Our love of birding gives us a wonderful excuse to travel from one end of the country to another in search of new birds. Earlier this year we had the privilege of visiting the little west coast town of Lamberts Bay, 250kms north of Cape Town, where their resident Cape gannet colony is a major attraction for birders and tourists alike. We took a chance going there without first establishing that the birds were actually there, but, fortunately for us, the feathered inhabitants of Bird Island were home in all their glory.
For birdwatchers, the colony at Lamberts Bay is the most accessible of the six gannet colonies in South Africa and Namibia. They are a spectacular sight in their tightly packed community and it’s an awesome experience to observe their behaviour as they wheel, land and settle into their designated positions.
There have been some unfortunate incidents in recent years of Cape fur seals attacking and eating the gannets on their nests, causing the remaining birds to leave the area. This was a bitter blow to the residents of Lamberts Bay who assumed that they would always have their gannets to pull in the visitors. In 2006 after the birds had been gone for six months, drastic and ingenious measures had to be taken to entice them back. Although some birds were circling overhead, they were afraid to return to their nests.
Working on the premise that hunters successfully attract ducks with decoys, it was decided to try the same approach on Bird Island. A local artist made a mould of a gannet out of plaster of Paris and produced fifty life-size decoy birds which were placed on the deserted nests. The ploy worked and gannets immediately started returning to their nests. Two months later ten thousand gannets had been lured back.
There are approximately twenty thousand pairs of breeding gannets on Bird Island, which actually isn’t an island at all, but an area joined to the mainland by a short causeway. It’s a very smelly place so it’s a relief to go into the bird hide to get away from the stench of the guano. From the hide one has a magnificent close up view of the birds as they gather in their thousands, performing their little rituals of bowing, stretching, neck twisting and beak tapping. Their various movements all have significance within the colony and even their cries identify them as they come in to land.
Their well-defined landing strip on the outer edge of the colony is made out of crushed sea shells. We watched amused as they made ungainly landings, using not only their feet but their chests to halt them. Take-off also looked laborious, but once in the air, with a wingspan of up to 1.8m, they assumed a grace and beauty of their own.
Breeding pairs remain together for a number of seasons and lay one egg a year in August or September. Incubation takes between forty-two to forty-six days and is carried out by both parents using their foot webs to wrap around the eggs. The juveniles are easy to distinguish amongst the adults as they are black. They gain weight rapidly and become fledglings when they are between 95-105 days old.
The seal attacks highlighted the tenuous thread that binds the gannet colony to the Island and the residents of Lamberts Bay have to remain vigilant to ensure that these beautiful birds are kept safe from predators, gulls and tourists alike. Cape gannets (Morus capensis) are on the list of vulnerable birds due to the diminishing supplies of fish.