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The Gannets are Back

by Clay and Pat Sutton
March 28, 2007

Capistrano has its famous swallows and Hinckley, Ohio, has its somewhat infamous vultures.

In Cape May, birders used to look out for the first Osprey or “Fish Hawk” of spring. But today, with climate change, Ospreys can been seen as early as late February.

The Cape May Bird Observatory proudly awards its informal “LAGU Award” for the first returning Laughing Gull of spring. But again, those are early birds, usually found in early March.

Here at Cape May we have one other candidate for the hallmark of spring, and that would be Northern Gannets coming back to the Cape’s ocean side and Delaware Bay.


Brilliant adult gannets, gleaming white with black wingtips, nest on the eastern Canadian seacoast and winter south through the Carolinas, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico, yet many gannets spend much of their lives off the mid-Atlantic. The food-rich waters at the mouth of Delaware Bay hold many hundreds, and sometimes many thousands, in spring and fall.

Most years, there isn’t a month, or even a week of the year, when the diligent observer can’t find one or two gannets over the waters off Cape May – brownish, young nonbreeders in mid-summer and a very few lingering adults in mid-winter – but March brings a surge of northbound soon-to-be breeding adult gannets.

This past winter was particularly interesting. Hundreds lingered through January feeding in “The Rips” off Cape May Point – mainly on herring that were still here due to waters that were warmer than usual. February though, with its brutal cold snap, sent them packing farther south to warmer climes.

So this year they truly did “return.” The first individual was seen on March 16 as it followed the ferry, and dozens were visible from Sunset Beach the next day. Numbers will build through March and April as warming waters bring herring, menhaden, and more into Delaware Bay.

Where to see Gannets

Northern Gannets can be a spectacular sight, one of the Cape’s best spectacles. Watch from the Concrete Ship at Sunset Beach or from any of Cape May Point’s dune walkovers. Second Avenue Jetty in Cape May City is another good spot as migrating birds come close to shore on their journey north.

Morning is best at Cape May Point, with both moving and feeding birds streaming by constantly. Some will be far, others point-blank off the jetties. Board the Cape May-Lewes Ferry for another great opportunity to gaze for gannets – dozens often follow the ferry to feed on fish kicked up by the propwash, plunge-diving just off the stern. Enjoy the yellow-wash of breeding color on the head and neck of the adults and their effortless dynamic flight.

More Spring Migrants

But wait, there’s more! Gannets may be one of the big stars of the spring show, but March and April are when there are many thousands of scoters staging at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, delighting birders with their lively pre-nuptial chases. Add to this dozens and sometimes hundreds of Red-throated Loons off Cape May Point and many Common Loons too off the beaches.

Throw in sparkling flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, feeding Forster’s Terns, and flocks of northbound Double-crested Cormorants, and birders have a cornucopia of spring migrants to enjoy – available by just scanning the waters off Cape May and Cape May Point beaches.

The gannets, and so much more, have come back. Come and gawk at gannets, one of our long-time, dramatic and favorite icons of spring.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and authors.

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