Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)

The beautiful Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) is one of the three gannet subspecies that are found in the world. While the Northern Gannet is commonly found in the North Atlantic, the other two species are found on the south coast of Africa and in Tasmania and New Zealand so it is unlikely that you will wrongly identify them. These birds are rather unique since they can see forward with both eyes (binocular vision) – something which not many bird species are capable of. They are also powerful and fast flying birds who are capable of gliding just above the surface of the water for hours – though they do not take off or land well. They are excellent divers and eat small fish such as herring, mackerel, capelin, sandlance and sometimes on squid which can be found near the surface of the water. Northern Gannets have also been called ‘solan’s’, ‘solan geese’ and ‘solant birds’.

The adult gannet has striking white plumage with narrow grey spectacles and jet-black wingtips that taper to a point. During breeding season their head and neck take on a delicate yellow tint that contrasts with their blue eyes and blue-grey bills beautifully. Males and females look the same and juveniles are brown with white flecks. These youngsters get progressively whiter each season until they get their adult plumage at the age of four or five. Adults are 87-100 cm in length with a wingspan of 165-180 cm. Gannets are migratory and normally spend their winters at sea. However, during breeding season they will head to their breeding grounds – usually to the same nest until it is simply too filthy to use – where they perform elaborate greeting rituals with their partner.

Gannets live in large groups called gannetries, which can be found on steep cliffs or offshore islands. This isolation from land or steepness means that nesting birds are usually safe from predators. Northern Gannets will often abandon their nests if they are disturbed. Often nesting birds will nest so closely at these colonies that the cliff may appear to be covered in snow. The female lays a single egg, which both parents incubate. After hatching both parents care for the chick until it is old enough to fend for itself. Once it has left the nest, it learns the specialised ‘plunge-diving’ technique through instinct.