Australia's only mainland Gannet colony
December 19, 2011
Our first stop was the windswept gannet colony at Point Danger, five minutes drive from Portland. We met with Ewan Lovell and David Williams who tend the site, along with their faithful canine companions, Reamma and Elma.
These shaggy white dogs are Maremmas, a breed that originates from the mountains of Italy, where they are used to protect sheep from wolves. Although the gannet colony is only 12 years old, by 2004 foxes had destroyed all the nests, so Reamma and Elma were introduced as guardians for the birds. Since then, the number of pairs has risen to a few hundred.
The principle colony of about 10,000 birds is on Lawrence Rocks, a conspicuous flat-topped island about 2km offshore from the tip of Point Danger. Even at a distance, nests can be seen neatly and systematically arranged like dots on a domino. With space so limited, it's perhaps unsurprising that a few birds splintered off to settle elsewhere. It was just unusual that they would choose to create Australia's only mainland gannet colony.
Gannets are only present in good numbers here during the breeding season, from about early October to February. Breeding coincides with the 'bonney coast upwelling', a vast oceanographic phenomenon, that amasses huge quantities of seafood.
Plankton-eating pilchards and anchovies are the gannets' main food for raising young chicks and are caught by diving head-long into an ocean that turns icy-cold in summer. Parents share responsibility for finding food, often swapping duties throughout the day. Because competition for a home is heavy, there's barely two beak-lengths between nests. Birds returning from an arduous fishing trip find it difficult to make foot-fall. A slight gust of wind or an ill-timed touch-down into no-mans-land creates instant disputes with well-armed and very grumpy neighbours.
Once grounded however, mates greet each other with a beautiful dance, thrusting their heads aloft and clapping beaks together. The infrangible bond between birds is vital if they are to survive the season to raise a single healthy chick.
Occasionally, a clamour of siren-like calls rises over the background chatter, as offspring begin to beg for food. Once started it seems, the whole colony erupts. Mum or dad reluctantly disgorge half-digested food. Parenting seems to be an indulgence, reserved for those fit enough to survive themselves. The carcasses of chicks discarded by those less fortunate, are a visible reminder of the hardships of existence for a seabird that lives on the edge of the Antarctic.
The colony is a place of perpetual noise, movement and excitement, death and life. As we prepare to leave, we spot an egg about to hatch. With the sort of awkwardness you'd expect from a majestic seabird on land, mum half sits up and rolls the egg to reveal a tiny hole. You can see the egg-tooth that the chick uses to break its way to freedom and the circle of life begins again.
Spent several hours at the Gannet colony at Point Danger.