Thursday, 8 January 2015

Bird Behaviour: Ritual Display of Northern Atlantic Gannets at Bempton Cliffs

Northern American Gannet at Bempton Cliffs: Meeting and Greeting Gannet Style
northern atlantic gannets on nest
Adult Gannets on the Nest at RSPB Bempton Cliffs

The Gannet in Words and Pictures

A delightful photo journal of ritual displays between breeding gannets. You will see them in greeting and bonding display, even bringing gifts! If bird behaviour fascinates you, you will enjoy these photographs.



I am republishing this as a protest against the decision to allow fracking in  this area - PLEASE HELP 

Britain's Largest Marine Bird

The Gannet is a large seabird, the largest,  that comes into the coast of Britain to breed. They tend to come back to the same spot every year - and to the same mate. Most Gannet colonies are on islands, but the largest inland colony of Gannets can be found at RSPB Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire.

Northern Atlantic Gannets
Adult Gannets


It is fascinating to watch gannets meet and greet. Typically every time one comes back to the nest they go through a greeting ritual rubbing beaks and entwinning necks as if they are pleased to see each other. Maybe they are but it is also a way of renewing and strengthening the bond between them.  They spend some time on this and the chick comes in for its share of attention too.

Adult Gannets in Ritual Greeting Display
Adult Gannets in Ritual Greeting Display

Adult Gannets in Ritual Greeting Display
Adult gannets ...and checking on the chick.

Adult Gannets in Ritual Greeting Display

It doesn't seem to matter how precarious their perch looks to us, the display goes on. 

Adult Gannets in Ritual Greeting Display
Ritual Display Gannets on Nest with Chick

Adult Gannets in Ritual Greeting Display
"room for me?" Chick in nest with displaying adult gannets

adult gannets on cliff nest with chick
Spreading those impressive wings - adult gannets in ritual display

adult gannets on cliff edge nest
Ritual display Northern Atlantic Gannets

Adult Gannets in Ritual Greeting Display
adult gannets with chick on cliff edge nest

adult gannet grooming his mate
grooming adult gannets on nest

Grooming Gannets are bonding Gannets

Grooming each other forms a major part of the bonding of adult Gannets. It is a bit like supping with a long spoon: when your own won't reach - get a friend to help. Those long beaks are handy to rid your partner of pests and to smooth the feathers in those hard to reach places. Seabirds especially need to keep their feathers in tip-top condition, especially for the deep diving these birds do for feeding.

adult gannets grooming each other
grooming adult gannets on nest

adult gannets grooming each other on nest
adult gannets grooming each other

adult gannets grooming each other
getting to those hard-to-reach places
adult gannets grooming each other

Gannets bearing gifts

All this was wonderful to watch and easily explained. What happened next? Not so much! At first I thought the returning Gannet was bringing in fresh seaweed for the nest, after all I had watched several bringing in grass and so on. But watching this pair it seemed much more than that, the gifts brought back appears to have been part of the bonding of these adults.
In the pictures below you can see the female with seaweed draped over her back. I had thought it was there by accident but now I'm not so sure. She spent quite some time pulling it this way and that and when the male reappeared she spread her wings so it looked for all the world like a lady with her shawl. In his beak when he came back was fresh grass which was laid in the nest only after some display. Is it my imagination or does she look rather smug? That bill and mouth does tend to give the impression of smiling.

 Adult Gannet arranges seaweed 'shawl'
"my new shawl" the female Adult Gannet pulls and tugs to arrange seaweed 'shawl'

 Adult Gannets bringing seaweed to the nest
adult gannets on nest 

adult gannets on nest
"thank you dear" Adult Gannet displaying seaweed 'shawl

Where do Gannets nest?

As often as not the answer to that is 'right on the edge'. Gannets can nest on cliff edges that are almost perpendicular as shown in the photos. It may seem a precarious perch to us but they still manage to give a fine courtship display while their chick is huddled behind them. Eventually, when the adults are through with the love display, the chick gets in on the act.

For your information: Gannets as divers

Gannets are truly remarkable birds and can seem as at home in water as in the sky. They have been called missile divers and have been documented reaching great depths. Modern technology allows us to watch these feathered machines below the waves.

Facts about Gannets

For those you like facts:
  • Order - Pelecaniformes
  • Family - Sulidae
  • Species - Morus bassanus
  • Common name - Gannet
  • Length - 34-35 inches
  • Wingspan - 5-6 feet
  • Weight - 6-7 lbs
  • Lifespan - 20 + years
Gannets are particularly elegant birds for their size. They are the largest European seabirds. The adults are pure white with black feathers on the outer edge of the wings, so when they are onland they look as if they have black tail feathers. They have black feet and legs. They have a beautiful peach-coloured blush on the head and the nape of the neck. They have a long sharp grey-blue beak with black lining and piercing blue eyes.
In flight the black edging to the wings is evident and the head goes out and forward. They feed by diving deep for fish they spy from high above. The wings are folded back to dive and they can dive to great depths.
Gannets flock together, indeed they are packed solidly in breeding colonies but pairs retain individual relationships that are endearing to watch. One will leave the nest frequently to feed (the chicks are feed by regurgitation) or to collect grass and seaweed. Whenever they come back they go through an elaborate greeting ritual with much beak rubbing and entwining of necks.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating reading about these Gannets and the display perched right on the edge of that ledge is amazing! The seaweed and maybe the grass do look like "gifts". I wonder if its been observed in other Gannets with the seaweed draped over the back of the female like that ? Wonderful photos !