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On gannet patrol at Cape Kidnappers, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.

One of the highlights of my time in New Zealand in 2015 was visiting the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers very near where I was staying with friends in Hawke’s Bay. Gannets have always been one of my favourite birds; when I was a boy I was in the Gannet Patrol in the sea scouts and those that know me would agree that my eating habits are very worthy of being in the Gannet Patrol!

 

 

 

 

 

The Australasian gannet (takapu) (Morus serrator) is one of three species of gannet which belong to the booby family. They are usually found in large colonies on offshore islands around New Zealand and southern Australia and have been nesting at Cape Kidnappers since the 1870s. Numbers have steadily increased to 6,500 pairs, which makes it the largest and most accessible mainland colony in the world. The gannets average lifespan of between 25 to 40 years has a remarkable start. The 16 week old chicks, which have never been airborne before, take on a 2,800 kilometre Tasman Sea crossing. Two to three years later, the young birds return from Australia to undertake tentative mating. However, it is not until they are five years old that they nest in earnest, after which most spend their life around the coastal New Zealand seas. Nesting commences in mid-September and continues through to mid-December. The first chicks hatch in the first week of November and the last chicks depart the colony during May for their migration to Australia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The main colony sits on top of a dramatic headland at the end of a peninsula that juts out into the sea. As you approach it from below you can already see some gannets gliding overhead, but I wasn’t prepared for how close you get to the birds. As soon as you arrive on top of the headland you are confronted by a large matrix of seaweed nests with gannets perched on them, with so much noise and activity going on; some birds landing with seaweed and some taking off to collect more. The birds are literally at your feet, and you can observe all of their interactive behaviour at very close quarters with birds in flight whistling past you. It was really windy up there and it was fantastic watching them soaring in the wind. I could see a lot of amorous exchanges between couples but also a lot of aggressive competition for space and stealing of seaweed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The towering cliffs on the peninsula expose the many rock types and fault lines which underlie Hawke’s Bay. The cliffs are made up of sandstone, river gravel, pumice and silt, originally deposited between 300,000 to 1 million years ago. The fragmented fault and tilt lines along the cliffs tell the story of many earthquake upheavals and movements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On another day I walked out to the end of the peninsula and passed a few New Zealand fur seals (kekeno) (Arctocephalus forsteri) along the way that are quite habituated to people. There is also another smaller gannet colony along the beach before the headland where the main one is. It’s a fascinating area. Also on the peninsula is a golf course that has been set up as reserve for native species to thrive without any invasive predators like rats, stoats and hedgehogs. I didn’t realise that the introduced hedgehogs have also become a problem as they have decimated the skink population. It’s crazy isn’t it; I haven’t seen a live hedgehog in England for many years because they have been wiped out by the impact of pesticides, habitat loss and roads, and then I find a dead one in a pest trap in New Zealand.

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