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Reindeer Puffin Sorbus Horn
Detail Foss á Siđu

The gannet (morus bassanus) is the largest of all North Atlantic sea birds. With piercing blue eyes and a golden head, these large birds are a magnificent sight around Iceland’s coasts in the summer months. In fact Iceland has some of the most important nesting sites with Eldey, a large sea stack 14 km south west of the Reykjanes peninsula, being home to the third largest breeding colony in the world. (Eldey is notorious as the place where in 1844 two Icelanders, Jón Brandsson and Sigurđur Isleifsson, killed the last remaining pair of great auks.)

Gannets with chicks

The largest colony is the Bass Rock in the Forth of Firth in Scotland, after which the birds take their Latin name. The birds have been protected in Iceland since 1940 and Eldey is now a sanctuary, visited only by scientists. However, gannets nest elsewhere, including the sea stacks in north east Iceland at Rauđunúpur and Langanes. Here they are sufficiently close to the coast to allow good views of the birds from the cliff tops. Time spent here observing their behaviour is rewarding and as the summer progresses it is possible to get good views of the maturing chicks.

Gannets Gannets flying

The last few decades have seen gannet numbers increase. They have fared better than puffins and guillemots. as they are strong fliers and can forage further and dive deeper in search of food. They are not so dependent on the fluctuating numbers of sand eels. Unfortunately, in recent years, fewer adult pairs are making the effort to nest. It may be that worsening storm conditions in the open ocean where the birds spend the winter months are disrupting their feeding patterns and they no longer have sufficient energy reserves to breed come the spring. More research is needed to better understand this worrying trend.