One of only six world-wide sites where Cape Gannets breed, Lambert’s Bay Bird Island has become an institution to not only the conservation of the species, but also to the well-being of this coastal fishing town on the Cape’s West Coast.
Text and Photographs supplied by Justin Lawrence, CapeNature
The island lies about 100m off the shore of Lambert’s Bay. On the majority of the island, the intense, unwavering electric blue stare of the Cape gannet is something to behold. While it offers visitors a rare opportunity to see the blue-eyed Cape gannet up close, that is not the only attraction housed on the island.
After undergoing extensive developments which were unveiled in early 2015, the home of the near 17 000 Cape gannets (Morus capensis), features an exhibition building with skeletal displays of the Cape fur seal (Artocephalus pusillus), Dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus), Cape gannet, krill model (Euphasia superba) and uniquely boasts the only Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) skeletal display in South Africa.
CapeNature has also partnered with both the Two Oceans Aquarium and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to bring displays of the African penguins to a recently upgraded penguin pool as well as touch pools to provide interaction with typical shore and marine life.
In the island’s well-sitated gannet lookout, visitors can get close to the birds and witness their unique mating dances. The bird hide is signposted with interesting information about these seabirds and their habits.
Bird Island plays an integral role in the Lambert’s Bay area and with these interactive features, which are fun and educational for the whole family, it continues to lift the profile of Lambert’s Bay and bring huge benefit to both the Cape gannet colony and the local community.
About the Birds
The island, which is almost three hectares in size, is connected to the mainland via a breakwater. It is an important breeding and roosting site for seabirds, not only the Cape gannets, but also a variety of cormorants.
The colony of Cape gannets at Lambert’s Bay is one of only three in South Africa, with the three remaining colonies being in Namibia. It numbers nearly 17 000 pairs at present and contributes a significant portion of the world’s population of this species. Cape gannets have ceased breeding at four former breeding localities. At two of these, they were displaced by expanding herds of Cape fur seals. CapeNature therefore views it as crucial to maintain the colony at Lambert’s Bay to ensure the conservation of the species.
Guano is where it all began
It was the gannets and the production of African guano – decomposed bird dung accumulations otherwise known as “white gold” – that played the biggest part in putting this island on the map. Guano was used as fertilizer in Europe and fetched huge sums of money for the government of the day.
Tit was a rush for this “white gold” that propelled the Union of South Africa back in 1912 to religiously file monthly reports reflecting on the gannet population that just landed on Bird Island, over 100 years ago.
It is believed the birds were given special protection by the guano managers who must have appreciated their importance of guano producers.
The island was transferred to CapeNature in 1987 and proclaimed as a provincial nature reserve in March 1988.
Conservation efforts paying off
The gannet colony at Bird Island is one of the most monitored colonies in the world. The research done here relates to the bird populations, in the form of monitoring, censuring (population recording) and patrols. It is censured every day, while all eggs stolen by gulls are recorded.
Research in collaboration with Oceans and Coast is also being done into the foraging patterns and other aspects of the biology of gannets, in an effort to ensure the long-term survival of the species.
All chicks leaving the island and caught by seals when leaving the island are accounted for while all mortalities are recorded. Surrounding beaches are patrolled to account for wash-ups from the island, while monitoring staff assist Oceans and Coast with monthly Cape gannet diet sampling and recaptures as well as annual Cape gannet fledgling ringing. All the information collected on Bird Island is also sent to Cape Nature’s Scientific Services department in Jonkershoek Stellenbosch.
When tracking fish in times of plenty, gannets gather in large flocks and even roost on the water if need be. They hunt by diving from a height onto shoals sometimes to a dept of five meters. Their nests are cones made of guano-covered debris that can include bones of immediate relations. The eggs are incubated under the birds webbed feet. They are unable to fly at night and are in danger when storms hit the island waves sweep the colony.
During non-breeding winter months (June – August) large numbers of adults usually desert the island to destinations as far as Angola and Mozambique.
Population and threats
While the number of birds has been stable over the last six years, the main threats to the colony remain. Reduced availability of fish (sardines and anchovy) and attacks by fur seals are always a possibility.
In 2005 nocturnal attacks led to the desertion of the entire colony. This caused a loss of an estimated R5 million in tourism income in Lambert’s Bay, but the colony has since recovered and reclaimed their rightful place on the island.
Scientists are concerned that climate change will cause a rise in sea level. A predicted increase in the number and severity of storms could lead to waves washing over the island and removing the guano the gannets need for nesting.
Furthermore, it current predictions are accurate, Cape gannets will have to contend with more intense and frequent heatwave episodes, which currently account for low mortality rates during the hot summer months.
While the birds are receiving huge benefit in terms of conservation, the island has already brought much-needed employment to 12 people from the local community work as Full Time Equivalents (FTEs) through the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).
CapeNature’s People and Conservation programme is making a mark on the national job creation through its approach of focusing on skilling and building young professionals.
FTEs are also stationed at several other nature reserves throughout the Western Cape, stretching from the Cape Metro to some rural communities on the West Coast, farming communities in the Boland, fishing towns in the Overberg, mountainous parts of the Langeberg and the isolated parts of the Karoo and Garden Route.