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Published: 27 December 2013
Unseasonably warm, humid weather ushered in the first weekend of winter. According to the National Weather Service, the temperature on Saturday (the winter solstice) in New York City set a record with a high of 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature broke the previous high of 62 degrees in 2011 and 1923. On Sunday, the first full day of winter, New York City set another record with a high of 71 degrees, which topped the previous mark of 63 degrees set in 1998. Balmy temperatures owing to warm southerly winds moving up from the Gulf of Mexico towards the East Coast.
People were not the only ones enjoying this reprieve from bitter winter weather. Wandering down from the cold Canadian Maritimes were flocks of seabirds. One large seabird in particular could be seen enjoying the late afternoon of winter solstice sunshine, near the entrance to New York Harbor and off the coast of Sandy Hook. The birds could not be missed as they plunged-dived steeply from about 100 feet above the surface, like an Osprey, into the chilly 45-degree ocean waters to catch a fish.
Northern Gannets are large seabirds of the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. The birds are nearly always seen this time of year near Lower New York Bay, the south shore of Long Island and down the Jersey Shore. The birds can often be spotted soaring high above the ocean and diving head first into the water to forage for fish, mostly herring. In winter the gannets can spread out their wings and take a break from the busy breeding season.
During the summer, Northern Gannets will breed on well-established, tightly packed colonially breeding areas, 30,000 pairs or more with nests situated just two or three feet apart. Talk about high population density!
Many of the gannets seen around Lower New York Bay will have arrived mainly from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coast of Newfoundland. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states there are six primary nesting colonies here: three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Québec, and three in the North Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland. Along the south coast of Québec, Bonaventure Island has the largest nesting colony with around 32,000 nests. It's also a favorite tourist destination for people to observe the spectacle of nesting gannets.
Other nesting colonies can be found scattered along the coast of Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, France, and northward to Norway. Many breeding colonies in the North Atlantic have been recorded by naturalists as being found in the same place for hundreds of years. Nests are often located on rocky sea cliffs overlooking the ocean or on rocky, remote oceanic islands.
Gannets are the biggest seabirds of the North Atlantic Ocean, around 37 inches long with a wingspan of about 72 inches. This makes them larger and longer than Ospreys, a common fish-eating bird seen in the summer, which measures roughly 23 inches long and a wingspan of approximately 63 inches.
It takes a long time to raise a young gannet to adulthood, about 26 to 30 weeks, including incubation, feeding, and fledging. Remarkably gannets will raise just one chick per year, no more. It has been this way for centuries. If they lose their young to sickness or predation, that's it. Needless to say, the breeding season must be a stressful time for parents. They need to vigilantly care for their solitary offspring.
Thankfully, the global population of Northern Gannets seems to be doing well. Many international wildlife organizations, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature, claim the population is widely distributed and appears to be increasing.
When the Northern Gannets arrive near New York Harbor sometime during late autumn and winter, the birds are seeking a relaxing time of catching fish and taking it easy, before the hard-working breeding season begins in the spring. They can be seen mostly offshore, sometimes really far out over the choppy and turbulent waters of the continental shelf foraging for a meal.
If you find yourself looking for Northern Gannets this winter, it's important to know a few things. First, don't be fooled by gulls. Out in the distance, gannets will appear at first like a gull, all white, but gannets are more graceful and steady in flight with long glides. A closer look with binoculars or a spotting scope will also help to identify Northern Gannets. They have a streamline body with long pointed wings and black wingtips, along with a lemon-yellow face with black markings and a long, pointed bill, like a spear to grab hold of a schooling fish underwater.
Winds also play a role in spotting gannets. Authors Clay and Pat Sutton in their book, Birds and Birding at Cape May, suggest the best wind directions to spot seabirds are east, southeast and south. Many seabirds seem to favor a headwind for migration. Northwest winds, in contrast, seem to force the birds far off the coast and out of view. Of course, anything is possible when bird-watching.
One of the joys of winter is watching Northern Gannets. It's a exciting sight to see large seabirds quickly plunge-dive, like a torpedo shaped projectiles, from great heights into the water to seize a fish in their beak. It's an amazing show that only happens during the colder months of the year, or in times of unseasonable warm weather, those days that used to feel like winter.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/