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BASS ROCK. FIRTH OF FORTH. SCOTLAND. MAY 2018.


johnweir
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Since we relocated to the Scottish Borders I usually take a trip out to the Farne Islands, during early Summer. This year for a change I decided to visit Bass Rock which is world renowned for it's significant breeding colony of Northern Gannets. Whilst for most of the year there are several trips daily which circle the rock very few afford a landing on the island and are usually booked up well in advance. I made my booking in January 2018 and at that time the only one I could get on was the one going out on May 15th, I would have preferred to have gone out later in the season when the chicks had hatched. (Will try for next year). Departures are from North Berwick, and bookings are made through The Scottish Seabird Centre, via the internet. Departures are all early morning, mine was 06.30 and the landing trips are relatively expensive at £130. They are using a new boating company for the landings so the trip out to the rock now only takes about 15 minutes, you are allocated 3 hours on the rock and the areas you can visit for obvious reasons are relatively limited and clearly prescribed. Getting on and off the boat at the rock could be difficult for someone with mobility issues, particularly in more challenging weather. Since I returned I have noticed some additional dates for landings have been added to their origional schedule.

I certainly picked a glorious day for the visit the sea was calm and uncharacteristically the weather was mild and sunny. In my group there were 9 enthusiasts and a guide, once on the rock after a talk on the does and don'ts you were free to wander at will within the prescribed area.

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Bass Rock (2 miles east of North Berwick) is home to the largest single rock breeding colony of Northern Gannets in the world. The colony comprises of around 75,000+  breeding pairs and there are also several thousand non-breeding birds. The castle on the rock is steeped in history and has also been used as a prison. The lighthouse was commissioned in 1902 and the last keepers left in 1988, the rock is uninhabited. It is a very imposing natural feature of volcanic origins, and approaching in bad weather I can imagine it would conjure up images from Conan Doyle's 'Lost World'. 

Bass Rock has been described by someone, possibly David Attenborough maybe Chris Packham, as being amongst the '12 Best Wildlife Wonders of the Natural World'. It doesn't really matter who said it they are quite possibly right, a visit to Bass Rock during the Gannet breeding season is a truly memorable experience.

It is however a one species experience, but sitting in the midst of so many beautiful seabirds watching them flying and interacting with each other is an experience like no other, and is very difficult to describe accurately. The following four images I hope go some way to setting the scene.

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This was the limit of our exploration. Clearly the pathway is already reserved. The mast top centre is a webcam sending images back to the Seabird Centre at North Berwick. Some birds had already laid eggs others were nest building.

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The image below is of a typical Northern Gannet's head from the side.

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And the front.

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The image below was typical of the general view on the rock, lots of Gannets in the air and on the ground.

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A cruise ship passes Bass Rock, I know where I'd rather be!

 

Gannets in flight.

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The image below is of the western part the rock and shows the general position of our main observation area.

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The 2 black triangles near the top of the image in the right hand corner are the remains of St. Baldred's (ancient) Chapel, possibly the earliest settlement on the island. We were for most of the time around this area and it was the highest point we were allowed to visit.Access to this area was via steep steps and footpaths some of which are just about visible on image1.

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Nesting Gannets on the remains of the chapel.

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A tagged specimen.

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I sat and watched these 2 for quite a while, I am assuming it is some sort of pre-mating behaviour? How they locate the same nest site each year is extraordinary, but doesn't appear to stop plenty of squabbles both over the location of the nest site and building materials being used. They also apparently mate for life.

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These two I thought were in serious trouble as their beaks appeared to be locked together for most of the visit, just before I left they managed to disengage.

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Peace and quiet.

 

 

One thing I did find very disturbing and it was commented on by several of the members of my group (from around the world) was the amount of litter on the rock, it was literally everywhere, and not just the odd piece. Plastic being the main culprit. It spoilt for me what was an otherwise perfect day. Our guide suggested it was the birds that were bringing it to the rock, is that possible? The island certainly needs a good clean up and I am not sure why it hasn't been done. The images below hopefully amplify my concerns.5H1A1509.thumb.jpg.e7d693f1c50e95546f97fa05f14e7152.jpg  

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So a wonderful day out, I could have spent all day on Bass Rock, but left with some fantastic memories and a big concern. It is certainly a magnificent wildlife spectacle of global importance. Can't wait to get back next year, possibly later, June (small chicks) or July (large chicks). The guide seemed to favour September before the birds return to spend the rest of their year at sea, many spending time off the West African coast.

 

OTHER BIRDS SEEN DURING THE VISIT: Puffin (a few both on the water and the approach to the rock), Eider Duck (North Berwick harbour), Guillemot (50-60 on lower cliffs on the rock), Herring Gulls (several hundred on the lower parts of the rock, many with nests and eggs) Peregrine (one high up on the main eastern cliffs, great spot by one of the group) and Shag (2, near landing site).

 

I will contact The Scottish Seabird Centre about my concerns. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thank you for sharing.

That's a big rock jutting out in the sea and i wonder how the previous residents could have stayed in such rugged looking conditions.  And that's a lot of gannets. Im always amazed by their faces - they look perfectly painted. I'm ot sure if I'll ever be able to see them in person so reports like yours bring me closer to them as I'll ever be. 

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What an amazing experience.  I hadn't know about that area, so I learned a lot from your report.  Gorgeous photos too!  Thank you for sharing!

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We have been to the seabird centre but to land on the rock looks wonderful @johnweir

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Seems expensive but then what isn't nowadays? Great experience. Have you been to the Isle of May yet? Better than the Farne Islands in my opinion.

Edited by Dave Williams
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Thank you for posting. A fascinating place with lovely photos of the Gannets.

Shame about the plastic!

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@johnweir thanks for your report, especially as I cannot go to these places any more in my wheelchair. I love your classic front-on portrait. They really are photogenic birds.

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Good to see you back posting though @JohnR

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  • 3 weeks later...

Fascinating report @johnweir and excellent photos. You were very lucky with the weather and perfect light too. Loved the gannet to camera headshot with its cross eyed glare!

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Stunning photography!

Last weekend I read a coffee table book on Southern African waterbirds belonging to a friend. It was a relatively old one, published in 1993, and with photos still shot on film.

 

Somehow I feel we've lost something in the mean time, but the point of my waffle is that there was a list of items found in a Hamerkop's nest.

 

It made for interesting reading. Several pairs of socks, nearly 50 pieces of tin foil, several bicycle tubes and so forth.

 

I thus suspect it is quite possible that the birds are responsible for the rubbish. On the other hand, that is probably no reason to leave it like that either.

 

Of course, we have no idea how long it took the birds to cart it all in. I suspect it can only be received during the non-breeding season?

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@Peter Connan, glad you enjoyed the report and I found your Hamerkop nest information very interesting.

I agree with you I think a significant proportion of the litter has probably been deposited by the birds themselves as it was prevalent around the nests. Potato crisp (chip) packets being particularly well represented. I contacted The Scottish Seabird Centre about my concerns and received a rather bland reply. But I have now volunteered my services and hope to be involved if a clear up takes place, later in the year weather permitting, when the Gannets have returned to their life at sea. Some of the heavier plastic litter particularly around the lighthouse I feel has probably been there since it was was abandoned in 1988 and should have been removed years ago.

Thank you again for your comments, I continue to marvel at your photography. 

 

 

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Thank you very much @johnweir.

I do hope that a cleanup does materialize.

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I'm just back from the Isle of May which is only the other side of the Firth of Forth, about 5-6 miles as the Gannet flies from Bass Rock and you do see lots of them fly past but they never land.

The Isle of May has a research station as well as a bird observatory and has huge colonies of seabirds other than Gannets. They have been monitoring various things over many years but they are looking for funding to monitor nesting material in Shag nests.I think the idea is mainly to monitor what is dumped in the sea in terms of plastics, there was certainly lots of what appears to be bits of the fishing  industries rubbish and the island itself has lots of rubbish washed up on it's shores.At the moment lots of planks of wood that came off a container ship during this years "Beast from the East" storm. handy to keep the wood burner going!

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@Dave Williams, Thank you for your interesting addition to the thread. Will definitely get out to the Isle of May next year and hopefully Bass Rock as well but later than my visit this year, to see the chicks. As you are aware a landing is dependable on decent weather which is unpredictable at any time of the year. I was in North Berwick just a few days ago and a landing on that day would have been impossible. Hope to be involved if they decide to clean up parts of The Rock later in the year, I am not that confident it will happen. I think The Rock is in private ownership (Dalrymple Family) I may try to contact the owners to see if they have any plans as they appear to be very committed to the general welfare of the island and its inhabitants*. (*On the Rocks. Bryan Nelson. 1988. Langford Press, incidentally  a good read if you haven't read it). Regards.  

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