Well, how many birds can there be anyway?
That’s what I was thinking as I climbed the steps to one of several viewing platforms at Muriwai Beach on the west coast of the North Island and about an hour’s drive from Auckland. The rocky cliffs near Muriwai Beach are home to a huge mating colony (1,200 mating pairs) of large sea birds called gannets.
This species that I was about to see is more accurately known as the Australasian gannet (Morus serrator), large, white seabirds with black-tipped wings, yellowish heads, long black bills and a wingspan of about six feet. Gannets are the dive-bombers of seabirds; they hunt fish by diving from heights of up to 100 feet into the sea and at speeds of up to 60 mph. Special adaptations allow them to do this. They have air sacs in their face and chest which protect them on impact with the water and binocular vision which allows them to accurately judge distances, both of which allow them to dive and catch fish far deeper in the water than other birds. There are only three species of gannet in the world, and New Zealand is the nesting site of the majority of the Australasian species.
But nothing quite prepared me for coming up over a small rise in the trail and seeing the birds for the first time—hundreds of large white birds sitting evenly spaced on individual mounds covered the cliff tops. A small sea stack just offshore had its own colony of birds. I felt like I was walking inside an issue of National Geographic: the giant colony of birds, the stunning beach cliffs and far below the black sand and crashing waves on Muriwai Beach. All of this was punctuated by the wind and screech and calling of the birds, and the heady ammonia smell of all the bird droppings.
The small mounds visible in the photos are the birds’ nests. The female lays a single egg sometime from September to November. Both partners incubate the egg for 44 days and the chick, once born, stays in the colony until February or March (our visit occurred in the middle of January). This is where it gets crazy. From what I’ve read, after weeks of furious wing-flapping on land, the juvenile birds take a one-shot jump off the cliff edge. And then—well, and then the juvenile birds fly directly westward to Australia 2000 km away. That’s right, no hanging around. No practice or further preparation. Nope. Just fly off to Australia on that first flight.
They migrate back to the nesting area here in New Zealand two or three years later.
If you look closely at the photos, you will notice that most of the adults have one juvenile bird at their feet. I saw one young bird already practicing his wing flapping. Still wearing his fluffy fledgling bird coat, he looked like a stuffed animal trying to fly.
A fair amount of mayhem is associated with the nesting areas. The sky above is filled with arriving and departing birds, and down below there are constant landings and takeoffs like at a too-busy airport.
Both partners apparently take turns watching the young. When one of them returns with food, the juvenile gannet sticks its beak into the parent’s mouth and the adult regurgitates the meal.
Sometimes birds land in not quite the exact spot of their nest and all the other birds peck and chase them away until they find their mound. When a bird finds his or her mate, the partners rub necks and arch their bills upward in what is presumably a welcoming behavior as if to say glad you’re back. Gannet pairs may remain together for several seasons.
I could have stayed there for hours observing gannet behavior. Finally it was getting dusk and we had to get back to the nearby holiday park (campground) where we were staying. The beaches on the west coast near Auckland have their own distinct feel compared to other parts of the island, and Muriwai Beach with the gannets is certainly one of my favorites.
Here’s a short video of the gannets.