Clouds of gannets rise up from Bass Rock and fill the air with raucous cries, slicing effortlessly through the air on snow-white, black-dipped wings.
We bounced on top of the water beneath them, heads tipped back to gaze in awe at the graceful circus of gannets above our heads, holding on tight as the RIB (Rigid Inflateable Boat) met the waves with rather less grace.
Although they nest in dense colonies, gannets are highly territorial, each making it loudly clear to its neighbour that this is my patch. Gannets return to the same patch each year form long-term pairs, often for life. Bill fencing is a form of greeting behaviour that strengthens the bond between pairs.
The dagger-like bill of the northern gannet is used to catch fish. The gannet folds back its wings and plunges vertically from a height of up to 40 metres, disappearing under the water to capture its target.
The gannet colony has increased hugely since the lighthouse has been unmanned so that the island is now uninhabited.
Shags breed on the nearby rocks. In the breeding season they develop an iridescent green sheen to their feathers and a spiky quiff, giving them a somewhat surprised look.
Gannets breed in tightly packed colonies, despite being highly territorial.
Swirling clouds of gannets
Cormorants on a nearby island. They don’t have as much oil on their feathers as other seabirds, and have to stretch them out to dry off from time to time.
This is the closest we’ve got to guillemot. They breed on a nearby island.
The snowy white plumage and creamy yellow head of the gannet is unmistakeable.
As a wildlife experience, this was one of the best, plus being fun going out in the boat. Can’t wait to do it again next time I’m in Scotland.
Nothing prepares you for the sheer spectacle of 300 ft cliffs lined with thousands and thousands of seabirds perched precariously on the narrowest of ledges with their chick nestled underneath them. Well, that’s not quite true, the acrid smell of a seabird colony greets you a good hundred yards before you get to them. Now that the birds have been nesting for several weeks the cliffs are draped in swathes of guano (ok, bird poo). Then you hear the cries, screeches and grumbles of the birds as you walk along the grassy path and finally reach the cliff-tops where the air is alive with wheeling kittiwakes, fulmars gliding effortlessly and guillemots, razorbills and puffins darting purposefully from rock to sea and back.
Handa Island (managed by Scottish Wildlife Trust) is home to 56,000 guillemots, counted individually by volunteer researchers painstakingly scanning the cliffs on foot and by boat to note each nesting bird and their chicks. Puffins were also counted this year, 330 were found, showing that the population on Handa is remaining stable, despite concerns about decreasing food in some areas.
Nesting Arctic skua
We went to Handa Island to try out another of the Top UK Wildlife Experiences, which we are working our way through on our journey around the UK. It was absolutely amazing, the seabirds, of course, were mesmerising. The paths run close to the cliffs at some points, and Geoff, who is a much more patient photographer than me, took some great pictures. Our aim on this trip has been to travel light and take the minimum of equipment, so all the images and film in these posts are taken on an oldish digital camera with no extra lenses, or on an iPhone. (All today’s images are by Geoff Woolley, please credit him if you use any.)
The landscape is stunning, with a dramatic rugged coastline, flower studded grassland and views across the sea to the misty blue mountains of the Highlands.
From Handa towards Scourie
I love the way razorbills come in to land
Looking across Handa Island
Heath spotted orchid
Heathers, eye bright and tormentil
Cliffs and sea caves
Two guillemots and a razorbill
Guillemots on a ledge
Long horizontal ledges are packed with guillemots, the nesting birds pressed against the cliff with their chick tucked underneath them, kept warm by a warm spot (called a brood patch) on the parent’s tummy well supplied with blood vessels to pass on warmth to the growing chick.
Handa Island is the most magical and awe-inspiring place. We could have spent hours just watching the birds, admiring the rock formations or examining the flowers, but we had to catch a boat back or be stranded on the island overnight.
Aiming to try out as many of the Wildlife Trusts Top UK Wildlife Experiences, we went to Flamborough Head this weekend to see the seabirds nesting on the towering chalk cliffs.
It was a stunning spectacle. Guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes clung perilously to the tiniest ledges; it seems impossible that they can raise chicks here, but they do.
And of course puffins! Not in such great numbers as the other birds but easy to spot with their bright orange feet and colourfully striped bills. I was particularly enchanted with the way they trail their feet splayed out behind them like little orange flags as they fly.
Nesting Kittiwakes with chicks at Flamborough head
Chalk cliff coastline at Flamborough Head
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Flanborough Cliffs nature reserve is well worth a visit at any time of year, but during the seabird breeding season it has to be one of the top wildlife spectacles in England.