RSPB Scotland's Allie McGregor tells us about her weekend exercise in seabird spotting.

Guillemot, razorbill and puffins, oh my!

It’s no secret that Scotland is blessed with amazing seabirds, with 70% of the UK population. Despite travelling the length and breadth of the country, heading to Orkney, the Hebrides, and many more of our remarkable islands, I have always had pretty poor luck seabird spotting. Happily, this changed for me this past weekend.

beach
Milsey Bay beach

On Sunday I had the pleasure of heading out to The Lamb, Craigleith and Bass Rock geared up in a rather fetching bright yellow waterproof outfit just in case the boat ride got a little too wild. Given previous experiences of heartbreak due to weather, shy birds or bad timing, I didn’t want to get my hopes too high to begin with but with the sunshine out, and stories of chicks hatching, I was incredibly excited to go out and see some of my favourite birds.

The Lamb was our first stop and it was just covered in cormorants, so much so that it took me a few moments to spot one of my very favourite birds, the guillemot. Many of the cormorants were standing with their wings spread – cormorants often do this to dry their wings after a spell of fishing. Once I had spotted them, I could tell that guillemots were dotted all over as well and I was just delighted. We were told that many chicks had been hatching recently so you can be sure I was looking out for them!

While listening to the story of how the island came to be owned by Uri Geller (best known for his spoon bending) I almost a missed a solitary razorbill in amongst it all. It was doing an exceptionally good impression of a guillemot. Just as well we spotted it when we did because moments later as we came round the edge of the island my attention was fully drawn to what I initially thought was about three puffins floating alongside us, but as I looked around more it turned out to be more like fifty.

Before this moment I had seen only one puffin ever, and it was so fleeting I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t just convinced myself it was one out of hope. For the next 30 minutes as we zoomed from The Lamb over to Craigleith and circled our second stop, I saw what was easily hundreds. They are even cuter in person.

Craigleith was once home to thousands of puffins but sadly there has been a decline due to an invasive plant – tree mallow – choking puffin burrows. You will be pleased to know there are dedicated volunteers who work to remove the plant and there are many puffins residing there happily now. The numbers will hopefully only go up. We also saw kittiwake swooping about with their ink dipped wingtips.

Our final stop of the trip was Bass Rock – this was when the waterproofs really came in handy as it saved some awkward bird-poo-in-hair situations. Bass Rock has the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets and the sound is seriously something. It was incredible to feel completely immersed amongst the birds, watching them fly back and forth and dive for fish. As well as spectacular seabirds the island has spectacular caves which had me in total awe.

looking up at cliffs where there are hundreds of gannets perched or flying
Gannets on bass rock

The caves below the lighthouse held some particularly special sights as we spotted many chicks – we had already seen numerous young gannets but I was so pleased to also see darling young guillemots and kittiwakes.

guillemots perched over craggy rocks
Guillemots and other birds at cave entrance

lighthouse perched on dramatic rocks
Bass rock lighthouse

On the way back to shore we sped past some seals bobbing up and down, and I felt so utterly privileged to be so close to such amazing wildlife. Scotland’s seas really are something special.

a statue of a seal
Unfortunately I did not manage to get a photo of the seals; hopefully this will suffice!

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