Readers’ wildlife photos and video, and more on New Zealand

Several days before I left New Zealand, Gayle Ferguson was kind enough to drive me to the Muriwai Gannet Colony near Auckland. I’d never seen a gannet before, and didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be a fantastic experience. Here’s where it is–near Auckland (colony is starred):

We brought Bob the Kitten with us, as he required feeding every few hours. He stayed in his carrier in the car while we were at the Colony (a little over an hour), as it was cool and there was no danger. His carrier was also covered with a blanket to prevent kitten-napping by jealous people.  But while we were driving, Bob was in my lap the whole time:

We stopped at a seaside cafe for lunch, and I couldn’t resist ordering my Last Pie in New Zealand: a steak-and-Guinness pie (one of my favorites), served with a salad. On the side I had a banana milkshake:

First things first—Gayle fed Bob at the cafe before having her cake:

Of course, feeding a tiny and very cute kitten in public attracts attention, especially from kids. Here two young girls got the privilege of stroking and holding Bob. Children are nearly always very gentle with kittens.

To see the colony, one climbs to the top of a cliff overlooking the sea. On the way up we saw this bird. Anyone know what it is? (I don’t.)

A bit about the colony from its site:

Muriwai’s gannet colony is a one hour drive from the centre of Auckland. Next to the car park, a short walking track leads to a viewing platform right above the main colony area. Out to sea, the colony continues on two vertical-sided islands. About 1,200 pairs of gannets nest here from August to March each year.

The nests are just centimetres apart. It’s an air traffic controller’s nightmare, but somehow the birds have it under control. Those coming in to land must glide over the squawking raised beaks of their neighbours – so getting it wrong can be painful. These two-and-a-half kilogram birds have a wingspan of two metres, and their mastery of the onshore updrafts is impressive to say the least.

Each pair lays one egg [breeding occurs in September through November, with one egg laid] and the parents take turns on the nest. The chicks hatch naked, but within a week they’re covered with fluffy down. As they mature, they grow juvenile feathers and begin to exercise their wings in preparation for the one-shot jump off the cliff.

Once airborne, the young gannets leave the colony and cross the Tasman Sea to Australia. A few years later, surviving birds return to secure a nest site at the colony.

The views from the colony are very impressive. Muriwai Beach extends 60 kilometres to the north – a line of black sand between the thundering surf and the sand hills. Far below, enthusiastic surfers look like seals on the large ocean swells.

The colony occupies three sites: two cliffside sites on bare ground, and the top of a rocky peak just offshore. It is a raucous site. The chicks had mostly grown up and left (see below), but hundreds of adults remained in situ:

A precarious place to nest!

The species at hand: the Australasian gannet (“tākapu”), Morus serrator. It’s a large bird, and can weigh up to 2.3 kg. There are about 46,000 of these birds in New Zealand.

The species breeds on islands and the coast of New Zealand, Victoria and Tasmania; around 90% of the adult population lives in New Zealand. Normally they nest on islands off the coast, where fish are plentiful, but increasing populations have led to their colonizing coastal areas of the mainland.

I’m told that they prefer nesting areas like this because the coastal winds helps them take off and helps them land safely and on point.

Gannets are socially monogamous (who knows if they engage in “sneaking fucking”?), and remain as pairs for several seasons—or a lifetime. I have no idea how a male and female find each other year after year, but I suspect it has to do with recognizing each other’s calls.

What a handsome bird!

There were a few teenage chicks at the site. They fledge in March and April, so these may have been slow developers. As New Zealand Birds Online notes:

Fledglings from New Zealand fly directly to Australia, and typically do not return to their home colonies until their third year. Some New Zealand breeders migrate to Australian and Tasmanian waters to winter between breeding seasons. Australasian gannets often breed with the same partner over consecutive seasons. Some birds retain the same mate for the rest of their lives, but divorces do occur. [Anthropomorphism!]

Here’s an Attenborough video of gannets diving; these are probably not Australasian gannets, but that species also fishes this way:

The birds have adaptations for surviving these high-speed dives. Oceana notes this:

Gannets are champions among the “plunge-divers.” The largest species, the Northern gannet (Morus bassanus), can plummet into the ocean from as high as 130 feet (40 meters) in the air, hitting the water at around 55 miles (88 kilometers) per hour. This species uses a combination of speed and wing-beats to dive as deep as 115 feet (35 meters).

Unlike the sudden (and painful) deceleration of a human belly-flopper, the diving posture of a Cape gannet (Morus capensis) is so streamlined that the bird only slows down a little — or not at all — when it plunges into the sea.

For humans and birds alike, hitting the ocean at high speed can mean two nostrils uncomfortably stuffed with saltwater. To get around this issue, gannets breathe through thin slits located where the upper jaw meets the head. These slits are covered by a flap of hard tissue that closes when the bird dives.

A high-diving lifestyle also comes with the additional risks of sore muscles or even a broken neck. So gannets come equipped with “airbags,” extensions of their respiratory system that cushion their bodies when they hit the water.

Here’s an even better video from Smithsonian:

Notice the even spacing of the birds; this becomes rigorously enforced during the breeding season when they fiercely defend their nest mounds, and those mounds are spaced just beyond the reach of a sitting gannet. The spacing, I was also told, is about “the diameter of a large pizza.”

Their blue eye rings are distinctive:

Some crazy fishermen were braving the dangerous swells to tend their lines. One misstep would lead to their death, as there’s really nowhere to climb out, and the waves are fierce:

Here’s a small video I took of the colony; you can hear their diverse calls here (on the right at the link):

26 Comments

  1. Posted April 23, 2017 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    The heron is, I’m sure, a White-faced Heron, Egretta novaehollandiae (something like our Little Blue Heron but with a white face).

    Eric

    • Tony Eales
      Posted April 23, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      Agreed

  2. Posted April 23, 2017 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I concur with Eric – Heron

    • Merilee
      Posted April 23, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Looks like a heron to me.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 23, 2017 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

        And me.

        cr

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I would have to guess heron, however it is a slight bit larger in the body than the blue herons in the Midwest.

    A fine bird story and a great cat story in one.

  4. Erik
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Some followers of this blog may be interested in this paper on spatial utilization by Gannet colonies in the UK. It’s a great example of the role of behavior in distribution patterns and the use of models to generate and test hypotheses. I use it as a class discussion paper:

    Weakefield, E. D., et al., 2013. Space Partitioning Without Territoriality in Gannets. Science, 341:68-70.

    http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6141/68

    If you have access make sure to get the Supplementary information as well

  5. John
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    We have a large colony of gannets (150 000)on the Bass Rock, in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh. From a distance it looks as if the rock is covered in guano. No, it’s the sheer number of gannets. The Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick has cameras on the rock and you can take a boat trip out for a closer look. Recommended.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bass_Rock

    Thanks for all the posts Jerry. Always interesting.

    • Mike
      Posted April 25, 2017 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      Bass Rock is something else.

  6. Andrea Kenner
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Bob is so tiny and cute!

  7. Claudia Baker
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    It must have been hard to say good bye to Bob!

  8. Gemma Jillian
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    If you know from Gayle now, PCC(E), how is Bob the Kitten today doing? I know previously it was stated that he was thought to be able to make it.

    Still that thought do you know?

    • Gayle
      Posted April 23, 2017 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      I’m really sorry to have to inform everyone that my sweet little kitten passed away on Wednesday evening following a tragic accident. I’m still grieving, and will be for a while, as the accident was my fault. He had been very ill the previous day and was on his way out but the vets were able to revive him with injections of fluids, vitamin B and antibiotics into his bone marrow. He had finally started to eat and absorb nutrients and had finally gained some weight at the time of the accident. My heart is broken.

      • Gemma Jillian
        Posted April 23, 2017 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        I am sorry, Gayle, for you. I know about that heart thing. Broken. You do such good good work. Thank you.

        • Gayle
          Posted April 23, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

          My fav photo of Cyril: (not sure if photo will upload)
          /Users/gcfergus/Desktop/cyril.jpg

      • Posted April 23, 2017 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

        How terribly sad! I’m so sorry, Gayle. 😦

  9. Posted April 23, 2017 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Lovely pictures, and what an adventure!

  10. David Duncan
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    “What a handsome bird!”

    Reminds me a bit of Trump.

  11. rickflick
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I was hoping you’d make it to Muriwai to see the gannets – as I did several years ago. It was an unforgettable experience. One thing that struck me was the pungent odor of the place. The smell of digested fish and ammonia wafting over the cliffs is nearly overwhelming.

  12. Posted April 23, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    When I lived in northern New South Wales, I saw one of those herons stepping out onto the road in front of me, as I was driving towards it. I knew I would miss it, but the oncoming traffic would definitely hit him. It had stalked out into the middle of the road as I passed it, narrowly missing it, and saw that the approaching car hadn’t slowed at all. As I drove off, I took a horrified glance in the rear vision mirror. The heron had stopped exactly on the white and was waiting there for the next car to pass, after which it continued over the road safely. It had obviously learned that you can stand on the white line — as pedestrians there were in habit of doing.

    Bob is the cutest cat….

  13. Posted April 23, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Brown Pelicans also dive for fish and have “airbags.” Years ago I skinned and stuffed one
    (for a university). I was amazed at the skin of the breast, which was full of little air pockets. It felt kind of like plastic bubble-wrap, though the pockets were interconnected so that squeezing them hard enough forced air into neighboring pockets instead of popping them. Weird.

  14. Posted April 23, 2017 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful photos and videos! Gannets are amazing seabirds.

    Regarding the comment that mated pairs likely find each other by their calls, there is a long line of evidence in the somewhat closely related gull family (going back to N. Tinbergen at least) that they also rely on visual cues. This is something I’ve witnessed firsthand often. An interloper on a territory can be identified by ‘look’ alone. Mates easily identify each other by sight from considerable distances, both on and off their nesting territories. I have no idea what visual cues are used, but there must be some that are useful.

  15. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 23, 2017 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Gannets generally seem to like to make their colonies away from too much human contact. The gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers in Hawkes Bay comes to mind.

    Muriwai would seem to be something of an exception – at a guess I’d say the island is the prime attraction and the nests on the mainland are ‘overflow’.

    Pleased to see you finally made it to the wild West Coast. Best thing about Auckland, really.

    cr

  16. mrclaw69
    Posted April 24, 2017 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    Hi PCC,

    The bird is definitely a white-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae).

    The beach at Muriwai is great – although don’t walk on the black sand when it’s hot! Ilast went a few years back in end-Nov/beginning-Dec and they had chicks and, even cooler, the mated-pairs were dancing.

    Keep up the NZ posts!

  17. Posted April 24, 2017 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    What a lot of beautiful dinosaurs!

    • Mike
      Posted April 25, 2017 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      +1


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