RSPB East Scotland communications officer, Kirsty Nutt, explains why she loves the Aberdeenshire coast and why this is the perfect time to visit and experience the spectacular seabird colonies and stunning sea views.

Discover Troup Head: Spectacular seabirds and stunning sea views

Last Thursday I went to our Troup Head nature reserve for the first time in at least a year and it wasn't long before I was reminded why I should visit more often.

The drive to the reserve alone is beautiful - along narrow winding roads between gorse-clad hillsides that flame brilliant yellow in the sunshine. The moment you glimpse the coast again, the rugged beauty of the cliffs and the vast expanse of sea stretching away for miles takes your breath away. It really is hard to beat.

The road to the reserve's small car park passes through a farm but the views soon open out again with the promise of what awaits.

On leaving the car park we were greeted by a singing skylark performing its famous parachuting up-and-down display flight. As we walked further along the rough grass path beside a farm field its song was engulfed by the sounds of seabirds further along the cliffs towards Pennan. At this distance they were no more than white pinpricks darting and zipping about over the grey sea but the noise was phenomenal.

There are two routes to choose from as you near the cliffs: up and over the hill or around the side of it directly to the main viewpoint; to the main attraction; to the gannets.

We wandered along to the viewpoint admiring the delicate flowers of spring squill and yellow rattle among the grass, excitement building but not in a rush.

Then we smelled them. There is no mistaking the oily pungency of a seabird colony. It seems to permeate your senses entirely so that you can almost 'smell' it in the back of your throat and in your lungs. It's powerful and not pleasant, but not awful either and for me it's the smell of the coast in summer and gives a hint of the amazing spectacle awaiting us at the cliff edge.

We soon start to spot gannets flying along the cliff top; strong wings out-held, their black wing tips in strong contrast to their perfect pale cream bodies and yellow caps. They're graceful flyers, even if when landing they sometimes looks clumsy, and they soar through the air. 

There's so many it looks like a snowstorm until you notice that some are so close you could reach out and touch them – I would never try to of course.

As we reach the cliff edge the first group we see are sat on a muddy finger that juts out into the sea. 

They do not seem to be breeding but they are of breeding age because juvenile gannets are speckled black - their colour more like Dalmatian dogs than the sleek graceful grown-ups. 

The sea crashes against the rocks below creating a beautiful tableau.  

We wander along to the main cliff and as we look closer we start to spot huge white balls of fluff – chicks that are already quite large.

Nestled on ledges in amongst the nesting gannets are kittiwakes and guillemots. The kittiwakes are responsible for most of the noise – their unmistakable ki-ti-waaake calls creating a cacophony of sound. They also have chicks and most have two, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a good year.

Whereas the number of gannets in Scotland has increased since the 1980s, numbers of kittiwakes have suffered disastrous declines so it is heartwarming to see them apparently doing well this year. 

I could have sat there for hours surrounded by the stunning flowers of red and sea campion and thrift (sea pinks), enjoying the gannets and keeping an eye out for passing whales and dolphins.

I envy my colleague who lives nearby. She grew up near here and on her first visit to Troup after starting work for RSPB Scotland recalls being puzzled and saying “I don't remember there being gannets here”. And she wouldn't remember them because they only started nesting here in 1989. Now the colony is over 3000 strong.

It is the only place in mainland Scotland where you can visit a gannet colony without needing to take a boat trip and it is spectacular how close you get to these large seabirds.

With a wingspan of nearly 2 m, they are the largest seabirds in the north Atlantic and more than 50% of all northern gannets breed in Britain. They are famous for their diving prowess and can reach depths of 20 m. When diving for fish, they plunge fast into the water with their large wings held back like an arrow. They have a special spongy forehead to cushion the impact of these spectacular dives.

There are gannets diving offshore here too but they are overshadowed by the ones soaring past at head height. It's an intense experience to be so close to such magnificent birds.

As we leave I can't help but feel slightly sad and I promise myself I'll visit again before the end of this breeding season and more often next year.

Bass Rock might be the most famous gannet colony in Scotland, but Troup is my favourite. Tucked away at what feels like the end of the world as you stare out into the North Sea, it’s a true hidden gem of Aberdeenshire’s spectacular coastline.

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