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National Gannet Gallery

Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Sunday morning, January 20, I accompanied a group from the Virginia Beach Winter Wildlife Festival to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel for some spectacular winter birding. 
The festival organizers had obtained permission from the local police to temporarily inhabit the three concrete and riprap islands between sections of bridge and tunnel. I highly recommend attending the festival so you can enjoy this rare opportunity to access the best birding on the Bay.

It was a beautiful day, cold though. We bundled up. Spotting scopes are a must for coastal birding, and I was so glad I'd brought mine. 

There were great rafts of surf and black scoters, with a lone pair of white-winged scoters. Gorgeous long-tailed ducks in basic (winter) plumage floated just beyond the scoters. Unfortunately they were all a bit too far out for me to do much with my 300 mm. lens, and I didn't have my digiscoping rig along. Must get that iPhone adaptor!

surf scoters

But the stars of the show were the northern gannets, who come from the frigid north seas to spend their winters along the East Coast as far south as Florida. They cut a striking figure, a sort of flying cross or fleur de lis against the sky. When they dive, they plunge like javelins into the sea, folding up into a fish-killing spearhead. Daphne du Maurier's short story "The Birds" opens with gannets dropping out of the sky, plunging those bills into people's skulls. Yow. These things are bigger than a goose. You wouldn't want that.  I suspect that image was a bit beyond Alfred Hitchcock's ability to simulate, so he went with nasty ravens, gulls and house sparrows for that notorious film. 

Sometimes I think that film did for birds what "Jaws" did for sharks. Nothing good.

Here is one of the islands we got permission to "land on," adorned with gannet. Meaning, with a police escort, we could get out of our vehicles and bird to our heart's content. Security out here is tight since 9-11.

I loved capturing gannets against unlikely backgrounds. They haunt the backwash of large ships for the fish and other sea life stirred up by the propellers. 

My best shot of a curious harbor seal. Seeing them made me miss Chet something awful. They always remind me of dogs. Dogs that swim and live in freezing salt water. Brrr!

One gannet decided to give us all a thrill.

It passed by, showing us its dagger-like bill, its dusty yellow head and sharp black primaries, and was gone again.

My friend Paul Spitzer calls the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel "The National Gannet Gallery." I think that's a much nicer name.


Beautiful. I loved your description of the gannets flying. And the close up shots were great, since they normally stay far off shore. Thanks for sharing.


I always think of pterosaurs, Pteranodon particularly when I see gannets. Love that color schme.

Julie. Great posts on the coast. from Savannah Graveyards to Virginia Beach and between. Thank you for sharing. Gary Wayne

Posted by Anonymous February 21, 2013 at 3:26 PM

Julie. Forgot to mention saw Gannets with my binocs fishing off Fl coast Melbourne Beach about month ago. Gary Wayne

Posted by Anonymous February 21, 2013 at 4:07 PM

Not sure how I missed this post until now, but THANK YOU for posting it! Northern Gannets are my favorite non-passerines, and it brightened my day to see your pictures of these magnificent birds. Now, if you really want to treat yourself, go see their colony on Cape St. Mary's in Newfoundland. There's nothing like it.

Oh Sarah I have spent many a happy hour sketching and painting gannets at CSM, singing with Vince the lightkeeper...oh my. Incredible. The greatest ornithological spectacle of the north. Yes!

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