NORTHERN GANNETS & BIRDER FOLLY

Photographing Northern Gannets may take some extra effort (Photo 7)

Photographing Northern Gannets may take some extra effort (Photo 7)

The email asked for any photos I might have of Northern Gannets that might be used to accompany a newspaper interview on the gannets. I knew I only had a few recent photos from out on the beach during a recent trip to Merritt Island. I also knew the birds were pretty far out and the photos were not particularly good, but I sent them anyway, along with permission to use them. (I subsequently saw the newspaper interview and saw that he did not use them, but opted instead for a generic Northern Gannet photo from the national Audubon Society, which I readily concede was better.)

Sometime later I remembered that I had taken some Northern Gannet photos from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Virginia back in 2008, in the very earliest days of my attempts at bird photography, and wondered whether with the magic of modern post-processing I could rehabilitate them into passable photos for this column. I found them after some searching, (I never throw anything away) and recalled the effort I went through to get them, which is the story I recount here now, ten years later.

Driving across the Bay Bridge as we approached the eastern Delmarva side we saw a large number of northbound migrating Northern Gannets congregated in an area fairly close to the bridge itself, certainly close enough to attempt photos with my then less than stellar photo equipment. The problem was that there was no place to pull over or stop to take photos. I did notice however, that on top of the four-foot concrete wall by the side of the bridge there was a two-foot-wide cap, perhaps wide enough to walk back to where the birds were for photos.

Jewel told me I was crazy but dutifully parked in a pull-off at the eastern end of the bridge and waited while I walked on the top of the two-foot wall cap about a half mile back to take pictures. The fact that there were speeding cars on one side of the cap and about a hundred-foot drop, first down to the land below the bridge and then water below the bridge on the other side, did not deter me.

I took my pictures and walked back to the end of the bridge where there was a friendly policeman waiting for me. After a stern lecture and threats to arrest me, (I’m not sure what the charge might have been, for although it sometimes should be, stupidity is not a crime) he must have concluded I was not a terrorist and asked what I was doing. I showed him some of the photos I took and his entire demeanor changed. He actually became interested in the birds and wanted to know more about them.

After about a 45- minute session, he extracted a promise from me that I would never walk out on the bridge cap again and let me go to return to Jewel just a short way up the road. I have kept my promise and have never walked out on that cap again. Incidentally, Jewel’s lecture was much sterner than the officer’s, for she had more time to prepare it.

Some of the birds actually flew fairly close to the bridge and afforded nice classic photos of the typical Northern Gannet in flight. (Photo 1). There were quite a number of birds in the air, and most of them were adults. (Photo 2) One landed on the water, looking regal and actually close enough to take a photo. (Photo 3) Farther out there were a number of the Gannets resting on the water with a few young birds mixed in with the adults. (Photo 4) At Playalinda Beach on the coast of Merritt Island one of my more recent shots shows an adult below and a mostly dark juvenile above. (Photo 5)

Later I remembered that in the 1970’s I had made a Super 8 movie of the Northern Gannet nesting colony on the top of the cliff at Bonaventure Island in Canada. Knowing that I had the movies digitized, I decided to try to take screen shots of single frames from the movie and see if post-processing might enhance them enough for use in this column. The results give some idea of the compactness of the nesting birds (Photo 6), a close-up of an adult with a very young baby (Photo 7) and a head shot of the adult on the nest, depicting the bright blue eye and the interesting pattern of the beak. (Photo 8)

While discussing the various species of birds and displaying photos that I have taken of them is the focus of this column, sometimes the circumstances of getting the photos is almost as interesting as the birds and the photos themselves. It occasionally might put on display some of the stupid things I have done to take photos. But for those of you who know me well, it was okay in this instance, for I was then more than nine years removed from the time that it was expected of me to use good judgement in every aspect of my life. Retirement is very liberating in many ways, including the freedom to do stupid things upon occasion. Now being older and wiser, I would never do that walk again, even without the promise to the nice policeman.

(NOTE: Photos are cropped for thumbnails. Click for full version)