Across the top and down the steep slopes of the southwestern geo on Sule Skerry is a bustling gannet colony. The harsh grating calls of the adult birds is a continuous noise. Years ago, when monitoring of seabirds started on the island in the 1970s there were no gannets nesting. When they first started breeding on Sule in 2003 there were just 13 pairs, over spill birds from the nearly Sule Stack colony. Today there are thousands. Even in the last nine years since my first visit to the island, the colony has grown noticeably, spreading out over the top of the cliff on both sides of the geo, crossing the rail as it heads down to the sea from the lighthouse. At the top of the cliff the mayweed, that covers the rest of the island in a deep green carpet, has gone. Worn away by gannet feet and burned off by poo. In the exposed brown soil, puffins continue to make their burrows around the edge of the colony. Within the colony, the ground and rocks are painted white with guano.
To say gannets are big and powerful is an understatement. As a marine wildlife guide, I always impressed on passengers the awesomeness of gannets. How they have a wingspan of 2 m, how they dive from a great height (up to 40m!) and hit the water at over 60 mph! I would extol their virtues and adaptations for this, how they have streamlined bodies with wings that fold right back, how they have a spongy bone plate at the base of their bill and air sacs between muscles and skin along the body in order to reduce the impact, special membranes to guard their eyes during impact, and binocular vision to help spot individual fish from great heights. Above all, I would tell people to keep an eye out for large groups of diving gannets, because that means there is fish, and where there is fish… well there maybe whales. Here, now confronted with these amazing birds up close and personal on this island of rock, I am once again overwhelmed by their power and beauty.
The colony is a riotous mass of feathers, continual calling, flapping of wings, movement of bills and necks during the elaborate greeting ritual pairs go through, along with squabbles between neighbours. Everywhere are these large, pure white birds, with dagger like bills, black wing tips and a splash of yellow on the head. They are closely packed, returning birds almost crash landing into the melee, wings back and feet dangling to slow themselves down. On small mounds are the young, ranging from little bluish black squawky chicks to older ones with a covering of white fluffy down and black faces and bills.
The team of ringers aiming to catch, ring and colour ring these adult birds, sit at the edge of the colony, watching and waiting. Tense in anticipation for holding one these magnificent and powerful birds. There is no room for error when handling gannets. When an adult is brought over, to where I sit, first the head is tucked away under my arm. My elbow almost pinning it back so it can do no damage with its dagger-like beak. The body lies across my lap with wings tucked against my tummy. My muscles tense. There is no relaxing. Any lapse in concentration would mean certain injury. Not to the bird, but to me.
From this position, I am able to put a metal ring (a large, hard ring) on the right leg. On the left goes the colour ring. Clearly it is not easy to recapture gannets on a general basis given the remoteness and precariousness of most colonies. Therefore, a colour ring enables anybody to identify that individual gannet without having to get too close! Indeed, we have already spotted and recorded colour rings of adults within the colony during our time on the island.
The process of releasing a gannet is one of care. Gripping behind the bill to control the head and hugging the wings close to your body to stop them flapping. I can feel the power in the neck muscles. My body remains tense with holding the bird. Still I take a couple of minutes just to take it in; it is not everyday you get to hold such an amazing creature in your hands. I admire the brilliant white and stark contrast of the black, the wash of yellow on the head and neck. But mostly I am captivated by its face. The dagger bill has a slight wash of blue colour, with striking black lines, leading back to a stunning eye. Its iris is pale, off white, with a jet-black pupil and surrounded by a brilliant blue eye ring. The bird watches my every movement.
Very soon I let the bird go, placing its body down first before letting go of the neck. It moves off, rather ungainly, and back into the colony with only a little ruckus and grumbling from nearby adults.
In the course of the two sessions catching adult gannets during my time on Sule Skerry, we inevitably capture some that are already ringed. Most of these were originally ringed as adults or chicks from Sule or Sule Stack. In the past, there has been the odd newcomer, like a bird originally ringed in Norway. One bird however has an unusual ring sequence, for one thing it starts with a letter rather than the usual number, and on closer inspection it says ‘Jersey CI’. Incredibly, this bird was ringed, most likely as a chick, on the Channel Islands. While many gannets return to the same colony they hatched in to breed, some clearly disperse especially when space at the colony becomes a premium. In choosing a place to start breeding this individual has travelled over 1000 km north and settled among the other new colonists on Sule Skerry.
Interestingly the name gannet comes from the Old English ‘ganot’ which means ‘strong or masculine’ and the name Morus (the gannet scientific name is Morus bassanus) is derived from the Greek moros or ‘foolish’ due to the lack of fear shown by breeding gannets allowing them to be easily killed. While that may be true, I’d say anyone purposely walking into a gannet colony without any kind of knowledge or protection is more the fool.