Gannets put on a winter show

A Northern gannet glides through the sky with the superstructure of the Ravenel Bridge in the distance.

The odd birds of the Lowcountry coast - hordes of them out there in feeding frenzies, plunging deep into the ocean or Charleston Harbor - are the huge Northern gannets.

They turn up in winter looking not quite like anything else. About as long and wide-winged as the white pelican they sometimes get mistaken for, the sleek gannets are the largest native seabirds in the North Atlantic. The Charleston Harbor environs, as it turns out, might be the best place on the East Coast to spot them.

They're out there right now. And they put on a show.

Gannets can flock dozens at a time to dive after schools of menhaden and other bait fish. Unlike the brown pelican they often are seen with, the gannets don't just skim the fish off the surface. They can dive from as high as 100 feet and go some 70 feet deep, flapping their wings and kicking their feet underwater to swim.

If that doesn't awe an onlooker, their size, black-tipped wings, gar-like beaks and yellow heads will.

Gannets tend to be a open ocean bird, more likely to be spotted from a charter boat. The ones that arrive here breed only along steep cliffs along the Bay of Fundy off Canada in the summer. Gannets tend to winter at sea, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

But the preponderance of bait fish in the harbor and off the beaches appears to draw more of them closer to shore here, birders say.

"When fish are schooling close to the beach, you can see flocks of about 100. They tend feed just past the breakers," said Nathan Dias, Cape Romain Bird Observatory director. "It's easy enough to spot them from the pier at Folly Beach, or off Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor sometimes."

They are another one of those eye-catching Lowcountry wintering oddities, as spectacular in their own way as the massive, rare right whales - also Bay of Fundy summering creatures - that calve offshore.

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