a gannet, britain's largest seabird

There are some birds that really know how to stand out from the crowd and for me, there is one seabird that frequents our British coastline that takes the crown, the gannet.

I have wanted to see a gannet for some time, so I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see some at RSPB Bempton Cliffs on a recent trip to Yorkshire.

The approximately 27,000 strong colony of nesting gannets really is a spectacle not to be missed. I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore the bird and what makes them so brilliant.

What Do Gannets Look Like?

When you think of a gannet, you’ll probably imagine an adult: pure white feathers covering most of its body, wings tips dipped in black ink, the slight yellowing around the head.

a group of gannets on a cliff
Gannets on the cliff by George Riddell at the Scottish Photography Centre

You’ll probably think about the distinctive mask around the eyes and bill, the blue ring lining the striking whites of the eyes. They are indeed an impressive and powerful looking species. 

But it surprised me to learn that they don’t immediately gain their pure white elegance once they leave the nest. Instead, over the first 4 years of life they go through several outfit changes before the final big reveal.

In fact it’s relatively easy to approximate the age of a gannet during its first 4 years until it develops it’s full adult plumage.

The spotty juveniles can be easily identified amongst the sea of white adults soaring along the clifftops.

As Britain’s largest seabird with a wingspan of up to 180cm, these striking birds stand out amongst the smaller seabirds often found living alongside gannets in the UK. 

Where to Find Them?

So now that you know what to look out for when spotting gannets, where should you go to find them? Like a lot of birds, they migrate south between August and October, but you won’t have long to wait to see them as they begin to return to their colonies as early as January.

Of course, I saw them at RSPB Bempton Cliffs but you can also see them in parts of Scotland and Wales. Around 55% of the world’s gannets nest along the coasts around the UK and we are lucky to have around 220,000 pairs.

Olympic Divers

Gannets are one of those birds that I have wanted to see for a long time so it was very exciting to find out that I would have the opportunity to see so many on my recent trip to Yorkshire.

Being seabirds, I’m sure you can guess that fish is the most popular item on the gannet menu. To catch these fish, they have the incredible ability to reach speeds of up to 60mph when they hit the water to dive.

With special neck muscles and bill adaptations to reduce the impact upon hitting the water, this bird’s diving ability is one to admire, especially when you have the opportunity to watch this spectacular behaviour.

You may have seen images of puffins during a feast, beaks stuffed with seafood delights. Gannets however aren’t such social diners, preferring to eat their meals ‘on the go’, sometimes even swallowing their food before surfacing from their dives.

This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, fast food!

Strange Babies

a flying gannet
Juvenile gannet by Les Bunyan

Before they develop the unique plumage, gannet chicks are bald and blue. These unusual looking babies are fed by their parents for around three months before they finally fledge, but when they do, they are too buoyant to join in the Olympic diving show.

Instead, they will go without food for a couple of weeks, allowing them time to lose that summer bulk and learn the art of diving at record speeds. We all have to start somewhere don’t we?

Threats to Gannets

Perhaps the most notable threat to all seabirds at the moment is Avian Flu. No doubt you have heard about this devastating disease and perhaps seen the heart-breaking images of suffering birds.

As I was writing this it was reported that dozens of gannets were washing up on the shores of the Isles of Scilly. The team at Alderney Wildlife Trust reported a loss of at least 10% of this year’s chicks and expect the loss to be huge.

The colony at Alderney represents 1% of the global population of gannets and to lose them would have a terrifying impact on the species as a whole. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has advised the public to report any dead wild birds they may find to their hotline and to keep pets away from them.

Avian Flu comes as another blow to wild bird populations that are already suffering as a result of climate change, fishing and ocean pollution.

a gannet in the sea closeup
Gannet on the sea by George Riddell at the Scottish Photography Centre

What Else Can You See At Bempton Cliffs?

Of course, I am not just here to deliver bad news, I fully believe the best way to help protect these beautiful birds is to learn about them and fall in love with the species, just as I have.

By developing and sharing our interests and passions, we can spread a message of love and hope for the planet which we share with so may other plants and animals. 

A great way to engage with nature is by visiting a nature reserve such as Bempton Cliffs, where you can see plentiful species throughout the year including puffins, dolphins and kittiwakes. If you’re really lucky you might just catch a glimpse of the elusive black-browed albatross. I missed them on my visit, but next time I’m hoping my luck might just be in! 

Reporting Wild Birds

If you do find any wild birds who have died of unknown causes, please help to protect the colonies by calling the DEFRA hotline with the location, species and number of birds on: 03459 33 55 77

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