There are not many sights in the world of Assynt birds that rival that of Gannets (Morus bassanus) diving, arrow like, for food and hitting the surface of the Minch at speeds of up to 55mph.
A human hitting the water at that speed is going to be lucky to survive and you would think that a Gannet’s long, slender neck would snap on impact. The neck muscles of the Gannet however are arranged to lock the vertebrae in place before impact which actually gives them a theoretical survivable dive speed in excess of 170mph!
Gannets are also designed with a lack of external nostrils which stops water from being forced into their head and they have air sacs under the skin which ‘inflate’ to protect the bird’s breast and internal organs.
So it’s never nice to have to deal with a sick Gannet but Andy Summers, the Highlife Highland Senior Countryside Ranger, had to collect a moribund adult Gannet from Culkein Stoer on 5th June 2018; the bird had been reported to him by several people that day. Sadly, the bird died overnight and we wondered if perhaps it had ingested some plastic.
Andy did not have time the following day to do an investigation of the bird’s digestive system so I volunteered instead.
First thing I noticed was that this bird was very ‘thin’ and light; birds are never heavy but this one was noticeably light. Having been trained and certificated to sample dead cetaceans meant I had suitable equipment to safely open the Gannet and check for any foreign material.
Thankfully there were no sign of plastics at any point along it’s digestive system but, there was no food at any point either! Four small, dark nodules on/in the stomach wall did look odd however so these were removed and opened to see what they contained. The contents of two of these comprised separate parts of a fish hook which had been encased, presumably by the bird’s own self defence mechanism, in a dark friable substance. The contents of the other two simply crumbled away with no obvious foreign body having been encapsulated.
I don’t know if, but also don’t think, the hook would have been the cause of death but this bird had clearly, for some reason, not fed recently so may have succumbed to starvation and dehydration. The source of the hook? Certainly introduced to the marine environment by human activity, perhaps in the ‘one that got away’ and took its hook with it, only to be caught by this Gannet at a later date.
The following week, on the 14th of June, Avril and I had gone to Lochinver and got involved with Gannets again. This one had been found on the main street by Agnes Dickson from Inverkirkaig during what was a very windy spell of weather; perhaps it was exhausted? Agnes had put the bird in the boot of her car and was in the process of phoning Andy Summers when we saw her and stopped. Andy was on holiday at the time so between us we had to deal with the situation.
This bird was fairly active but quite docile and there were no signs of injury or blood so could possibly be released again, once the wind dropped.
First plan, get a box to put the bird in which would keep it safe and allow it to be moved more easily. Where to find a suitable box? Greenlees the butcher of course! The situation had been explained to Margaret just as Stephen appeared; she simply said “box big enough to put a Gannet in?” Not another word was said, Stephen went to the back shop and duly appeared with said box! Strange what can seem to be an every day occurrence in Assynt!
Next step, phone the Scottish SPCA National Wildlife Rescue Centre (0300 099 9999) for advice. They took all the details and arranged for their ‘local’ Wildlife Officer, based in John O’Groats, to collect the bird. Shortly afterwards the officer contacted me to get more information.
Her advice was to keep the bird warm and calm overnight as the wind was to drop, then take it to a sheltered bay the next day and release it. We were advised that Gannets do not do well in captivity and generally will not take food. Also, they can’t take off unless they are on water or at height, which would partly help explain why it was found wandering down the road.
Agnes kept the bird in the boot of her car overnight with the open box beside it, which thankfully it used as a toilet, and next morning released it at a local bay. When she returned a couple of hours later there was no sign of the Gannet and there have been no reports of it since.
Lets hope it recovered its strength and is once again hitting the Minch at full speed.