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It’s almost time to bid 2022’s Bird of the Year goodbye

It’s almost time to bid 2022’s Bird of the Year goodbye
The Cape gannet, 2022 Bird of the year. Image via BirdLife South Africa

Each year since 2007, BirdLife South Africa has announced the country’s Bird of the Year, but their mission, goes far beyond celebrating a bird for its looks.

Their breeding is restricted to the southern African region, specifically on six islands: three off the Namibian coast, two off South Africa’s West coast, and one towards the east, specifically Bird Island in Algoa Bay. Out on these breeding islands, they’re protected from predators on the mainland. Sometimes referred to as missile birds, the Cape gannet’s high-speed dive through the ocean surface is both a demonstration of graceful flight, as well as finely tuned mechanics. 

They feed primarily on anchovies and sardines, and come feeding time, gannets on the hunt will hover some 30 metres above the surface, until they spot their prey. Then, at first, with their wings spread out, they plummet towards the fish at speeds of up to 100 km/h, and within milliseconds before their sharp beaks hit the water, they tuck their wings in and bring them closer to the body, while simultaneously extending them backwards, effectively transforming into aerodynamic missiles. 

With no external nostrils, water can’t force its way inside their heads as they plunge. The air sacs beneath the skin of their heads, neck and chest, cushion them from the impact as their bodies hit the water, and the momentum from the dive can propel them 10 metres below surface, catching fish as they descend. Using their webbed feet and powerful wings, they’re capable of plunging further, to over 20 metres below the surface as they hunt and feed.

The Cape gannet’s beauty is not limited to the spectacularly streamlined mechanics of their flight. A close look at their faces reveals cobalt blue eye-rings, surrounded by black accents that run along the beak; features rendered even more striking by the golden hue that covers the crown and hindneck, before fading into the creamy white of their body and wings, which are again accented by a strip of black flight feathers on the outermost edges.

As distinct as these seabirds may be, looks and feats of aviation weren’t the only reasons the Cape gannet was named Bird of the Year for 2022 by BirdLife South Africa, the country partner of the non-profit bird and habitat conservation organisation, BirdLife International.

Cape gannets (Morus capensis) during breeding season on Bird Island, just off the shore of Lamberts Bay on the West Coast of South Africa.

“The Cape gannet is a good ambassador for the problems that are affecting seabirds in South Africa, which are unfortunately threatened by quite a few things,” says Christina Hagen, a Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation at BirdLife South Africa. 

She explains that in naming the Cape gannet Bird of the Year, they hope to bring attention to these threats, which have seen their population “decreased by over 50% in the last 60 years, resulting in (BirdLife listing) the species as Endangered.” 

Says Hagen: “The biggest threat that’s facing a lot of seabirds, especially the more coastal birds in South Africa, is a lack of food. A lot of seabirds feed mainly on sardine and anchovy. The gannet, the African penguin and the cape cormorant are all very heavily reliant on those fish. And unfortunately, they are facing changing fish distribution resulting in more competition with the fishing industry.”

As BirdLife explained when they announced the Cape gannet as 2022’s Bird of the Year back in November 2021, the birds then often resort to feeding on hake that’s been thrown off the back of trawl vessels. And while the hake may be good enough to feed the adults, it has insufficient fat content to raise healthy chicks. Then there’s also the risk of becoming bycatch. 

“That’s when you accidentally catch something that you’re not targeting. The birds can be killed in fishing operations; mainly in the trawl fishing for hake and other fish like that. What happens is that birds can either get entangled in the net, or they collide with the big thick cable that is dragging the net behind the boat; they can collide with that, get entangled, and then drown,” says Hagen. 

Image: Péron

The gannet’s troubles don’t stop there; climate change is also a growing threat. The changing temperature of the ocean surface affects where the fish they feed on spawn, meaning there might be less food in the areas where they normally feed. They’ve been known to fly as far as the Nigerian coast in search of shoals of fish. “And then also due to rising temperatures, the gannets can overheat when they’re breeding, because they breed in summer, and that can affect their eggs and chicks. They also breed on low-lying coastal islands, so if the sea level rises or there are big storm surges, then the nests can get flooded,” Hagen adds.

Since launching the Bird of the Year programme back in 2007, BirdLife South Africa puts together educational material, including lesson plans for pupils about each year’s selected bird. “The whole point of the Bird of the year is to raise awareness and help educate, especially children,” says Hagen. Seabirds are particularly important as an indicator species, she explains, and by studying them, we can get a better idea of what’s going on out at sea. 

Says Hagen: “The fact that some of the seabirds are endangered indicates that the ocean environment is not doing very well and it’s not very healthy. As humans, we rely a lot on the ocean ecosystem for food and climate control. The seabirds are telling us that there’s something wrong in the marine environment. We need to pay attention to that, and work to conserve the birds to be able to conserve the ocean environment, which benefits humans as well.”

She also points to the risks that come with development in the ocean economy, such as shipping, oil and gas. 

“Economic growth is important, especially if it helps benefit the country and the people of South Africa, but it needs to be done in a responsible way that takes into account its impact on the marine environment,” says Hagen. DM/ML 

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  • Michiel Erik Moll says:

    Just as we’re planning to say goodbye as Bird of the Year, the SANParks Honorary Rangers are getting ready to man the breeding grounds on Malgas Island (Malgas is Afrikaans for gannet) for the next three months. Teams of 2 or 3 will spend a week at a time trying to prevent breeding losses by predatory Pelicans, Kelp Gulls and seals. A further team of 4 is doing the same for Cape Cormorants and other birds on Jutten Island. This program involving over 80 Honorary Rangers from as far afield as Limpop and KZN is organized by the West Coast Region of the SANParks Honorary Rangers, who also help by fundraising to cover the costs of the programme. Although the volunteers give their time freely and are self-supportive, and SANParks assist where they can, there is a crying need for maintenance on the islands -both accommodation and landing jetties and for maintenance and running costs of the boats. Anyone who would like to know more can contact us.

  • Marianne McKay says:

    Wonderful article, thank you

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