Adult gannets are bright white, with yellow-buff plumage over the head that extends down the neck, and black wingtips. They are distinctively shaped with a long neck and beak and long pointed wings and tail. Juveniles are entirely grey-brown except for whitish upper-tail coverts. At close range they reveal plumage that is finely speckled white, lending it a beautiful silvery sheen in good light. Juveniles take 4 years to develop their adult plumage, and although there is some variation in an individual’s development, they gradually lose their grey through subsequent winters.
Their colonies are filled with loud, grating sounds.
A colony of Gannets, various calls.
Patrik Åberg, XC145635. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/145635.
Gannets eat fish. Their keen eyesight allows them to detect shoals of fish such as herring or mackerel in the sea below. They will then dive into the shoal, seizing fish from under the water.
When diving for fish, gannets can travel up to 60 mph. They swim down 15 metres and swallow a fish before returning to the surface, all in a matter of seconds.
Gannets are pelagic, meaning they spend the majority of their life on the open ocean. They breed in the North Atlantic. In the UK, the largest concentration is in western Scotland (St Kilda). The largest mainland breeding colony is at the RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs. There is also a large island colony at Grassholm in Wales. Non-breeding birds can be seen year-round along the British coastline. Numbers increase during autumn migration.
Close up of a Gannet
After circling above a shoal of fish, the gannet makes stunning, steep diagonal dives from a height of 10-40 metres. Its wings are thrown back just prior to striking the surface of the water. Due to their size, gannets are quite easy to identify, even from a distance. However, immatures can be mistaken for a Great Shearwater, but the gannet is much bigger and has a more projecting, wedge-shaped tail and a longer head and neck. The gannet is also distinguished by its characteristic, relatively fast flight with shallow and uniforms wingbeats interspersed with short glides. In very windy conditions it will bank and shear.
Gannets breed in colonies along steep rocky coasts and rocky islands, on cliff-ledges or steep slopes. They build a nest consisting of seaweed and other sea debris, held together with droppings. The female lays a single egg. Once hatched, the young will be fed by their parents for around 90 days before fledging in September. Males usually reach sexual maturity at 4 years of age.
A Juvenile Gannet
The average lifespan for a gannet is around 17 years.
Outside of breeding season, the gannet is notably mobile, with some birds reaching as far as West Africa, while others travel to the western Mediterranean. Others prefer to remain closer to their breeding grounds.
In the UK where they breed in significant numbers at only a few localities, gannets are classed as an Amber List species. There are around 220,000 breeding nests.
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