Australasian Gannets breeding on Southern Ocean clifftop

The Australasian gannet has a remarkable set of flying and feeding skills. It is also a very beautiful bird.

It’s perfectly adapted for flying and soaring, as well as for diving at high speed into the sea to catch fish. An Australasian gannet can fly in excess of 500km in a day seeking food, at speeds of 35-40 knots. It soars whenever possible on its outstretched 2m wings. I admire the capabilities of this bird.

They sometimes herd fish (pilchards are favourites) into dense shoals by soaring 10m or so above the surface. Then they dive and eat. They fold their wings back to dive from heights of 15m or so, with the ability to repeatedly dive to depths of 15-20m. They can also dive effectively from lower heights, usually done in rougher conditions. They hit the water at speeds up to 80kph (some say higher speeds are reached in the dive) and can propel themselves and manoeuvre under water (i.e. swim!) using their wings. They have been observed to catch as many as five fish in a single dive. Their eyesight is specially adapted for the underwater phase of their hunting. They only stay underwater for around 10 seconds but will generally swallow the fish before surfacing. I have witnessed a group of Australasian gannets plunge diving en masse and feeding very successfully offshore at Apollo Bay (photos below). It’s a great spectacle.

The gannets are found mainly in southern and eastern Australia and New Zealand. There are established gannet migration routes between these countries. They are very strong flyers, and fly well out to sea for food, as well as between Australia and NZ on migration journeys. Gannets from Australia have been recorded flying as far afield as Mauritius and New Zealand. But more typically, they fly long distances around the southern half of the Australian coastline. Fledglings leave the nest around 100 days after hatching. They travel many thousands of kms until around the age of three they return to their home nest to begin breeding when they are 4-7 years old.

They nest and raise their young between July and April. The period of incubation of a gannet is around 40 days. The young birds fledge around 90-100 days after hatching, and are able to fly from this time.

They live to around 25 years old, and form monogamous long term relationships with breeding partners.

What an interesting and impressive bird! They are also one of the most elegant and beautiful seabirds to grace our coast.

The Gannet Colony at Point Danger

The white mound on the promontory is the Point Danger Australasian gannet breeding colony. Its 5-6kms south of Portland, on the southern coast of Australia. The rocky outcrop visible offshore is Lawrence Rocks. There are around 6,000 breeding pairs on Lawrence Rocks. The Point Danger colony has about 300 breeding pairs. Some say this rookery is an overflow from the crowded Lawrence Rocks population. The fence in the foreground is high and secure, and is monitored by video. The gate is securely locked. There are also a number of electric fences around the breeding colony (including low down on the promontory cliffs) to keep foxes away. A committee of management and a number of volunteers will, by prior arrangement, accompany those interested inside the reserve for a closer look at the birds.
This is the only mainland Australasian gannet breeding colony in Australia. New Zealand only has two mainland breeding colonies. Islands are preferred.
There was continual movement of birds most of the time. It seems that at some point or another most of them chose to get airborne for a short flight. Some went out to sea and back, perhaps to try their luck for a snack. Others would lift off and lazily put in a couple of flaps to join the glassy ridge lift on the windward side of the promontory (to the right in the picture above) then stretch out their wings with only minor movements thereafter for turns, climbs and descents. They would soar back and forth before returning for more socialising and relaxing. Others would simply do a short circuit after taking off into wind, wheel around to the downwind side of home and then land into wind. Between such sorties, they were conspicuously relating to each other. It is said they are quite gregarious, and this was borne out by what I observed.
The information board at Point Danger Gannet Colony. This board and the fence around the tip of the promontory together with the nearby observation platform were the only signs that humans had any interest in the place. But interestingly, directly behind the observation platform (from which the first photo in this post was taken) was a solid mound of earth, plainly put there for some purpose. A short look around revealed that it was sitting directly in front of the targets of a rifle firing range, the line of fire of which would go directly over the gannet colony (and the observation platform!). A peek around the corner of the mound revealed the back of the targets, stern warnings and a clear view of the shooters end of the range which was far too close for my liking. They say the hooded plover in choosing to breed on the sand on open beaches is not showing great judgment. Well, setting up home directly in the line of fire of a shooting range also seems a questionable choice leading at the very least to a noisy neighbourhood. But my guide informed me that neither gannets nor those who come to see them have ever been shot by a stray bullet coming over the top of the targets.
This is Ewen. He’s chairman of the Point Danger Committee of Management. He is a volunteer guide, a gentleman and happy to share his extensive knowledge of the Australasian gannet. He also has great patience. As I took these photos revelling in the opportunity and privilege of being so close to this colony of such beautiful birds, he gave me no hurry up. Thanks Ewen. The volunteers make themselves available for tours of the breeding colony up close, by arrangement with Portland Information Centre.

How Gannets Relax

These two birds gracefully intertwined necks and beaks in a gentle interaction that continued for quite some time.
While appearing as though they might be ‘crossing swords’, they weren’t. This was very friendly behaviour. They truly are gregarious.
The same pair having a spell from the neck intertwining thing.
You write a caption.
An active fledgling overlooking a snoozing adult. That robust blue covering of the eyes when shut is part of the adaptation necessary for comfortable high speed diving into the sea. When the eyes are open, this blue shield is simply a blue circle around the eye.
The colony was densely populated. There was room to spread out, but they seemed to prefer being in close proximity to each other. While some of the chicks and fledglings were sticking together on the edge of the main group, there was a lot of apparently easygoing intermingling between generations on the main mound of the rookery.
None of the birds showed any fear as I stood quietly taking photos from close up. Those are serious feet for a seabird.

Individual Portraits

Fledglings and Chicks

Landing approaches at the busy Pt Danger breeding colony

Because of the dense covering of birds on the nesting area, birds returning from flight had to take great care in landing. The gannet is all elegance and efficiency in full flight. They seemed to me to also be quite agile and adept a low speed flight and manoeuvring. But on foot, they are merely ordinary – they are plainly built to fly. Just as an aeroplane becomes ordinary once its wheels touch the ground and it is reduced to tentatively plodding along taxiways at walking pace, so it is with the gannet. Both were made to fly, not taxy. Landing on this busy site involves approaching from downwind, then slowing down while looking all over for a spot to put down. They must remain ever ready to abort the landing and go around if required. Initially during the recce the wings are stretched right out to maximise lift for slow flight.
This bird is slowing down and descending. Tail feathers seemed to play an increasing role in manoeuvring as the wings are increasingly busy maintaining height or the required descent rate.
Seems as though a vertical hover straight down would be required for the spot currently being looked at. Helicopter pilots train in confined space operations. I believe the entire gannet species could be signed off right now as fully competent in this regard.
As slower and slower flight is required for some landings, the birds wings need to be flapped a little, with wingtip feathers extended right out to reduce drag and maintain lift.
This is a closeup of the bird in the previous photo. The focus is intense. This must be the same head and neck position of the gannet when it enters the water in a high speed dive for feeding. The form and streamlining is readily apparent in this photo. These qualities are of course also very useful in flight.
Those wings are amazingly flexible and variable in all parameters. Nothing out of the ordinary though it would seem. If beaks are any indication, this radical approach seems to have captured the attention of only one bird on the ground.
Closing in on the chosen touchdown spot. If there were regular landing collisions, these birds would of course quickly learn to get out of the way when there was inbound traffic. The audience on this all over landing field is utterly ignoring the bird approaching to land.
Even in such close proximity to birds on the ground, they don’t seem to be giving the risk of a wing in the face any thought at all. It seems clear that the approach and landing is and is perceived to be a low risk event.
Throttle back – touchdown is only a fraction of a second away. The bird doing the landing made no contact whatsoever with any other bird during this landing.
This bird was slowing down, but it was just too crowded. The feet were deployed as shown to create drag to assist in the descent to land. So a decision was made to ‘go around’. The undercarriage was retracted, the wings started flapping and flying speed increased. Then he did another circuit before touching down smoothly and without incident on the second attempt. The webbed feet deployed as shown, would act a bit like the drag function of flaps on an aeroplane or speed brakes on a sailplane. A bird that is so streamlined and built for speed and soaring needs some control surfaces to slow it down in the circuit area.

Gannets on the wing

To be fair, this probably should’ve been in the approach and landing section. Same can be said for the next photo. But these two were in clear air above the colony, and I saw quite a few birds slow down for a quick look just as these two are doing, before giving it away as too crowded and heading off for another short flight in the area before setting up the next approach. That their legs are tucked away in the streamlined position indicates to me that the decision to land has not been finally made yet.
Full flight mode. Apart from landing manoeuvres, I have very few photos of an Australasian gannet flapping its wings. The reason is, they only do it when necessary. This bird was in ample ridge lift on the windward side of the promontory and effortlessly maintained height and speed with the wings fixed as shown.
The streamlining of the gannet is obvious in this picture. This serves it very well not only in long distance flight, but also in its underwater activities.

These are Australasian gannets plunge diving on a school of fish. It’s a spectacular thing to see – the vertical dive, with the last minute folding away of everything that might come unstuck upon hitting the water at up to 80kph, the fearless beak first entry at maximum speed, then the dive to perhaps 15m or so using its wings underwater to swim and manoeuvre. Fish are caught and often eaten before the bird surfaces. These photos were taken from the shore at Apollo Bay in December last year. Please excuse the poor quality of these photos – the birds were feeding over 600m offshore, the sky was overcast and this was the best the big tele lens could do.

This bird gave the landing approach away early, and was ‘going around’ at low altitude at reasonably high speed. I wonder if gannets enjoy doing low high speed passes.

The Australasian gannet species is not under threat. The populations are in fact growing in both Australia and New Zealand.

It was a wonderful privilege to spend an hour or more with these gannets. The pleasure was added to by their utter lack of concern at my presence. Opportunities to observe such wild and beautiful birds up close and in their natural habitat are rare. Prior to visiting this breeding colony, the best gannet sightings (and photos) I had were of them soaring high above me over a beach near Freycinet in Tasmania. My hour at home with the gannets was memorable.

8 thoughts on “Australasian Gannets breeding on Southern Ocean clifftop

    1. Thanks Lizzie. I felt it was a privilege to be so close to these wild and free seabirds. They showed no sign of feeling threatened by me, and were not even curious about me. With so many birds taking off and landing near me, high quality photos were there for the taking.

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  1. Thanks Helen. I’m not sure whether the Australasian gannet is under the radar generally, or just under my radar. Either way, I’m glad I came across this particular seabird. Pleased you enjoyed the photos and ramblings.

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