Five facts you need to know about gannets

Gannets are Scotland’s, and indeed Britain’s, largest seabird. The specific type found here is the northern gannet, identifiable by its bright white plumage, long neck and beak, and distinctive black wing tips. 

Northern gannets come to Scotland to nest and breed among huge seabird cities known as ‘colonies’ around the coast. They migrate south for the winter, between August and October, but travel back to our shores at the start of the year in January and February. Since you might be seeing some soon, here are five facts we think you should know about them.

Scotland is responsible for a stunning number of these birds

As of 2016, our country holds over 40% of the world’s total population of northern gannets, and around 180,000 pairs breed in Scotland. That’s a staggering figure to be responsible for! The gannets are spread out across 14 colonies including Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, which is the largest gannet colony on earth. You can also find them at St Kilda, Ailsa Craig and RSPB Scotland Troup Head – the latter is the only mainland gannet colony in the country. 

Gannets give a whole new meaning to the word ‘speedy’

Gannets feed on a variety of fish at sea, and to catch these fish they have to dive (makes sense). But did you know that when these seabirds actually hit the surface of the water they can be travelling as fast as 60mph?! To do this they have specifically developed neck muscles and a spongy bone plate at the base of their bill to reduce the impact. They also have special membranes to guard their eyes.

The chicks are.....unique 

When gannet chicks first hatch they are featherless, as well as being blue or black in colour. They need to be fed a couple of times a day on average by the parents and will keep up this arrangement for about 90 days. When the young do fledge the nest, by around September, they are so chubby and buoyant that they’re not actually capable of surface diving! The fledglings will usually go without food for two or three weeks at this point until they’ve slimmed down a touch and mastered diving. That’s what we mean by unique...

Gannets love to dine and dash

If you’re lucky enough to see gannets feeding out to sea you’ll notice that they do so in large groups, sometimes up to 1,000 birds strong. When they dive, these seabirds swim down to around 15m, staying submerged for only a few seconds. Northern gannets don’t actually take off again with their prize though – they normally quickly swallow their fish before resurfacing, and never fly away with a meal in tow.

Colonies have quite a significant aroma

OK, we’ll be honest with you. You’ll likely smell a gannet colony before you actually see it. With so many seabirds jostling for space on the same cliffs it’s probably not surprising that the scent wafting through the air and right up your nostrils will be powerful. It’s a mix of guano, fish and fresh sea air - on trips out to Bass Rock for example the smell of ammonia can reach you about ten minutes before you get to the colony! However, it’s worth it. The sights, sounds and yes smells of a seabird colony mingle together producing a sensory overload like no other. These seabird cities are one of the great wildlife wonders of the world and we have some fantastic examples right here in Scotland – we’d urge you to get out there and see them.