In her latest blog volunteer co-ordinator, Emily Burton, gives an amazing insight into the start of the breeding season on the world’s largest Northern gannet colony, the Bass Rock.
We can see the gannets circling Bass Rock almost as soon as we leave the harbour, bouncing our way across the Firth of Forth a few hours after sunrise. We’re visiting in mid-March, and the gannets haven’t yet surrounded the rock in their thousands, but a regular flash of bright white against the blue sky is enough to tell us that the earliest birds are back and, like us, are preparing for the season ahead.
So far, I had only worked on the island during the winter months, and as we balanced our way off the boat onto the concrete steps, I could immediately feel a stark contrast to the last time I visited, just a few weeks before. I remember reading somewhere (before I started working at the Scottish Seabird Centre), that the Bass Rock was an assault on senses; this couldn’t be more true.
There’s movement everywhere you look. From the moment you disembark from the boat, there’s the scrambling of guillemots, paddling their feet and flapping their wings with great urgency, as they temporarily vacate the low-lying ledges and crevices. This is accompanied by the slower movements of the cormorants and shags, as they inspect you from their perches, carefully calculating whether to stay or go. As you climb higher, you are surrounded by the slow, graceful soaring of the gannets and gulls, circling around the ramparts as they fix you with their steady gaze.
The sound is amazing. The combined shrieks, grunts, croaks and chatters, of the surrounding seabirds is like an uncoordinated symphony. It’s nothing like the melodious song that we usually associate with birds, but that isn’t to say it’s not beautiful.
I should also mention the smell. I have yet to come across an aroma quite like Bass Rock. Eau de Bass is a sharp, fishy scent that surrounds you so completely that, after a few minutes, you stop noticing that it’s there. However, I always feel incredibly sympathetic towards anyone that has to encounter a Bass Rocker on their journey from boat to shower, as to the unacclimated nose I’ve been reliably informed that the smell is quite overpowering.
During this visit, we mostly worked around the lighthouse, clearing the steps and concrete to make the area easier to negotiate. I was working alongside a small team outside the building, whist Maggie (Bass Rock Guide and all-round gannet guru) slipped into a full hazmat suit to tackle the inside. This kind of work, although not very glamorous, is essential. Without regular maintenance to access routes, the lighthouse and the remote cameras (which usually send live footage back to the centre) would quickly become difficult to reach.
As always, trips to the Bass are dictated by weather, tides, and the availability of a boat to transport us to and from the harbour. This can leave us with very long days (travelling either side of low tide) or with fairly limited time (racing to complete tasks around high tide boat trips). On this occasion we were just visiting for the morning, but we managed to find a few minutes before boarding the boat to climb the steps past the lighthouse to the spot where the majority of the gannets were settled.
In the midst of nesting season, when the gannets have claimed their nesting sites and laid their eggs, these birds are fearless, more likely to attack anyone who approaches them than leave the nest. However, at this time of year the gannets are still flighty and unsettled, and we keep our distance. All the same, it’s still easy to appreciate how enormous they are, with an outstretched wingspan of up to 2 metres wide as they soar overhead and squabble on the rock.
By late spring, the Bass Rock and the sea surrounding it will be alive with movement, as around 150,000 gannets jostle, bicker and feed, ready for the long and challenging breeding season ahead. This wildlife wonder can be enjoyed for free from the East Lothian coastline on a clear day, the Rock bright white with birds and the air above it swarming with activity.
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This project is supported by the Scottish Natural Heritage Biodiversity Challenge Fund.