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Birds of Brooklyn: Northern Gannet

Most of the birds I write about for this series can be found in Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park, or other nearby parks, but to see the northern gannet, you will need to travel to the outer edge of Brooklyn where the borough meets the ocean. At the proper time of year, this very large seabird can be seen from Coney Island to Gravesend Bay. If you’re very lucky, you might even see a group of them right under the Verrazano Bridge.

The northern gannet has a wingspan of over five feet. There are only six large breeding colonies in Northern America and some 32 colonies in Europe, mostly off the coast of the United Kingdom. Thousands and thousands of birds are in each colony. The North American birds migrate along the coast in late fall and again in early spring, and it is then that they pass Brooklyn in large flocks of thousands of birds. They migrate south for the winter, as far as North Carolina and or even Florida. Except during breeding, they are always offshore.

The northern gannet feeds on fish that it finds by plunge-diving into the ocean—a thrilling sight! The bird can dive as far as 50 feet deep in search of food with a hardly any splash. Its great eyesight prevents it from colliding with other birds and also enables it to focus on food, that is, fish. Small fish are consumed under water while larger ones are brought to the surface to be eaten. Underwater, gannets use both their wings and feet to propel themselves.

Adult birds are basically all white with golden heads and dagger-like bills. Young birds are darker and mottled. Gannets mate for life and produce only one young per year. Visiting a breeding colony at its peak, in late June, with adults and young, all very active, is one of the greatest birding activities one could experience. Adult birds can live to be 20 years old.

Almost every year, gannets are recorded on the Brooklyn Christmas count sometimes numbering over 5,000 birds. Their flight pattern, a few flaps and then a glide, enables birders to pick them out at great distances. Of course, seeing them plunge-dive anywhere is a spectacular sight, but even better is seeing them in Bay Ridge feeding right under the Verrazano Bridge. As we approach spring, the time is coming to get our binoculars ready, visit the coast and hopefully see some northern gannets.

The Birds of Brooklyn series looks at some of the most familiar and fascinating birds that call Kings County their habitat.

Joe Giunta has led bird walks for the Nature Conservancy and the South Fork Natural History Society and taught a beginning birding course for Summer Fest. He has birded extensively in the U.S., Panama, Belize, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.

    Discussion

  • [email protected] March 12, 2020

    My favorite bird! I have been traveling to see them off the coast of Scotland and went to St. Kilda to visit breeding grounds in 2011. Thrilled to know that they fly near the Atlantic Coast, though they are too far out to see from land. Thanks!

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Show larger version of the image Northern Gannet Northern Gannet
Northern gannets (Morus bassanus) are mostly white with golden heads. Photo by Andreas Trepte.
Show larger version of the image Northern Gannet Northern Gannet
Northern gannets can dive as deep as 50 feet in search of food. Photo by HeJä.
Show larger version of the image Northern Gannet Northern Gannet
A northern gannet preparing for landing. Photo by Hobbyfotowiki.