Last week I was crew on a sailboat racing to the Magdalen Islands, a 150 mile course from Charlottetown around Pictou Island. One of my most vivid memories of the trip was the remarkable sightings of large numbers of Northern Gannets on our return leg.
From my sailing in Northumberland Strait I was familiar with these large gull-like birds that one normally encountered well off the coast in late summer. These are the largest sea birds in the northern hemisphere with wingspans of 165-180 cm (about 5.5 feet). Their distinctive smooth yellowish head and black wing-tips mark them as a beautiful and unmistakable bird. However in Northumberland Strait the birds are seen only on ones and twos.
What I was not prepared for was the large number of birds we saw in the waters as we passed near Entry Island. One of their few North American breeding colonies is at Bird Rocks, to the north of the Magdelene archipelago and the waters surrounding the islands provide a rich fishing ground for both mature and immature gannets.
Without doubt one of the most beautiful and unexpected sights, not just of this trip, but of all my time at sea, was a flight of a dozen Northern Gannets which passed us flying wing-tip to wing-tip only inches above the waves. Like a low-level aerobatics team they flapped and glided and turned as if they were a single organism, their black wings and white bodies flashing in the morning sunlight. I have never seen this behaviour before and they are not noted as flocking birds.
Later in the day we encountered a pair that were apparently feeding on a school of herring. Seemingly oblivious to our approach they stayed in place until they were rolled by our bow wave, bobbing up in our wake as if they were anchored buoys. If these had been immature birds their behaviour might have been explicable as the young birds are not able to fly when they first leave the nest area and glide down to the sea where they teach themselves to fish and fly. However by their colouring I could see that these were adults. Elsewhere on the trip we saw Gannets hovering, folding their wings, and diving to feed. All in all it was a wonderful exposure to avian life.