The Atlantic Gannet (Second Edition)
By Bryan Nelson

The Atlantic Gannet by Bryan Nelson (2001) published by Fenix Books Ltd in association with the Scottish Seabird Center, (ISBN: 095411910X), 396 pages, approximately 100 black-and-white photographs with 8 pages of color photographs, numerous line drawings and other graphics.

Distributed by NHBS Mailorder Book Store.

Review by Angus Wilson for Ocean Wanderers*

[*Please note: I am not affiliated with the publisher or authors but recognize this book to be of direct interest to readers of this web site.]

Few could argue that seabird biologist Dr. Bryan Nelson knows more about sulids, the gannets and boobies, than anyone else on the planet. His interest in this group of pelagic birds has spanned close to 50 years and he has carried out lengthy field work all over the world. Indeed much of our collective knowledge of gannet breeding biology comes from Nelson's own field studies, beginning in Scotland in the early 1960's.

The first edition of this book was published by T & A Poyser in 1978 and quickly became a classic of seabird biology. More than twenty years have elapsed since then and it is pleasing to see a major revision. The text describing breeding behavior is little changed - reflecting the completeness of Nelson's pioneering field studies - and instead masses of new information has been added to the sections on population and on ecology at sea. Atlantic Gannet numbers have increased significantly in recent years, perhaps reflecting an adaptation to the fishing industry. Similarly new technologies such as satellite tracking now offer a glimpse into the oceanic wandering that were unimaginable twenty years ago.

The text is informative without being overly technical and is richly illustrated with photographs, line drawings, tables and graphs. Nelson has removed figures that he felt were not essential and replaced them with new material. I found myself leafing through the illustrations, pausing when something caught my eye to read the appropriate section in the text. The layout is careful and text is well matched with the illustrations. Photographs carry terse legends which explain points of interest.

Readers will notice the heavy emphasis on the Bass Rock in Scotland, a volcanic plug jutting out of the North Sea a few miles to the east of Edinburgh. The Bass, as it's known, hosts 40,000 nesting pairs of Atlantic Gannets and has been a major study site for Nelson. For three years, Nelson and his wife lived on the rock so that they could be close to their study subjects. Part of the impetus for revising this book was the creation of the Scottish Seabird Center in North Berwick, for which Nelson is aBoard Member. The Center lies in the shadow of the Bass Rock and has live video cameras stationed on the island, so that members of the public can watch the behavior of these spectacular seabirds.

The book is divided into chapters on plumage and morphology, numbers and distribution, breeding behavior, ecology, behavior at sea, comparisons with other sulids and finally the complex relationship between gannets and humans. I suspect many birders will find the sections on molt, distribution and migration particularly interesting. Major studies of ringed (banded) birds have been performed on both sides of the Atlantic and the results are discussed extensively. The number of ring recoveries is astonishing and builds a complex picture of seasonal movements and foraging strategies. Each chapter ends with a brief summary of key points.

A good number of John Busby's evocative drawings are retained, showing characteristic behaviors such as plumage sequences, and behaviors such as skypointing. Photographs are predominantly from the author himself. I found the comparisons to Australasian and African Gannets (the three gannets are considered allospecies) particularly interesting. There are some strong similarities in terms of migration, despite the difference in hemispheres, and yet there are also significant differences in behavior. Nelson speculates some of these differences arise because the Atlantic Gannet exploits the richest yet most seasonal food supply.

Those with an interest in history will enjoy the many literary references reaching as far back as the Anglo-Saxon poems of Beowulf (written in 597 AD). Indeed there is a special annotated bibliography that summarizes historical references to gannets. According to Nelson, the first true mention of the Atlantic Gannet was made by the Scot John Major [not to be confused with the recent British Prime Minister], who in 1521 described the Gannets of Bass Rock in his Historia Majoris Britanniae. As a fortification and prison, the Bass Rock has long played a special role in Scottish history, a kin to Alcatraz Island off San Francisco which coincidentally is also named after a Pelecaniform.

Nelson is author of a monumental monograph on sulids and a new monograph covering the entire Pelecaniform order (Pelicans, frigatebirds, gannets and boobies) will be published soon by Oxford University Press.

In summary, this is a fascinating account, packed with information and richly illustrated. Anyone interested in these engaging sulids and in seabird biology in general will want a copy. (Added 26 October 2002)

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Page layout copyright of Angus Wilson© 2002 All rights reserved.

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