Do you know a Gannet from a Gull? Do you even know what a Gannet is? (Note: I did not). This month we welcome late Fall and early Winter with a lesson from Naturalist, Mark Bullinger on Gannets - spectacular sea birds that you can see right now in South County, Rhode Island. Book your winter escape now.

Are you one who likes to stand at the ocean’s edge and imagine life on the high seas?  A wild kingdom out there over the horizon, with whales and dolphins and rolling ocean waves; where sea birds wheel in the sky and dive for their food?  Well in late fall and early winter, when flocks of Northern Gannets are working just off our shore, a little bit of that open-ocean action comes within easy sight of our beaches. 

In this image you can see several attributes of the Gannet: long narrow wing, white coloration with black wingtips, golden blush on the head and a tapered tail.

Gannets are pelagic birds - far-ranging seabirds that come ashore only to nest, and otherwise spend their lives at sea following schools of herring and menhaden.   To a casual observer they might be mistaken for large gulls, but Gannets are actually closely related to the Booby and in appearance to the Albatross.  As mentioned, above, these are wide-ranging ocean birds, with an avian architecture that is optimized for life far away from land and for soaring across vast distances of water. 

A classic fall scene in which a school of little baitfish is being assaulted from all sides.  A school of large fish has driven the bait ashore and is feeding along the outer edge and from below.  In the foreground, black colored Cormorants are diving from the surface to chase and capture individual fish, while in the middle ground, gulls hover and pick off fish from the surface.  Overhead, Gannets dive-bomb the outer edge of the school.  The splash in the center of the image is a Gannet that just hit the water and to the right of that a Gannet with wings fully retracted is frozen in time as its beak just pierces the water.  Every bird above the horizon line is a Gannet, with several showing characteristic shape and coloration.

The most obvious difference between a Gannet and a gull is the shape of the wing.  Gannets typically have a wingspan close to six feet, compared to four and one-half feet for a large gull, and their wings are narrower front to back.  This long thin wing configuration is similar to that of a glider plane, in which pilots can soar on updrafts for hours.  The Gannet wing has a pronounced elbow or bend and the wing beat is pretty rapid for what is relatively slow flight.  Watching a Gannet flapping along is a little like watching a cyclist pedal in low gear – it just looks like they should be going faster.  But the Gannet is in no rush to get anywhere and the efficiency of its wing shape is one of the keys to its survival.  When you get used to seeing Gannets you can usually identify them by shape and flight characteristics, but the sure way to confirm the sighting is to look for a mature individual who will be bright white with dark black wingtips.

Glider planes and many seabirds like the Gannet take advantage of long, narrow, high-aspect-ratio wings, for low drag and efficient soaring.

Gannets most often appear along our shoreline on stormy days, but then again I’ve seen them on bluebird days, when herring schools are on the move and swimming close to shore.  When not actively feeding, Gannets soar in a swooping and banking pattern alternating between flapping and gliding.  They are beautiful and graceful to watch as they soar along wave tops, but the real excitement comes when a flock is on the feed.  

Gannets are often seen working along the coast on riled–up stormy days such as this.  It’s quite a scene when all of a sudden a dozen birds plummet seaward at high speed.  In this image there is a plume of spray in the center right of the frame.

Gannets hunt from on high, and from a vantage of forty to one hundred feet they watch for shoals of baitfish being forced towards the surface by predatory fish below.  When the small fish suddenly appear at an advantageous depth, one bird after another peels off and plunges headfirst towards the water.  With wings partially retracted, Gannets streak towards the water like a bolts from above, making fine course corrections with wingtips and tail.  Just before impacting the water the wings fully retract and like an arrow the bird pierces the water, shooting ten to twenty feet below the surface and sending a plume of spray skyward.  Below the surface, webbed feet and wing strokes propel the hunter in pursuit of its prey.  Gannets have a sharp, powerful beak to snatch their prey, and before they even surface they not only grab a fish, but gobble down as well.

An immature male that still has dark spotting in its plumage.  Look at that powerful beak and thick muscular neck – attributes required when hitting the water at 50mph.

The feeding action of a flock, when one bird after another plunges into the sea, is like watching a nature show filmed in the artic, or off a rocky island in the north Atlantic, but it’s right here off our beaches.  Come on and visit South County and take a look out over the ocean.  See if you can spot this dramatic ocean spectacle yourself, and then, when it’s time to warm up, duck into a local eatery and have a hot cup of chowder while you savor the drama of the sea.   

Two Gannets streak towards the water with partially retracted wings and even their feet helping to control the dive.   A third Gannet, just left of center at the bottom of the frame, has everything fully retracted and is inches away from hitting the water.  Spray from another bird is just behind it.

Mark Bullinger

Mark Bullinger has been on and around the waters of South County Rhode Island all of his life.  He is an enthusiastic fisherman, birder and general nature buff.  Capt. Mark, as he is often called, has led over two-thousand guided outings in southern Rhode Island via motorboats, kayaks, vans and on foot.  Mark was the Executive Director of Salt Ponds Coalition for five years and has been the resident naturalist at the Weekapaug Inn since 2012.