The small snow storm over Cape Kidnappers is gannet down. It wafts in the air, settles on your sammies and is captured on photos like stray sparklers.
I’ve never been so close to so many gannets. It’s a fantastic sight. There are an estimated 8000 pairs nesting in two large and several smaller colonies on the 13ha reserve.
In November, the youngsters are fully fledged and testing their flying skills. The results are often hilarious. The air is full of low-flying gannets, undercarriage dropped, squawking their imminent arrival. One lands just the wrong side of the low chain surrounding the nesting area, skids underneath with wings tangled, then waddles off trying to regain some kind of dignity before settling for a bit of poking and preening.
There’s a lot of preening – much of it mutual – golden heads bent, long elegant necks weaving around each other in a sort of synchronised grooming dance. The gannets also rest on each other, one’s beak drooping over another’s chest or lying across its back looking oddly like a two- headed bird.
At just 18 months, with not much prior flight training, they do what so many NZ youngsters do – take off across the Tasman for their big OE. They fly – or sometimes paddle – some 2800 kms and stay away for two to three years before coming home to raise their own families.
Looking at photos in close up, you can see that what looks like bright blue eyes is actually some sort of membrane surrounding a paler, sharply pupiled eye. Their eyes have to be sharp – they hunt-cruise at up to 30m above the sea, then perform a brief, centering flutter before speed diving straight down, catching prey up to four metres below the surface.
Special air sacs prevent them breaking their necks or getting seawater forced into their lungs. I’ve always loved watching them fly around Waiheke in long lazy glides. I’ve even spent many minutes balanced with hand-held telephoto lens on the rolling deck of a yacht wallowing close to the Gannet Rock colony off the island’s Eastern End to try and capture that flight.
In comparison, this is a feast of photgraphable gannets.
I walked here from Scotsmans Point in Clifford after overnighting at the Clifford Road Reserve. It’s a lovely parkup – right by the beach and not too far from a damn good fish and chip shop. An enthusiastic Swiss man spends hours at the edge of the water trying to catch his own. Result, just one Kahawai – and that too small. “The crabs, I think, are taking the bait,” he laments.
By sunrise, I’m parked at the start of the 9km walk around what, at that hour, was a non-existent beach. I check the tidetables on line, discover I’d been working off yesterday’s chart and pause to make some coffee. DOC’s advice is to leave around three hours before low tide, then head back 1.5 hours after it.
Just under an hour later, cars start arriving but when I ask if they’re heading around the beach, they somewhat cryptically inform me that they are volunteer “wardens” for the day.
I should have been warned.
At about four hours before low tide, I start out – having to hug the steep, crumbly sandstone cliffs to avoid waves, eventually giving up and removing shoes to do the entire walk barefooted. There is nobody else around, just the odd trickle of small stones falling from high above.
Just as I see the first lot of nesting gannets about 8 kms later, I’m passed by two runners, splashing through the lowering tide. They are wearing numbers. It’s the start of a running invasion. Literally 100s go by, some raising camera or phone to flash a quick shot of gannets as they charge by the shoreline colonies. It’s an odd juxtaposition. When I come across some of the aforesaid “wardens” I discover it’s a special fund-raising run that covers some 30km.
When they’ve all finally run through, I’m alone again, bar one German tourist who was one of only three other walkers I saw on my way there and back. When I make the steepish climb to the plateau colony, she is again the only person present. But by 10.00am or so, the first little ‘overland’ tour bus has turned up and people start stragglng up from the tractor tour that travels the beach track.
I’m glad I started early – but the walk back seems longer. The cliffs still tower steeply overhead – but at a safer distance, I can admire the layers of sandstone, river, gravel, pumice and silt that make up the sharp diagonal striations. Material laid down up to one million years ago –pushed up out of the sea, faulted and fragmented by volcanic activity.
It makes me think of the recent conversation I had with sculptor Johnny Turner. He works with rocks that are much older and it has helped him think differently about life, death and regeneration. More on that shortly.
More of my photos can be found at http://www.writeawaycommunications.co.nz