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31st October, 2005

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Gannets: gormless but gorgeous

When my wife, Martha, did some research into what we could see while visiting New Zealand, she got quite excited to discover that the world's sole mainland colony of Australasian gannets lies very close to Napier, our base for the duration of our visit. We discovered that we would be there shortly after the birds had returned from their overseas peregrinations and were beginning to nest. We had heard of gannets before with the hearing of the ear, but the chance of seeing them with our eyes threw us into raptures. We knew just enough about these birds to know that we were in for a treat. Believe me, nothing, not even watching every David Attenborough show ever made, can prepare you for the actual experience of coming nose to bill with a breeding colony of these gorgeous large birds.

We booked a seat on a “Gannet Beach Adventure” tour. This unique company takes visitors to the colonies by means of tractor-drawn uncovered wagons that bump their way along the rocky beach between water on one side (they only go at low tide) and 300 foot-high (by my estimate) towering cliffs on the other. The cliffs themselves — layer upon layer of soft mudstones, sandstones and conglomerates packed with numerous shelly remains laid down by rivers over who knows how many years — testify to the glory of God. We were awestruck by their dimensions and inspired by the evidence they provide of earth's fascinating, protracted past. (In a later editorial I will recount our near brush with death when a huge pile of earth at the base of one cliff suddenly slipped.)

About 45 minutes into the tour we came across our first colony, the largest of them all. This colony consists of about 4000 pairs of birds scattered around a large area. Huge rocky outcrops just offshore, stained white with guano, were totally covered by the beauties, as were ledges jutting out from the cliff face. I was spellbound by one bird — about the size of a skinny goose — that suddenly appeared on a rock just a couple of meters away from us. I could not believe just how beautiful it was. Its body language suggested it wanted to take to the wing, but it obviously was having some difficulty figuring out where the runway was. After about five minutes of looking this

way and that, it finally started taking large, wing-assisted leaps (for want of a better way of putting it) towards the sea. It seemed to me to take forever before it finally became fully airborne, but it probably took only four or five seconds. Clumsy on land, these creatures transform into aerial ballerinas once they get some wind under their four-foot-wide wings. Who do you think gave them such aerodynamic skill and grace? Millions of years of mutations and natural selection? Dawn to Dusk readers know better than that. As I watched this bird doing its divinely-ordained thing, I was bursting with a desire to tell our 80 or so traveling companions that they were seeing the glory of God being unveiled before their very eyes. But I'm a bit of a coward, and kept silent.

Not long afterwards we reached the end of the line and, after a 20 minute climb up lush grassy slopes, found a colony of about 2000 pairs perched on a hilltop. The totality of sights, sounds and smells lies beyond my powers of description to convey. Over the years, the birds had somehow killed every blade of grass in the football-field-sized nesting area. Lovely ladies, each sitting contentedly on a pile of dried seaweed mingled with droppings that would serve as the depository of their eggs and the cradle of their young, chatted with their neighbors only inches away. Other birds we took to be males fussed around. One was wandering around with a bill full of grass and feathers. Along one edge of the colony was a bare runway. With a bit of imagination you could picture a busy airport as one after another bird lined up and ran flapping along the narrow strip until it gained the air. Then we noticed a most comical sight — birds wheeling around just meters above the colony with strips of seaweed dangling from their bills. These were males bringing offerings of nesting material to their mates. (About 90% of gannets remain faithful to one partner for the fifteen or so years of their reproductive lives.) How they could find their partner in that riot of business defies understanding.

If you ever visit Napier, don't miss this golden opportunity to experience yet another feast for the spirit provided by the works of the Master's hand.


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