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BASS ROCK (S.E. SCOTLAND) REVISITED. AUGUST 2019.


johnweir
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In June 2018 I posted a short trip report on a visit to the world renowned Gannetry on Bass Rock, southern Scotland. Without going over old ground (see original report Bass Rock. Firth of Forth. Scotland. May 2018. under Worldwide trip reports), I mentioned that I hoped to return this year but later in the breeding season when adult  pairs would be with their chicks. I also mentioned in my original report the unacceptable amount of litter on the island and that it was impacting on the wellbeing of a few of the Gannets. Despite sending two emails to The Seabird Centre offering to help clean up parts of the island, once the birds had left in October, my offer was not taken up. As I was keen to see the adults with chicks I made arrangements to make a landing on the 29th of July of this year, this was cancelled the day before due to inclement weather. We have enjoyed a pretty lousy summer in Scotland this year. Very few landings have taken place during 2019, so visitors particularly travelling from abroad take note that whilst the experience on the rock is outstanding and well worth doing, the few landings that are arranged each year are often cancelled at the last minute. However I was able to make a rescheduled landing on Monday 26th August, despite it being overcast the sea was calm. I am pleased to say the situation on the rock regarding litter had significantly improved. Someone had clearly been busy and I applaud their efforts. At the time of my 2nd visit there was approximately 75,000 breeding pairs of Northern Gannets and a huge number of chicks at various stages of development on Bass Rock, it was the chicks that had prompted my return. Bass Rock is the largest single stack breeding population of Northern Gannets in the world and accounts for a sixth of the total population. The population on Bass Rock has increased by 24% in recent years, however only around 30% of chicks reach adulthood. At around 13 weeks the chicks dive off the ledges into the sea where they develop their fishing and flying skills, if they survive the dive. Juvenile Northern Gannets are known to travel vast distances during the migration period that follows in October particularly during their first year, much further than adult birds.They usually return to their place of birth initially as a non-breeding juveniles (2-3 years) before finding a suitable mate at 4-5 years of age.  What also drew me back to Bass Rock is the sheer number of birds and just how close you are able to get to them, it is impossible to describe in text or capture in an image the Bass Rock experience, it is simply awesome. 

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On arrival, the welcoming party.

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Beauty and the beast, you decide.

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Chick, around 2 weeks old.

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Mum or Dad.

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Another adult with a chick, 5 minutes before this was taken, we thought this chick was dead. The chick is around 4-5 weeks old, they are constantly being pecked by both their parents and other Gannets, and believe me a Gannet peck is none too pleasant an experience. As you can see the nest is not very impressive, last year many of the nests contained plastic debris. 

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An adult returning presumably from a fishing trip.

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3-4 weeks old.

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Around 2 weeks old.

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Mature adult in flight, the sun came out for a short period.

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A juvenile in flight, it has not quite got full adult markings therefore possibly about 2-3 years old. Aerial manoeuvres to resolve an itch!

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Which has the largest carbon footprint?

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It is a great place to practice taking images of 'birds in flight'. 

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The sheer concentration of birds is impossible to describe.

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Preparing to land.

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Landing always causes problems for the neighbours in the vicinity of the chosen spot. Watching them find the correct site is fascinating. They all approach from the same direction, hundreds at a time and often have to circle the island several times to get their bearings. Then when they have located the right nesting area it is flaps and undercarriage down and more often than not a crash landing.

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It usually results in the adult birds then attacking each other and if there is a chick about that gets the treatment as well. Chaos reigns everywhere. The whole colony appears to be in a state of constant conflict. I am sure there is some sort of method in the madness, but it defeats me.

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We took this chick back to the mainland, our guide was of the opinion it had been deserted. It would be well taken care of and then released. 

5H1A0834.jpg.603e1caad1157bfe10b60f8cb017cdec.jpgThe more usual Bass Rock trip involves circumnavigating the island without a landing, as in the dinghy in the centre of the image. These trips are very popular and can be taken throughout the season. Our trip (landing) lasted around 5 hours with 4 on the island. The group size was 5 plus a guide. I really enjoy a visit to Bass Rock it must be one of the best birding experiences on the planet and I will no doubt return again next year. During my time on the rock the only other species noted was two Herring Gulls, this is indeed Northern Gannet Central.

 

TO FOLLOW: An interesting sequence of images showing a chick being fed by one of its parents, not for the squeamish.

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I had another visit to the Isle of May in late June from where you see a constant stream of Gannets flying backwards and forwards from Bass Rock, and on occasions diving in to the sea nearby. They never fly over the island though even though it's not very big. They do rib boat trips from North Berwick both to Bass Rock and the IOM.

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Lucky you to make a landing.  Most interesting perspectives from the contrails in the background to the extreme closeup accentuating the marble eyes.  Glad the chick lived and I'll be awaiting the next installment, checking my squeamishness.

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love the close-ups of the chick but was awed by that upturned head image - the details are vivid. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Apologies for the delay in posting but I have got rather engrossed in the excitement of the Gabon Trip Report, great stuff ladies and gentleman.

 

Whilst on Bass Rock this year apart from taking images I spent quite some time observing the way in which the adult Gannets feed their chicks. With most it was quite a discrete affair, with the chick, on demand, pushing its bill into its parent's bill which then eventually opened to allow the transfer of food. One family in particular gave me a much more intimate view into how the food was transferred. The following nine images were taken in sequence during a single feed.

 

The chick starts to show some interest in being fed. Both parents take responsibility for feeding their chick, a small number travel out to Dogger Bank in the North Sea to fish which is a round trip of between 340 and 400 miles, most fish much closer to Bass Rock.

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The adult bird allows the chick to put its beak down its throat .

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The chick starts to gain access to a pouch deep in the adult bird's throat where the fish are stored during transport. The fishing technique of Gannets has been well documented. They plunge dive from a height of up to 200 feet with their wings retracted into the sea like missiles at speeds of up to 65 m.p.h. Fish are often caught at depths of 35 feet. It  is a spectacle I would love to observe at some stage. Occasionally it has been observed close to Bass Rock so I may spend some time at sea next year.

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The chick probes deeper and deeper into the adult's throat.

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At this stage I thought the adult was going to swallow the chick! Even the other parent bird looks concerned.

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The chick has now managed to retrieve a fish, it was relatively large, possibly a Mackerel.

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This chick would not be happy with one fish and continued to probe.

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The chick  now has access to quite a large meal consisting of several fish. 

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One well fed chick, although it looks to be ready for more, and one parent bird which will need to catch more fish soon. Feeding was over for now. Do the parent birds take it in turns to feed the chicks?

 

Earlier in the year I managed to get out to St.Kilda, which is a small archipelago 55 miles west of the Isle of Lewis/Harris (Outer Hebrides, N.W. Scotland). Until 1930 when the last few islanders voluntarily evacuated the island it was the most westerly inhabited island in the U.K. The islanders had it, to say the least very hard and their diet consisted mainly of mutton and seabirds, Fulmar and Gannet. Apparently they often snacked on Puffins like we would eat a bag of crisps/chips. Getting out to St.Kilda is not easy mainly due to the weather. Trips only run during the summer months and are frequently cancelled, this is not an easy island to visit. We fell lucky however although the sea was calm, it was heavily overcast for most of the day making photography almost impossible. The trip out by speedboat takes just under 3 hours each way, with a 5 hour landing on the main island Hirta, during which time we walked around most of the island. St. Kilda is the U.K.'s only dual World Heritage Site, awarded for both natural history and culture. I post a few images for general interest.

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Approaching St. Kilda, the archipelago is home to possibly a larger colony of Northern Gannets than Bass Rock but they are distributed over several stacks not one. Getting close to any of the bird colonies is only possible by boat.

 

The deserted 'Main Street', the medieval houses can clearly be seen between the more recent 'blackhouses' which were built in the 1830s.

 

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A cleit, these medieval buildings were used during the long hard winters to store seabirds and the small amount of grain they managed to grow. The islanders amazingly did not eat much fish. Hirta is peppered with 1,260 cleitean. The sheep on top are Soay Sheep a small very primitive domestic sheep. A stable population has remained on the island since the islanders left, all Soay Sheep are related to this population, research is currently being conducted into the genetics of the large flock which looked very healthy and were amazingly tame.

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 Soay Sheep.

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Northern Fulmar, this was the first time I had seen this attractive seabird, there were thousands about but mainly on isolated cliffs and flying well out to sea.

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This stack off Soay was home to one of several large colonies of Northern Gannets.

 

 

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A general view of the St. kilda archipelago.

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A typical Gannetry on one of the stacks.

 

 

Birds recorded during the visit: Northern Gannet, Northern Fulmar, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Puffin, Cormorant, Manx Shearwater, Kittiwake, Shag, Guillemot, Great Skua, European Petrel*, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Gull, Herring Gull, Meadow Pipit and Wheatear. Unfortunately the island's endemic Wren was not seen.   * Leach's or Storm, unsure.

 

Mammals: Atlantic Grey Seal, Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise and Rossi's Dolphin.

 

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Some oft he sea cliffs at St.Kilda are the highest in the U.K.

Edited by johnweir
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Fascinating, we really must get to Bass Rock.

The feeding sequence is excellent 

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Very cool to watch the clock feeding. 

 

Very much enjoying bass rock though some brilliant photos. 

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