Australasian Gannets at the Muriwai Gannet Colony
Bob and I had a long list of sights to see in New Zealand and first up was the gannet colony at Muriwai Regional Park just outside of Auckland. About an hour’s drive north of Lone Kauri Lodge where we were staying on the North Island, it made for the perfect day trip. Over 2,000 Australasian Gannets make up the colony at Muriwai, which is one of only three mainland gannet colonies in New Zealand.
As we drove along Waitea Road in the direction of the gannet colony, we got our first glimpses of Otakamiro Point and Motutara Island, the two main sites where the Australasian Gannets congregate in Muriwai Regional Park.
Using the Takapuku Refuge Walk from the parking lot brought us first to an information board where a view was also afforded of the little island, Oaia, a little further offshore. It was on this whale-shaped isle that the Muriwai Gannet colony first established itself in the early 1900s.
The nice thing about the Australasian Gannet colony at Muriwai is that it is easily accessible, and a well-positioned, spacious viewing platform is constructed right above the main colony. This vantage point lets observers appreciate how exacting the Gannets are when constructing their nests. Equally spaced so there is room for two adult Gannets and one chick at a nest, and far enough away from the next nest to avoid being pecked by one’s neighbour, the overall effect is quite symmetrical and exhibits mathematical precision.
Just below my spot at the railing, this Australasian Gannet showed signs of activity, so I hoped to get a glimpse of an egg. It was early November, and most eggs are laid between September and December, but there was no telling which Gannet was presently incubating an egg. Gannets only lay one egg each breeding season, and then share with their mate responsibility for incubating the egg over the course of about 44 days.
It was exciting to watch as this Gannet rotated the egg in its nest. There were about 1,200 pairs of birds nesting in close quarters, so it was a challenge knowing where to look so that I didn’t miss some bird in action.
The area was alive with movement and sound as one can imagine when over 2,000 Gannets are boisterously going about their business.
At any one time, a good number of Australasian Gannets cruised past us where we stood atop the steep, sheer cliffs. With a wingspan of 1.8 metres or close to 6 feet, the Gannets can take full advantage of the brisk breeze and sustained updrafts along that stretch of rugged coastline. It was great fun trying to capture the birds in flight as we attempted to hone our photographic skills.
Motutara Island is a mere 200 metres offshore, and it is atop this substantial pillar of rock that the Australasian Gannets began to nest in 1975 after Oaia Island became too crowded. By 1979, overcrowding again forced the colony to expand outwards, and the two headlands at Muriwai Beach provided similar suitable habitat and soon hosted one of the three mainland colonies in New Zealand.
If you look closely at this photo, you can see a group of birdwatchers in the upper left corner overlooking the main Gannet colony on the southern part of Otakamiro Point. I was walking along a trail that would conduct me to the northern headland at Otakamiro Point, visible on the far right of my photo.
Another observation deck lies within easy viewing of the Australasian Gannet colony that is established on the northern headland, and to my surprise, put us closer to the nesting birds. It was from this platform that Bob and I observed active courting rituals, mating and nest building taking place.
I was intrigued by the patience of this Australasian Gannet as it meticulously picked through plant matter to find pieces suitable for the nest site. It is the male Gannet that returns to the breeding location in advance of the female, to claim the previous year’s nest and add new materials to reinforce it. His presence at the nest helps him reestablish the bond with his female once she returns.
Once the pair’s bond has been reestablished, the male continues to gather nesting materials while the female protects the nesting site.
When looking in another direction, I caught these two Australasian Gannets performing some elaborate greeting ceremonies or breeding rituals, common sights at the breeding colony. Stretching their necks and heads skywards can be an indication of the intention to take flight or a warning to other Gannets that this pair’s nest is off limits.
The actions of this pair of Gannets included bill fencing and tapping as well as rhythmical bobbing of the heads.
It soon became apparent that the pair of Australasian Gannets were demonstrating an complicated breeding ritual soon after which the male attempted to get into position by grasping some loose skin at the nape of the female’s neck.
For prolonged minutes, the male Gannet tried to gain his balance by pinching the skin of the female’s neck,
but eventually, he found a more sturdy grip by placing his bill around the back of the female’s head.
I thought the male Australasian Gannet looked quite pleased with himself afterwards.
Checkout our video from our visit.
I could barely take my eyes off the boisterous Australasian Gannets with their pristine white plumage beautifully accentuated by black feathers where they lay along the trailing edge of the wings and in the tail.
The bright yellow heads appeared golden, while the pale blue beaks and blue eyes, all outlined precisely in black, matched the fine work of any makeup artist.
Bob, in the meantime, had ventured further along the observation deck and witnessed quite the drama unfolding off to his left. A Southern Black-backed Gull, of which there were scores soaring over the frothy waves and above the Gannets’ breeding colony, had stealthily outwitted a pair of Australasian Gannets and managed to steal the egg from their nest.
Fortunately for the Gannets, it is possible to lay another egg if the first one is lost. This can also happen when an egg rolls out of the nest or gets broken or if severe weather impacts a breeding colony. Within the next four weeks and as far out as January, Australasian Gannets can lay a second pale blue egg.
When the Southern Black-backed Gull flew off with its prize, both Bob and I turned our attentions to the noble Australasian Gannets that are so graceful in flight.
The onshore breezes that chilled us also rewarded us with great opportunities to capture the Gannets as they rose from their fishing expeditions at sea level,
soared at eye level,
and swooped over the observation decks. The birds really put on a wonderful show.
While the turbulent Tasman Sea battered the sheer sides of the rocky headland, the Australasian Gannets were preoccupied with safeguarding their precious eggs, a job shared by both Gannets in a pair.
The egg is held between the webbings of the feet during incubation, and the chick will sit on top of the webbed feet while being brooded. Australasian Gannets mate for life and not only share incubation and brooding but also feeding and nest maintenance.
Bob and I could have spent all day at Muriwai Regional Park but called it quits after several hours. It worked out well to be in New Zealand during the late spring to witness this amazing sight!