Earlier this month I visited the Scar Rocks with 3 other members of the North Solway Ringing Group. We try to visit this 1 hectare outcrop of the Mull of Galloway reserve every year to ring young gannets, but don’t always manage it due to weather and sea conditions. The Scars are about 15 miles from the small harbour at the Isle of Whithorn, which is where we usually leave from, courtesy of the Newton Stewart sub-aqua club’s fast rib and their very able skipper, Chris. As I mentioned, sea and weather conditions are the controlling factor for getting out to the Rocks and so we watch the forecast carefully and generally have to decide at relatively short notice whether to go or not.
This year we thought we’d picked a pretty good day, but when we got out into Luce Bay we realised that the wind was somewhat stronger than we were expecting and was also from the north-west and we were heading straight into it – even with wet weather gear on, we were soaked to the skin by the time we arrived after our 50 minute roller-coaster trip.
However, it’s always worth the effort to get out to the rocks and its gannet colony. The history of the colony is interesting. Gannets were first recorded as breeding as early as 1883, but no further records until 1939. Since then the colony has gradually expanded and on the last aerial assessment in 2014 stood at 2,376 apparently occupied nests – so around 4,700 birds in total (An aerial survey of Northern Gannets Morus bassanus on Scar Rocks, southwest Scotland, in 2014; Murray, S, Harris, M.P. and Wanless S. 2014. Seabird 27: 104-109). Numbers have not changed significantly since the previous count in 2004, so the colony may be full – that is certainly the impression you get when you’re on the Rock, with gannets everywhere. The expansion of the colony may well have been to the detriment of the shags that breed here, since they have certainly become fewer in number over the last 20 years or so. The other birds that regularly breed are guillemots and we were very pleased to see good numbers of chicks this year.
We try to time our visit so that we are able to get a good number of chicks that are at the right size to ring, although gannets have an extended breeding season and we always see young birds that are flying right through to eggs that are just hatching. When they first hatch, the chicks are naked and have a prehistoric, reptilian look to them – almost like baby pteradactyls! However, they soon gain their white down and become somewhat cuter in appearance.
We limit our visits to no more than 2 hours, so as to minimise disturbance to the colony. However, we are always dismayed by the amount of plastic and discarded fishing line and netting that we see in the colony. Some of this is washed up, but much of it is actually brought in by the gannets to adorn their nests with. This can lead to chicks and even adults becoming tangled, with the likelihood that they will not survive.
This little chap was lucky and we were able to remove its ‘necklace’ of fishing line, so it has every chance of fledging, before heading off into the Atlantic and hopefully returning to breed itself one day.
Ringing the gannets on Scars has been undertaken since the 1960s and has enabled us to find out a great deal about where the birds go outside the breeding season (from recovered birds) and also how long they can live. Even in these days of satellite tags and other technology, a simple metal ring can provide important information since they last a very long time. The birds from the Scars head off to the west coast of Africa in the main (3,000 mile away) and many of our recoveries come from that area and along the Spanish and French coasts. One bird (ring number 1118009) was ringed as a chick in June 1975 and found 24 years later, exhausted on a beach in Spain in May 1999 – it was released. One can only wonder how much longer it lived and how many miles it covered – at least 70,000 over the 24 years we know about.
Ringing gannets is a messy activity – there’s nothing quite like the aroma of a seabird colony – and the gannet guano is pretty clinging – but it’s always a privilege to spend some time with these remarkable birds.
Area Reserves Manager Dumfries & Galloway
All pictures by Andrew Bielinski
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654