Sunday, 19 August 2012

Birds Without Borders


A young Australasian gannet, Muriwai, NZ 

Some writers have the ability to wring a “YES!” from you, even when you are not paying them due attention. Scottish poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie is one such.

This week passage after passage of her book “Sightlines” dragged me from distraction to attention, in particular her description of gannet viewing in Shetland.

It was exciting, like a fun fair: the closer we got to the cliff edge the more we could hear the racket, the more the breeze brought us the smell.[1]

Suddenly I am a scant-bearded 20 year old again, approaching the Cape Kidnappers’ gannet colony on New Zealand’s North Island. After an awkward hitch-hike and a long walk in, we are impatient to see the famous birds. But it is the smell that strikes us first. Initially nose-twitching, it gradually moves through pungent to near gagging strength.

The wildly whiffy birds add a sensory layer to a place that is already full of drama. In Maori Cape Kidnappers is Motaupo Maui (“Maui’s fish-hook”), as it was the hook with which the demigod Maui pulled the North Island from the sea. Its European name derives from an attempt by local Maori to kidnap a young Tahitian from Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour in 1769.


Muriwai gannet colony, New Zealand 
The Australasian gannet (Morus serrator) – or Takapu in Maori – is not a difficult bird to admire. It is strikingly marked, prodigiously beaked, swift and strong of flight and a peerless diver. Whatever characteristics elicit the word handsome, each individual gannet seems to possess them.

But put 15 000 together, and handsome doesn’t come into it. We stop well short of the cape’s end point. Smelling, watching and listening to that many birds flying, greeting, fighting, feeding, sitting, crapping and calling is sensory overload.

All was squalor and noise: the birds’ tenement was so plastered with guano that it shone, and the airborne birds cast winged shadows on the whitewashed walls.[2]

It would be many years before I would see Australasian gannets in large number again. Instead my next significant gannet encounter is with northern gannets (Morus bassanus), the same Kathleen Jamie describes.

We are on Great Blasket Island, off the coast of Kerry in western Ireland enjoying a rare sunny summer’s day. It is a place that reeks of history, both ancient and recent, and that is why we are here. So it comes as a surprise when we find ourselves birdwatching for nearly half an hour.

A dozen or more northern gannets are plunging again and again into the deep emerald waters of Blasket Sound. One of our companions explains that gannets have reinforced skulls, enabling them to drop into the ocean at speeds that would fracture the skulls of other species. That same speed enables gannets to “fly” underwater to great depths to catch fish and squid.

The gannets we’re watching are too far off for us to hear them, but I fancy that I’m watching a wildly syncopated Irish dance, as each bird dives, rises, shakes and takes off again.

It is again New Zealand that delivers our most recent gannet experience. Muriwai, west of Auckland, is a smaller, more accessible version of Cape Kidnappers, hosting a couple of thousand Australasian gannets.


Gannets (above) and Humans (below), both fishing at Muriwai, NZ 



I cannot tire of watching these birds taking off, flying, landing and socialising. Considering they weigh around two kilograms each and have wing spans of nearly two metres, both their mobility and their sociability are admirable. Once the young birds are large enough and fat enough, they will fly over the Tasman to feed in Australian waters.

It’s a reminder that birds don’t have borders. And that some of the threats they face, including their food sources being swallowed up by human overfishing, need both local and international attention.




[1] Kathleen Jamie, “Sightlines”, Sort of Books, (London, 2012), p. 73
[2] ibid, p. 74
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