Photograph one of the greatest bird spectacles on our continent.
The rain beat a crescendo on the trailer roof all night long. The dawn was somber, sullen and sodden; everything was soaked. St. Bonaventure and Perce Rock were shrouded in fog. Rolling breakers swept in from the Atlantic Ocean, spewing seaweed up on the wharf and rolling the pebbles up and down the beach constantly.
What a contrast from the first day, which was one of those God-given days that was picture perfect! The sky had been azure, the sun bright, and the weather delightfully cool. We’d arrived too late to make a trip up to the gannet colony on Bonaventure worthwhile so we’d contented ourselves with taking a boat tour around Perce Rock and Bonaventure.
Bonaventure Island, on Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, is administered by Canada’s National Park Service. It is home to the largest gannet colony in North America and the second largest in the world, the first being St. Kilda in Scotland. The gannet is a magnificent sea bird, having a six-foot wingspan and is related to the boobies. I had visited this colony in 1973, the first year it became a national park. I visited South Africa’s large gannet colony in 1974. I had been remiss for waiting so long to get back up to the Gaspe Peninsula because its bird colony is a photographer’s delight.
There are a number of tour boats that will take you out to Bonaventure Island and they all charge the same rate, about twelve dollars. We took the “Capitaine Duval” because it was the largest boat and, being a catamaran, provided a much more stable platform from which to photograph any seabirds as we toured around Perce Rock and the island, before landing on Bonaventure itself.
The figures change constantly and the latest survey has not been published as yet, but it is estimated by the park service that there are about eighty thousand gannets, fifty thousand black-legged kittiwake gulls, five hundred herring gulls, two hundred fifty black-backed gulls, nine hundred fifty double-crested cormorants, thirty-six thousand common murres, five hundred fifty razor-billed auks and two hundred black guillemots. There are a few other birds, as well as snowshoe hares and red foxes on the island, but we did not see them.
As the boat rounds the island, every ledge, nook, cranny and crevasse is festooned with birds, thousands upon thousands of birds either incubating their eggs or guarding their chicks. At all times, the nest, eggs and chicks must be guarded by one or the other parent. Any of the three left unguarded for just a moment is lost, cannibalized by something. Other thousands of birds are either diving into the sea for fish or wheeling overhead on the air currents. Their calls and screams would put a rock band to shame in decibels. Keep your trigger finger down because these photos can only be gotten from the boat.
Originally, gannets nested primarily on cliffsides because those areas do offer the birds the greatest protection from such predators as foxes. As the gannet’s population increased, the birds adapted to nesting on the bare cliff tops in huge colonies. Bonaventure Island was first visited by Jacques Cartier in 1534 and he made no reference to seeing gannets there, although he did write about seeing these birds on the Magdalen Islands and called them “margalaux”. Gannets were first noted on the island in 1860 and the population was given at three thousand birds in 1887.
The boat ties up to a wharf, or quay, that once served the fisherman who lived on the island. Snacks can be purchased at the Visitor’s Center and toilet facilities are located there as well as at different spots near the bird cliffs. Four hiking trails lead to the gannet colonies. Take the “Sentier des Colonies”, as it is the shortest and can be walked in about forty-five minutes. It is uphill as you go from sea level to over four hundred feet then down to the cliffs. The trails are wide, packed and well maintained.
The gannet areas are restricted and you must stay behind the open fences or on the platforms, but that is no problem as you will be only ten feet or less from the birds. Gannets are long-lived birds and each bird returns to it’s own particular nest site for its entire life. As the birds live from twenty to forty years, they have become habituated to humans and pay no attention to us.
Your biggest problem will be “what to shoot first”. A 400mm to 500mm lens is ideal for portraits, but you will need a wide-angle lens to even begin to show the scope of the colony. One word of caution, the solid sea of the pure white birds will blow your meter sky high; open your lens one to one and a half stops for correct exposure. You cannot get on the island until 10 a. m. and the sun will have already moved toward the south so the lighting is favorable all day long. You must leave the island at 5 p. m. As mentioned, you might have to delay your trip out to the island, as we did, because of sudden, prolonged and strong storms.
Researchers have discovered that birds that nest in large colonies are subject to social stimulation. This causes all of the birds to be more or less synchronized in all of their activities. In the case of the gannet, this is extremely important because both the hatching times and the fledging times occur at the peak of two different runs of herring, the gannets’ main food. However, like all creatures, some of the gannets are out of sync so you may be able to get some of the birds incubating while most are feeding chicks.
The gannets return from wintering off the Florida coast around the first of April. The island cannot be visited until the first part of June to insure that the birds are not disturbed when they are returning to their respective nest sites. At that time there is turmoil enough as the gannets are extremely pugnacious and the three and four year old birds are attempting to locate nest sites in the colony that had previously belonged to birds that have died.
To get some semblance of order out of all the chaos, the gannets have very elaborate, and predictive, postures by which they communicate. When the birds stand in their nest and bow with wings raised, it is a “no trespassing” warning. Any interloper will be stabbed with the gannet’s five-inch beak.
When one of a pair of birds wants to leave the nest, it points its bill to the sky, which tells its mate to stay put and guard the nest. The nests are situated about twenty-eight inches from one another, a distance great enough so that the two nesting birds can’t quite reach one another, although they do often jab at each other.
Birds leaving the nest run a gauntlet of jabbing beaks until they get to the cliffside where they can launch themselves into the air. Returning birds fly to their nests and slip in where their mate rises to greet them with bill banging called “fencing”. The male then aggressively grabs the female by the nape of the neck while she turns her head away. Copulation often follows this acceptance. You just can’t take too many behavior photos so take lots of film.
Nest building is an unending chore throughout the entire season. As material is scarce, every twig, scrap of seaweed or shed feather is a treasure. The nests are constantly being rebuilt, added to or rearranged. Every bird is either stealing material from the neighbor’s nest, if it is able, or is having its nest material being stolen. The constant chaos makes for great photographic opportunities.
The gannets lay a single egg between the 1st to the 15th of May, which they incubate under their webbed feet. The birds do not have a brood patch, but instead have an increased blood flow to their feet at this time. Incubation is done by both parents and takes an average of forty-three days so that hatching begins around the middle of June. The chicks are fluffy white with black bills and faces. The parent birds do not feed the chicks when they first return to the nest with a crop full of fish. They wait several hours for the fish to be partially digested, then they regurgitate it.
The chicks feed upon the partially digested fish, which they get by reaching down their parents’ throats into their gullet. The chicks just eat and sleep and grow very rapidly. At three weeks of age, they are almost two-thirds grown. Before they are fledged, they will be both larger and heavier than their parents because all they do is eat and sleep.
As the young gannets lose their white down, it is replaced by dark feathers across their breast, back and wings. This dark coloration is what protects them from their own parents who would not tolerate a white bird in their nest site. The parents cannot recognize their own chicks. The chicks finally leave the nest, and their parents’ care, around the tenth of September and shortly thereafter the adults begin to leave the colony and all head south toward Florida.
All told, this gives photographers almost three full months in which to photograph one of the greatest bird spectacles on our continent.
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III