By Al Crist
Beth and I recently returned from our annual late-summer vacation. This year the primary destinations were Vermont and the Gaspe’ peninsula of Quebec. On Gaspe’, I was able to check off an item on my “bucket list” that had been on my list for some years. I know it sounds crazy to drive nearly 1,500 miles to see a colony of seabirds, but that was the draw that brought Beth and me to far eastern Quebec.
Northern Gannets are spectacular seabirds. They’re the largest indigenous seabird in the North Atlantic with wingspans of nearly 6 ft. Not only is their size impressive, their feeding behavior is both breathtaking and remarkable. Gannets feed on groups of schooling fish by plunge-diving. Beth and I sat on a pebble beach near our campground at Forillon National Park and watched small groups of Gannets slowly cruise the area off-shore from the beach. When fish were spotted they would abruptly begin a rocket-like dive into the water from cruising heights as high as 125 ft. As they approached the water their wings were extended backward, close to their bodies, and they entered the water as sleek arrowheads at speeds that can be as high as 60 MPH. What a show! Once in the water their dives are usually less than 10 ft., but can be as deep as 50 ft. Favorite prey include herring, mackerel, capelin, and squid.
Gannets breed in dense colonies on both sides of the North Atlantic. On the western side of the Atlantic their breeding is confined to 6 colonies, three near Newfoundland and three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec. The most famous and accessible breeding colony is on L’Ile Bonaventure, an island a few miles off the coast, near Perce’, Quebec. The Gannet colony on Bonaventure Island is what we came to see and it did not disappoint. Gannets remain completely at sea except for the few months spent at their breeding colonies. They begin to arrive back on Bonaventure Island in May. Incubation of the single egg each pair produces lasts about 40 days and the chicks are fed by the parents for about 90 days before they fledge. By early October they are all gone from the island. This year the estimated population on the island was 44,000 breeding pairs plus their chicks.
The French of Quebec are so civilized. After hiking for 45 minutes from the boat landing to the cliff-top colony on the north side of the island, we were greeted by a refreshment stand and a picnic area overlooking the colony. One could enjoy a snack along with a cold beer or glass of wine while viewing the Gannets only a few feet away. It was amazing. Birds everywhere; squabbling, bickering, seemingly crash landing as they flew in trying to find their few square feet of territory, birds leaving to catch fish to bring back to their chicks, chicks constantly begging for food, and the powerful smell of bird dung produced by over 100,000 birds. What a spectacle!
One of the things I most enjoy about vacations is the chance to leave everyday thoughts behind and ponder the larger questions of life and living in this modern world. Quebec was just great for this. Our cell phones didn’t work there and radio and newspapers were mostly in French. We forgot about politics, natural disasters, and all the stressful bad news that bombards us daily when at home. Rather than being stressed and, or angered by the news of the day, we enjoyed the incredible scenery and natural areas of the Gaspe’ peninsula, and were buoyed by the story of the conservation success of the Northern Gannet. Since the production of both DDT and PCBs were banned in the 1970’s, levels of both contaminants have declined dramatically in Gannet eggs, resulting in thicker shells and much improved nesting success (from less than 40% to over 75%). Gannet populations are currently increasing more than 3% per year.
And then there is the story of how Gannet chicks fledge; something I find to be truly inspirational. At fledgling stage the chicks really can’t fly. When they fledge, they make their way from the nest to the edge of the cliff, lean forward, and jump! They might flap their wings a few times, but mostly they just clumsily glide, soon splashing down in a sort of crash landing 500 to 1000 yards out in the ocean. At this point in their life, they are completely independent – no more help from mom or dad. Now that’s some “tough love”. They can’t yet fly and they have never fished and they’re on their own. They start paddling out to sea. Scientists estimate they have one to two weeks of excess body fat to live on until they begin to fly and hunt. Their wings and wing muscles must develop enough for them to begin to fly, and living off their body fat for a while will lighten them up to make the first true flight a bit easier. Within a couple of weeks, they must become adequate flyers and teach themselves how to catch fish, all by their little lonesome. Of course, most of this is instinctual, but determination is surely a big part of the process as well.
Next time you face a challenge in your life, think of what faces a Gannet chick once it jumps off that cliff! Now that’s inspiration.