Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 24, 2007

The Gannet of Opportunity

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:50 pm

The Wandering Naturalist

 For the next few weeks you’ll be hearing from me while I am on the road.  Some might call this jaunt a vacation, but a naturalist vacation is usually a busman’s holiday. I’ll continue to do what I always do and see what the regional scene offers.  My ability to check in will depend on our ability to connect to a local internet server from time to time, since we are camping on this trip.  My blogs will be short and (hopefully) sweet and will be based on a series of photos. Think of these sessions as a series of postcards sent home by your wandering naturalist.


Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

  They say that opportunities come to you if you are open to them.  Approaching the small coastal berg of Hatteras at the S.E. angle of the Outer Banks of North Carolina we encountered just such an opportunity.  On the right side of the road was a Northern Gannet attacking a trash barrel.  Now you don’t see this everyday, so we pulled over to see why the bird was fending off the receptacle.

  It was immediately obvious that it was injured – having been struck by a passing vehicle.  The road was very narrow here, so it was pretty important to get the bird away from the offending barrel and further off the road.  As I walked up from one side, a bright yellow pickup truck pulled up from the other.  Two salty employees of the local ferry service, dressed in their Texaco uniforms, inquired out the window about the bird.  They were willing to “do something” about the poor seabird, but didn’t show any desire to pick it up themselves. 

  I can’t say that I blame them for their hesitation, because the Gannet had switched his hatred over from the barrel to my pant leg.  It was attempting to land some pretty severe blows – it was hurt but not without spunk.  I should explain that Northern Gannets are birds of the open sea who nest along the north Atlantic Coast. They are not from around here.  As a goose-sized fishing bird, it is well equipped with a formidable dagger of a beak and spring loaded neck.  They dive for their prey and normally turn themselves into missiles while making their catch.  Both forward facing blue eyes were aimed directly down the line of the beak – at me.

  Eventually, after a comical battle in mid-street Hatteras, I managed to get a burlap bag over his eyes long enough to grab the back of his head and control the weapon.  The ferry gals said that “Ray could probably do something about it.  He could hep it out,” so I slowly placed in the back of the pickup and wished it well.

  Before saying goodbye, I took the opportunity to take a good look at that fish spear beak.  It was about 7 inches long, blade-like and equipped with a slitted nostril. The head, neck and breast was thickly feathered. This is a trait to absorb the impact of a high altitude dive.  The wings were very long and narrow – something typical of open sea birds.  Such a wing structure is referred to as having  a high aspect ratio, but this only means that the ratio of length to width is something like 6: 1 (or something like that). Birds that sail on the ocean breezes use these appendages which are shaped just like glider wings. 

  In all respects, the bird appeared to be an immature bird.  Adults are white with black wing tips while this individual was buffy brown.  Gannets are the only North American representatives of the Booby clan.  The one booby that always comes to mind is the blue footed booby.  While this is no blue foot, the foot is pretty impressive. Take a look here before the critter yanks it out of my grip! 

  As the bird drove away (actually the humans were driving), I fully expected to never see it again, but the opportunity offered itself one more time.  At the Ocracoke Ferry dock, some 15 minutes later, I spotted a familiar looking yellow pickup with a bunch of employees looking at something in the back.  I asked what they were looking at and one of them said “looks to be a heron or a loon or something. Some guy picked it up”  I peeked in and there was my Gannet.  “Are you going to be able to do anything?” I asked, after admitting that I was that guy.  They assured me that some guy from up Manteo way was coming down.

  Right now I’m sitting under the shade of some pigmy Loblolly Pines in Ocracoke,  not too far from a whale skull that washed up on the beach in 1988.  I’m hoping the nearby Ocracoke Library will provide the elusive internet connection I need, but am willing to send this piece via repaired Gannet.

  Meanwhile, I’m waiting for another opportunity to come by.  I know it will.

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