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New England Seabirds

Wilson's Storm-petrel  D Jones


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Northern Gannet

Mora bassana

Northern Gannet adult Jim Beseda

Adult Northern Gannet flying.  Photo by Jim Beseda

An Exciting Seabird
The Northern Gannet is the most exciting seabird to be seen off the New England coast at least in the opinion of the webmaster.The Gannet belongs to the family Sulidae which contains the boobies (genus Sula)  and gannets (genus Mora).  There are currently three species of gannets only one of which is a Northern Hemisphere breeding bird and appropriately called the Northern Gannet.

So why do I consider this bird so exciting?  It is a large bird with long wings, wedge shaped tails, and large bills.  At times they fly higher than others seabirds and their habit of obtaining food by making spectacular plunge dives into the water is most entertaining.  Large flocks will gather in the air over food sources.  To be on a boat near such a gathering is a most exciting experience as suddenly the sky is filled with large gannets diving straight toward the water, folding their wings against the body just before they enter the water with almost no splash.  They dive up to 30' deep.

They show plumage differences with age.  Juveniles are dark gray birds with white uppertail coverts.  Second year birds show more white on the head but still have all dark back and wings.  Third year birds have extensive white on the wings.  The adult bird has a white head with and back with black wing tips and a yellow cape and back of the neck.

The Gannet rests on water, but seldom comes to land other than for breeding.  The best reason to love this bird is that there are extensive breeding colonies in Maritime Canada where you can watch their interesting mating and breeding behavior.  No birder should fail to visit a gannet colony.

How to See

 Immature birds can be seen on Stellwagen Bank all summer long. Mature birds are seen in early spring in migration and in great numbers in late fall and into winter. Sometimes seen in fall and winter from land where they are usually spotted making spectacular plunge dives.

For a more exciting Gannet experience visit a breeding colony to observe mating behavior. See Bonaventure Island or Cape St. Mary under Seabird Colonies..


Northern Hemispher breeder. Breeds in large colonies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence including a large colony on Bonaventure Island on the Gaspé Peninsula. Also breeds in Newfoundland, Labrador, Iceland, British Isles. St. Kilda in the British Isles with 50,000 pairs is the largest colony in the world.

Nests are built of mud and sticks on the ground with cliff side locations preferred. Both parents incubate the egg using their feet as they like Penguins do not have a brood pouch. Both parents feed the chick regurgitated fish with the chick pecking on the parent's bill and sticking its head down the parent's gullet. Birds do not breed until they are fully mature at 5 years of age. Immature birds are present on the breeding ground where they may build practice nests and engage in mating behaviors usually on the outskirts of the colony. The immature birds disburse before the end of the breeding season and are seen on pelagics throughout the summer.

Australazian Gannet at Cape Kidnappers  EB Tarry Northern Gannet at Gaspe Colony EB Tarry

Left: Gannet Colony at Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand   (Australasian Gannet) and right at the Gaspe peninsula colony.

While nests are close together there is a territory maintained around each nest.


Juvenile (first year) birds are gray brown with white spots on upper wings and back as shown in the lower left of the painting at the left. Notice the white u shape path in the tail.During the next 3 years, the plumage becomes whiter. Juveniles can be seen on pelagic trips all summer.
The birds do not reach full breeding plumage until 5 years of age (center)

At Sea

After disbursal usually found over the continental shelf from New England to the Caribbean. Less often over deeper water.

Gannet plumage

Prospecting ?

Recently several Gannets have been resting on a rock stack near the Isle of Shoals in New Hampshire. Could they be prospecting for a new nesting area something seabirds in general are known to do when the breeding colonies become too crowded?

This stack is not large enough to make a good colony so we really do not know what is going on here.

Leonard Medlock photograph of Gannets on the Isle of Shoals in New Hampshire/Maine.

Prospecting gannets on the Isle of Shoals
Northern Gannet flying Steve Mirick


Gannets are large birds. Flight is steady wing flapping alternating with glides.Photo of adult taking off of the water by Steve Mirick.

When taking off from land, gannets like to have a little altitude so the choice breeds spots are on the top of the cliff or stack.

Steve Mirick found this immature gannet sitting on the beach during the winter. The bird is obviously under stress.  It is most unusual for a gannet to rest on land other than at the breeding location. 

Steve took this bird to a rehabilitator, but I don't think it survived.

Gannet on the beach  Steve Mirick


Seabirds    |      Top of Page                  Comments to webmaster                      

Clements , James F. (2007 )  The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World    Cornell University Press

Harrison, Peter (1983) Seabirds an identification guide Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston

Sibley, David (2000) The Sibley Guide to Birds Alfred A. Knopf, New York.