast gliding to be speared and gobbled up. The birds suddenly plunge from about 30m overhead in breath-catching dives, hitting the water noisily to submerge about 3.5m, swallow as many fish as possible and re-surface after about seven seconds.

Gannets live in densely crowded colonies, sometimes on rocky cliffs but mainly on offshore isles round the coasts of Britain and Ireland. More than a quarter of a million pairs, half the world's population, patrol separate fishing grounds from there.

In Ireland there are about 22,000 pairs on Little Skellig; 1,000 on the Saltees and on Black Rock, Cork and about 50 pairs on Ireland's Eye and a few in north Mayo.

However, on the Scottish isle of St Kilda, there is a colony of around 40,000 pairs, the largest in the world, and their nests of seaweed mounds, within spitting distance of one another, are savagely defended; there is no succour for a straying chick.

When two young males decide to set up a territory there will be a bloody fight to hold it, often lasting hours with the birds sleeping for days to recover.

Gannet bonded pairs, however, show remarkable affection for each other with preening, bowing and sky-pointing displays, and for the chick of their single egg which is incubated clasped within the webs of their large feet.

Two days before picking its way out, the chick starts to call for its parents, hearing them while still shut into its shell world.

Having emerged after 44 days, the fluffy white youngster is fed for 90 days when the nurturing stops and it has to make its way down to the sea.

It cannot yet fly but swims off southward towards Africa's burning shores and will not return to the colony until two or three summers later to hang about the fringes of the noisome and noisy site.

Its brackish-brown livery will gradually whiten over the next four years and it will be another year or two before it begins to breed.

The birds have a 20-year lifespan and numbers are increasing, one suggested reason being the edible flotsam from inter-country ferries. The bountiful harvest of the bonny shoals of herring appears to be now a matter of history.

Sunday Independent

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