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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 6 (September 1939)

The Gannets at Cape Kidnappers — A Unique Bird Sanctuary

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The Gannets at Cape Kidnappers
A Unique Bird Sanctuary

A young gannet feeding from the throat of its parent.

A young gannet feeding from the throat of its parent.

In this era of record-breaking, we in New Zealand can make modest claim to at least one possession that is unique. At Cape Kidnappers, the southern extremity of Hawke Bay, we have the only place in the world where gannets nest on the mainland.

These large and beautiful birds are always coastal habitues. They are to be found in many parts of the world, including other places on the New Zealand and Australian coasts, but invariably, except at Cape Kidnappers, they choose islands for their nestinggrounds.

Particular interest is therefore centred on the colony at Cape Kidnappers because it is more accessible than others for observing and studying the peculiar habits of these remarkable birds.

In order to protect the gannets, Cape Kidnappers has been declared a bird sanctuary. It is reached by going first to Clifton, 15 miles around the coast from Napier. There visitors obtain permits from the ranger before proceeding to the sanctuary.

From Clifton to Cape Kidnappers is about 5 ½ miles, and the journey must be made on foot or on bicycle. The walk is not, however, unpleasant. The track follows the seashore and is usually of fine, firm sand. It is negotiable at all times except at high tide. Great white cliffs rear up perpendicularly on the right-hand side of the track, whilst on the left the blue Pacific Ocean washes gently up the shore.

After a five-mile tramp on the flat, a rest-house is reached. Here are obtainable fresh water and facilities for boiling the billy before setting off on the last steep pinch up to the gannets. A ten-minutes’ climb brings the birds in sight. From just over the brow of the hill the gannet colony appears like a great white sheet spread along the flat headland of the cape. It makes a wonderful sight.

A short flight of steep steps, hewn from the hillside, leads right down to the edge of the nesting-ground. Now-a-days, visitors are not allowed to go among the birds owing to the danger of disturbing them. They can be clearly observed, however, from many vantage points.

A gannet on its nest.

A gannet on its nest.

The gannets are very large birds, averaging about three feet in length and having an even greater wing-span. The general colour of an adult is white, but this is relieved by the golden buff of its head and neck, and by the black of its primaries, secondaries, and four central tail feathers.

The bill, which is usually about 3 ½ inches in length, is bluish in hue, with sutures of black. The bare skin of the face is black, and round each eye, the iris of which is yellow, runs a band of pale blue. The feet are brown and have a broad yellowish line running down the toes.

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The gannets do not remain at Cape Kidnappers all the year round. Usually, by the full moon in May, the nesting-ground is completely deserted, and it stays so for a few weeks. Sometimes as early as the next month the birds begin to arrive back, as they had departed, in groups of a few hundred at a time.

The authorities do not agree as to where the gannets go during these winter weeks. Some claim that the birds go out to sea; others that they fly north. But in either case it seems certain that they follow the shoals of herring, garfish and young mullet, which constitute their food supply.

Nor have observers been able to discover with assurance whether the same birds return every year. Gannets have occasionally been ringed in an endeavour to settle this point, but since the colony contains in the vicinity of 10,000 birds each year it is naturally difficult to find the ringed birds among them—if they have returned.

As soon as the gannets arrive at the sanctuary they select the sites for their homes. It is difficult to imagine anything more crude than their nests. Evidently they are Spartans, for they are satisfied with a few rough bits of seaweed thrown into one of the same dirty hollows that have been used in previous years.

Towards the middle of September the females commence to lay their eggs. They lay only one, which is whitish-grey in colour, similar to a duck's egg but much larger. The eggs take approximately six weeks to hatch. Males and females appear to share duties in sitting on the nest, and about the end of October the first nestlings make their appearance. They are naked when hatched and black in colour.

Birds in the speckled stage ready to fly away.

Birds in the speckled stage ready to fly away.

Soon their bodies become covered with soft, white swan-like down, while their feet, faces and bills, remain black. With this white down of the nestling stage, the ancient Maoris used to ornament their hair and ears.

Within three to four weeks the down is replaced by speckled grey feathers. So rapidly have the birds grown, and so great is this mass of grey feathers that they now appear to be even larger than the parent birds. They are pugnacious youngsters, too, and quickly fight back if chastised by their parents.

When they are about three months old the young ones appear to be more or less deserted by their praents. Like young mutton birds, they seem to live on their own fat for nearly a month, fining down so that they will be able to fly. All through the speckled stage they have been exercising their wings, but now they clamber to the edge of the cliff and wildly flap their wings.

For some days they do this. Like a bather hesitating to plunge into cold water, they are trying to make up their minds to fly. One day they suddenly decide. They jump over the edge of the cliff, flutter their wings and are soon flying away into the distance.

Their very first flight carries them away from the sanctuary. They are never seen again—not in the speckled stage, at any rate. If they do return to Cape Kidnappers it is when they are fully grown, with adult white and black feathers which make them indistinguishable from the older birds.

A gannet always takes off, and lands, into the wind, just as an aeroplane does. Once in flight, however, a gannet is infinitely more graceful than any man-made machine could be. Its beautiful wings are practically motionless, even changes of elevation and direction being made with almost imperceptible movements.

General view of the nesting ground.

General view of the nesting ground.

It is fascinating to watch a gannet in quest of food. Cruising over the bay at a height of twenty or thirty feet, it waits until it catches sight of its prey in the sea. Then suddenly it dives vertically, head outstretched, wings partly folded. As it reaches the water its wings close right in to the body and the bird disappears beneath the surface. On a clear day, looking down from the top of the cliff, the gannets seem sometimes to dive very deep, almost to the bottom of the ocean. More often the prey is captured near the surface.

The gannet soon comes up again, a small fish carried in its bill. Very rarely is a dive made without result. The fish is swallowed. Then the bird seems to run a few steps on the water, takes off into the breeze and is soon aloft looking out for more prey.

Having collected a supply of food the gannet returns to its nest where perhaps its young one is waiting for its dinner. With extraordinary instinct the bird is able to sort its own nest out from among the thousands, and drops straight down on to it.

If a bird is suddenly frightened and wishes to go aloft again at once, it page 22 page 23 first disgorges the food. Otherwise, the food is only partially disgorged by bringing it up into its throat. It opens wide its bill and the young gannet pushes its own bill in and drags the food from its parent's throat.

Although the nests are packed so closely together the birds appear to live quite amicably at most times. Occasionally it happens, however, that in alighting, or in making its way to the edge of the cliff to take off, a gannet goes too close to another's nest. Then the intruder is subjected to fierce pecks from strong, hostile bills.

An attack from one nest may send the victim stumbling near another nesting bird, and this one in turn makes an attack. It is an amusing sight, though one cannot help but feel sorry for the unfortunate victim which, staggering like a drunken man, is attacked on all sides.

Memorable sceenes taken by the “Star-Sun,” Christchurch, following the great snow storm at Arthur's Pass on 31st July. In the picture (bottom centre) is shown the General Manager of Rallways, Mr. G. H. Mackley (right) with Mr. Harold Bell (Manager of the “Star-Sun”) who travelled to the Pass by relief train from Christchurch.

Memorable sceenes taken by the “Star-Sun,” Christchurch, following the great snow storm at Arthur's Pass on 31st July. In the picture (bottom centre) is shown the General Manager of Rallways, Mr. G. H. Mackley (right) with Mr. Harold Bell (Manager of the “Star-Sun”) who travelled to the Pass by relief train from Christchurch.

Apparently the Maoris did not consider the gannets of much use for food. They can be eaten, however, or could be if they were not protected birds. Sir Joseph Banks, of Captain Cook's company, has recorded that gannets, killed at Three Kings on Christmas Eve, 1769, took the place of goose for Christmas dinner on the Endeavour.

Captain Cook makes no mention of gannets at Cape Kidnappers. Some authorities claim that the birds must have been there then. They believe that Captain Cook must have been too concerned about the boy who was kidnapped at this point by the Maoris to trouble about noting the birds. On the other hand some old Maoris declare that in those days there was a Maori pa on the very spot where the gannets now nest.

However that may be, it is certain that the gannets have nested at Cape Kidnappers for many generations past, and will, it is hoped, continue to do so for many more to come. They must be carefully preserved; for, apart from their fascination for the average person, there is still a great deal to be learned about the habits of these remarkable birds.

And of all the places in the world such studies can best be made at Cape Kidnappers where the gannets are so easily reached both by sightseers and by scientists.

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