Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Post #114 - Bike-chasing California's most famous seabird......

This is a Northern Gannet. It is a large seabird that nests colonially in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. On the map below, nesting colonies are shown as green dots, and the wintering range is shown in aqua. They are unique among boobies (Sulidae) because they prefer high, northern latitudes to more tropical climes. Though it's tough to tell from this photo, they are quite large; they average 3 feet in length, and they sport a wingspan of nearly 6 feet. They subsist entirely on fish and such, and they are well-known for their arial acrobatics as they plunge into the ocean in pursuit of prey.

Northern Gannet - Morus bassanus
Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland, Canada
Canon 400mm f/5.6 on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 400

Northern Gannet range

So, why the heck am I writing about an Atlantic seabird in a post about California?!??! Well, in April of 2012 a Northern Gannet appeared on the Farallon Islands, 30 miles west of San Francisco (please see my recent post on the Farallons). Birders were understandably shocked by the first Pacific record of Northern Gannet but were even more surprised by how long the wayward bird stayed on the Farallons - 2 full years! The bird finally disappeared in March of 2014 only to reappear on Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay just two weeks later. It spent that spring and part of the summer in the bay before returning to its more familiar Farallon haunts. Since then, it has bounced between points on those islands, SF Bay, and points along the coast of San Mateo County. The bird generally spends a few months in a particular area before moving elsewhere for an equivalent length of time, and it is occasionally seen from seawatches and on pelagic trips as it transits between its preferred spots. I first saw this bird in Half Moon Bay in February of this year when I came to SF to look for an apartment. At that point, it had been in the Bay Area for nearly 5 years. 

Northern Gannet sightings
April 2012 - August 2017

Since I moved to San Mateo in May, sightings of the bird have been very thin; There was only 1 summer observation, that being on the Farallons on July 17. So, when the bird recently reappeared at Devil's Slide just south of Pacifica on August 2nd, I jumped at the prospect to add the bird to my slowly growing San Mateo County bike-only birdlist. I was in Arizona when the bird was rediscovered, so my first attempt at the bird had to wait a while and ultimately resulted in a 38-mile, round-trip miss; 2,700 feet of climbing to get over the coast range and back made that strike-out hurt even worse.

The gannet has frequented the whitish rock 
outcropping, left of center. Pretty cool that I can
bike to this from my apartment!

Undaunted by failure, I yesterday made a second attempt at the bird and was successful! I spotted the bird among a HUGE feeding frenzy of birds at least a mile from shore. I am familiar with this species from my time in the east, so making the ID at such a distance was very easy. It wasn't doing much, just floating around, but it shortly took off and flew into the rock where it has been seen recently by other birders.

This was taken through my Zeiss Gavia 85 at 60x.
I wish I would show you how many birds 
were to the right of this - thousands!

After that success, I headed south along the coast to do a bit of birding at Half Moon Bay. I headed for the harbor, set up my scope, and surprisingly saw a Northern Gannet sitting on the aptly named Sail Rock 400 yards from shore. Incredibly, the gannet had followed me 10 miles south, returning to a roost it had in the past used though not for the previous 6 months. I thought the whole thing was really fortuitous. 

The gannet in Half Moon Bay, 40 minutes later

My successful gannet chase, complete
with Half Moon Bay extension - 47 miles.

So, of the 130 or so birds species that I've managed to find in San Mateo County using just my bike, this Northern Gannet is by far the best quality bird. Chasing rarities on a bicycle is a horribly inefficient process, but I hope to defy those long odds as I do more of this sort of thing in the future. Finding birds from the bike in an incredibly rewarding feeling, and, regardless of the outcome, I'm staying in good shape. 

It's really cool that this bird has survived and taken up what appears to be permanent residence in Northern California. We often think of wayward rarities as disoriented or weak, and, though that might have been the case when he first appeared, he seems to be doing just fine today. Since he's so large and conspicuous, he's easy to find if he's around. It's because of this visibility that we've been able to track his movements during his California vacation-turned-staycation. 

Lastly, and since this was the week of the great solar eclipse, I'll leave you with the following photo. It's a bit of a departure from my usual style, being as much digital art as photograph. The subject bird was backlit by the setting sun, and I exposed the scene so as to correctly expose the edge of the bird but underexpose everything else. I simply knocked down what few details did come through in post-production to heighten the halo, or eclipse, effect. I hope you like it.....

Great Egret - Ardea alba
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 400
Handheld from kayak


  1. Love your Great Egret eclipse photo! Beautiful!

  2. Congrats on an awesome addition to the bike list! Any chance you might post that list on this site like you have with your ABA list?

    1. This is in the works! Please stay tuned. I got about the first hundred put in, but never kept up with it. I'll have to complete the list and post it.

  3. I love the gannet backstory and the photos accompanying your amazing bike ride on the Peninsula. I may take a drive south, from Sonoma County, to look for the wayward bird that makes the Bay Area his home. Thanks!

    1. Thanks very much. I though it was such a cool story. I'm just glad he's adopted California as his new home!

  4. Lovely shot of the egret!
    But take care of yourself biking on those hill roads, drivers too often push it.

    Separately, might this Gannet possibly wind up in a relationship with one of the local boobies?

  5. Thanks for the words of caution! I do everything I can to stay safe, but there are no guarantees.

    Who knows about the gannet. There have been Blue-footed and Brown Boobies on the Farallon Islands, so I guess anything is possible!