Glo­ri­ous Gan­nets

Home to tens of thou­sands of Gan­nets, Bass Rock is well worth a visit. But don’t for­get your cam­era…

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TOS JOHN BIRCH

Feast your eyes on tens of thou­sands of Gan­nets at Bass Rock in Scot­land

WE DE­PARTED DUNBAR in the chill breeze of an early sum­mer’s morn­ing on a small trawler, bob­bing our way steadily across the North Sea to­wards Bass Rock in Scot­land’s Firth of Forth. We were a small group of pho­tog­ra­phers ac­com­pa­nied by the is­land war­den. As we came close I was gripped by the pri­mor­dial ap­pear­ance of the scene be­fore me.

A colos­sal assem­bly of mostly-white seabirds in­hab­ited the Rock. There were also lit­er­ally thou­sands of birds in the air, all cir­cling the is­land in a clock­wise di­rec­tion. The scene was sim­ply jaw-drop­ping. Bass Rock is more than 100m tall and sur­rounded by pre­cip­i­tous cliffs

on all but the south-west as­pect, where the ground is still very steep. It hosts the largest colony of (North­ern) Gan­nets any­where in the world. Be­tween April and Oc­to­ber, the breed­ing sea­son, there can be well in ex­cess of 150,000 birds oc­cu­py­ing cramped nest­ing sites.

These amaz­ingly grace­ful crea­tures are the largest seabirds in the Bri­tish Isles, hav­ing a two-me­tre wing­span. Pre­dom­i­nantly white, they can be distin­guished by their black wingtips, sil­ver-grey eyes in a blue sur­round and hon­eyyel­low feath­ers on the nape of their neck and head. They have large, long, pointed beaks with a small tooth or barb for hold­ing slip­pery fish. We found sev­eral inches of soft mud; guano and un­wanted feath­ers. There was a per­vad­ing stench, and con­stant ca­coph­ony of harsh, ‘krokking’ bird-calls. I spent the first few min­utes of our four-hour stay ab­sorb­ing the spec­ta­cle. On the up­per slopes, within a few feet of where we stood, nest­ing Gan­nets cov­ered every inch of ground, each jeal­ously guard­ing their pitch from preda­tors; in­clud­ing us! They fenced and jabbed at our legs with their ter­ri­fy­ing open beaks, gut­tural squawk and glar­ing binoc­u­lar eyes in bright blue rims. Thank­fully, com­mit­ted to their parental duty, they re­mained glued to their nests; each pre­dom­i­nantly com­pris­ing sal­vaged sea­weed and con­structed to in­su­late the egg or chick from the cold, damp ground. These birds will also, how­ever, em­ploy any­thing else they can get their bills on, in­clud­ing dis­carded hu­man rub­bish, such as old fish net­ting, plas­tic bot­tles and crisp pack­ets. One or other of the mated pair will be con­stantly com­ing and go­ing, shar­ing the task of for­ag­ing for food or ma­te­ri­als for nest build­ing. When the part­ner re­turns af­ter more than an hour or so away, they will greet one an­other, heads raised and pointed sky­ward, with a dis­play of gen­tle beak tap­ping. They take it in turns to

in­cu­bate the egg or mind their off­spring, sit­ting the same on their webbed feet; the warm blood flow­ing through their mint-coloured veins, help­ing to keep the egg or young chick warm. On a still day, gain­ing suf­fi­cient lift for a smooth take-off, even from a cliff-top site, proves dif­fi­cult. The feat is achieved with a vig­or­ous and clumsy flap­ping of wings. Once air­borne, how­ever, it is a dif­fer­ent story. These are in­cred­i­bly grace­ful be­ings, ca­pa­ble of fine ma­noeu­vres in flight. Un­like many other birds, their eyes are an­gled to

When they spot a shoal of fish they dive to catch them. Depend­ing on the depth of the shoal, their bi­ol­ogy al­lows them to dive from a height of 40m and hit the wa­ter at speeds of up to 100kmh

SEA OF WHITE

Gan­net colonies are very tightly packed af­fairs. And each bird is a me­tre long with a 2m wing­span!

FISHY SNACK

Gan­nets are supremely built for plung­ing deep be­neath the sur­face and grab­bing fish

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