Sharing The Peapod's Travel Adventures...

The Gannets of Cape Kidnapper

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This entry was posted on 12/19/2006 6:24 PM and is filed under New Zealand.

In Napier there exists a most amazing and extraordinary colony of birds called gannets that live at the end of Cape Kidnappers.  There are two ways to visit them.  One is to hike in via the beach and must be timed according to the tide schedule.  It takes about 5 hours each way by foot.  The other way is to schedule your visit via Gannet Safaris and go in their van.  We were lucky enough (of course they just had two seats left when we showed up) to get on this fascinating trip to visit the only gannet colony in the world accessible by vehicle and visible up close, because otherwise they nest on offshore islands and are hard to see.
Here's the gannet story...

We drove about 1.5 hours up a winding road past the Cape Kidnappers golf course to this bluff.  As we rounded the corner to the top, we came upon literally thousands and thousands of these elegant gorgeous birds.  You could get within 2 feet of them, that's how close they were!

Gannets have a wingspan of almost 2 meters (think over 6 feet) and are stunning birds.  They live in large colonies, usually on isolated rocks and small islands, so it's difficult to get near them.  There were three such colonies on Cape Kidnappers, the oldest dating back to the early 1800's, when they ran out of room, and started a fourth colony in about 1954.

The gannets mate for life and then come to this bluff and make a nest out of guano (bird poo), leaves, seaweed and other material.  The nests look like little mounds with an indentation in the top. The female lays one egg in the indentation and takes turns with her mate sitting on it.  There are seagulls flying above waiting for the errant parents to both leave the nest at once so that they can snatch the egg and eat it up, or a baby gannet left unattended.

It takes 40 days for the egg to hatch.  The babies are all gray and very small.  They're so hungry.  We were there to see newborn babies, adolescents and young teen birds.  The gannets, much like the penguins, cover the egg or the new baby with their large feet and keep them warm.  One of the parents goes and catches a fish.  They can dive straight down from 30 meters above - they have a special covering for their eyes that covers them when they hit the water, to protect them from the huge impact.  The fish is then thoroughly chewed and regurgitated into the mouth of the baby.  As the babies grow the regurgitated food is less and less chewed until the teens are just given whole pieces of fish.

You see the young gannets stretching their wings while seated, imitating their parents, but there is never a practice flight.  Here's the amazing part of the story.  When the teen gannet is about 15-17 weeks old, it just walks over to the edge of the cliff and takes off.  All alone - no parents, no buddies, just solo.  And it flies all the way to Australia to the Great Barrier Reef!  It intuitively knows how to get there.  No guides, no maps, no AAA service.  And they never eat along the way.  They just live off of their built up baby fat.  It takes 7-10 days to make this perilous journey. 

Those that survive this difficult trip live in Australia for 3 years learning to fish, then getting big and healthy from all the fish at the reef.  Then they pack up and fly back to this same colony in Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand.  They haven't forgotten the way back.  Meanwhile their parents have gone on to hatch other babies in that three year time.  Adults never make that journey to Australia again.  It's a one time rite of passage ritual trip for the 15 week old teen gannets.  Only 20-30% of the gannets born here survive to come back after three years.

The returning grown up 3 year old gannet now finds a mate that he or she will keep for life and finds a place on the outside of the colony and starts building their nest to lay their own egg.  The older the gannet, the more towards the center they are.  Our guide told us that in the center are two birds that are well over 50 years old and they still produce an egg every year.  Gannets usually live about 25 years or so.

Because of the proximity of this colony, they are the world's most studied Gannet group.  There are two South African gannets there who flew off course and ended up with this colony.  They have each chosen New Zealand mates.  They are recognized by their slightly different coloring and their distinctive So. African accent (that's true!)

We stayed up there an hour, fascinated by their calls and their behavior.  They were very protective of their young and groomed them and fed them.  Very good parents.  The sound of them all calling was loud and persistent.  Then it would get very quiet and then something would alert them and off they would go, setting off their calling alarms.

The smell of them was powerful.  At first you didn't notice it that much, but at the end of an hour it was almost nauseatingly strong.  We were ready to head down the mountain and back to town.  It was a grand adventure.

Be sure to watch the movie and turn up your volume so you can see and hear the gannets for yourself.

Here's the movie...

Hear the gannets of Cape Kidnapper

and here are some still images - a five image stitch panorama...

thousand of birds living in one large colony - and we got to see them just after hatching the babies!

they are really beautiful birds, and didn't seem to mind our quiet presence at all.  We were able to get within a couple meters of them..

notice how they mound up the earth to use as a nest..

Check out the baby!

and here's a teenager...


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