Saturday, July 31, 2010
The Bonaventure Gannet Colony
Since my visit to the island, I have learned more about the Northern Gannet, the largest seabird in the North Atlantic. The impact on the bird from European contact makes the current nesting colony on Bonaventure even more remarkable. In 1534, the European explorer, Jacques Cartier, gave this account of the nesting islands off the Labrador coast: “These islands were as full of birds as any medow is of grasse, which there do makes their nests.”
Even so, three centuries after Cartier’s account, John James Audubon in 1833 was so overwhelmed by the sight of so many birds nesting on the Labrador island known as Bird Rock that he could not even offer an estimated number. A naturalist visiting the island in 1860 found the numbers reduced, but still estimated the colony on the top at 100,000 and along the cliffs at 50,000.
Then the reports begin to tell a different story. Arthur Cleveland Bent in his “Life History” reports that in 1872, three years after the lighthouse was built, the colony on the summit was reduced to 5,000. “In 1887 the total number of gannets nesting on Bird Rock was estimated at 10,000, and at the time of our visit in 1904 we estimated that their numbers had been reduced to less than 3,000 birds. Fortunately, they are now protected by the lighthouse keeper ...”
Bent continues: “Though not so well known as Bird Rock, the island of Bonaventure ... is fully as important as a breeding resort for gannets, for it contains by far the largest colony of these birds on the American coast.” In 1913 the colony contained about 7,000 gannets.
Since that time, protection to birds in general has been provided through national laws and international treaties. Protection to the critical nesting colonies has come from dedicated stewards, such as lighthouse keepers, and through concerted efforts by government authorities. Bonaventure Island is a Quebec national park, accessible to thousands of visitors each year, while carefully protecting these magnificent seabirds.
When breeding, the Northern Gannet practices a site fidelity, which means that the same pair returns to the same nest year after year. If one of the pair fails to return, the returning bird will find a new mate.
The nest is simple; to our eyes they all look the same, but the birds know which one they used the previous year. Each year they return to the nest, adding fresh eel grass, seaweeds, sticks, and even green grass. As the nest is remodeled with new materials it grows in size.
The gannet colony on Bonaventure Island was impressive and inspirational, a conservation and recovery success story. But, when they finish nesting, many of these gannets will migrate to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter months. Many young gannets will spend their first two or three years in those waters. For years to come, researchers will be studying the impact of the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico on an island in the cold waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.