Earlier this month, a tracking device attached to a gannet breeding in the English Channel has reveled a fishing trip of epic proportions. Cosmo the gannet traveled from its nest on Alderney all the way up to Scandanavia, and back again, in just under a week. Gannets usually only travel 200-300 miles to catch their lunch, but this record breaking flight saw Cosmo travel a whopping 1,680 miles. Why Cosmo decided to take on such a mammoth trip, for now, appears to be a mystery. Gannets are known to be faithful to their foraging sites, returning to the same patch of sea they got to know as a youngster. So perhaps Cosmo has always fished up in Scandanavia, and if, like many other colonially breeding birds, gannets take note of where their neighbours get a good catch, Cosmo might not be the only British gannet enjoying the Nordic cuisine!
Cosmo is just one of 440,000 gannets that breed around the shear cliff faces of the UK every year. With large scythe-like wings almost spanning 6ft, gannets are Britain’s largest seabird and marathon fishing trips aren’t their only party trick. Gannets are famed for diving from great heights (~35m above the sea), head first into the sea at almost 200km/h, down to depths of up to 9m, in order to capture their prey. Hitting water at twice the national speed limit puts a massive strain on the gannets body, but special internal air sacs on the face and chest help to soften the blow, and by having nostrils hidden inside their mouths gannets avoid taking a deadly load of salt water into their lungs.
Many of the things we know about gannets and other seabirds are discovered with tracking devices such as the one that revealed Cosmo’s long-haul fishing trip. University of Liverpool scientists, in collaboration with the BTO and Alderney Wildlife Trust, have tagged multiple gannets breeding on Alderney, in the hope of learning more about how their fishing trips might be affected by offshore wind farms. While foraging, gannets tend to fly at a height within the reach of the swirling blades of wind turbines, presenting a major collision risk. In fact it was estimated that two planned wind farms in Scotland could result in 1,500 gannet mortalities every year. But, climate change is unlikely to leave gannets unscathed, therefore such sources of clean renewable energy will be vital for their, as well as our own, future. Tracking studies, like the one on Alderney, are helping scientists figure out ways to bird-proof our wind farms. For example, moving the blades upwards by just a few meters out of the gannets flight zone would likely reduce the risk of collisions. Such research is a necessity in a world where the need for renewable energy and the need to protect our wildlife are reaching their peak, with little room for compromise.
Photographs taken at RSPB Bempton Cliffs nature reserve, Yorkshire.
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