Jess Barrett from RSPB Scotland tells us all about her recent date with nature on the Firth of Forth.
In search of seabirds : A date with nature on the Firth of Forth
Through RSPB Scotland’s Dates with Nature people can get up close to some of the amazing wildlife we have across the country from sea eagle spotting at Kylerhea on Skye to the red kite feeding at Argaty.
This summer I was lucky enough to join the Date with Nature seabird cruise in the Firth of Forth we run along with Marine Conservation Society. The Firth of Forth is such an important place for seabirds that it’s one of the 14 draft Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for seabirds designated by the Scottish Government last year.
Along with a group of seabird enthusiasts, many of whom had some very impressive cameras, we set out from North Berwick on a lovely sunny evening on Maid of the Forth. Allan Whyte, RSPB Scotland’s marine policy officer, was providing the commentary for the evening, telling us all about the marine habitat in the Firth of Forth and its wildlife, and Scotland’s internationally important seabird populations.
Although looking forward to all of the trip I was particularly keen to see puffins, having only seen a somewhat lonely looking one on Orkney a few years ago. Our destinations were the Firth of Forth islands of Fidra, Lamb, Craigleith and the somewhat imposing Bass Rock.
We hadn’t been out of the harbour for long before we saw our first seabirds and then all of a sudden there was a flash of orange overhead as a wee bird flew by beating its wings furiously. A puffin! It was far too quick to get a photo of but was definitely a good start for my puffin spotting.
As Maid of the Forth made her way to the Fidra there were lots of razorbills and guillemots flying about and in the water. We also saw a solitary gannet flying overhead. Fidra is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island and from the craggy looking rocks around it you can certainly see why.
As we swayed in the water by the island we could see razorbills and guillemots nesting on the rocks. Down by the water there were some young shags enjoying the evening sunshine. There was also an eider mother scrambling along the rocks with her young. A few kittiwakes were nesting in amongst the cliffs, hidden well thanks to their colouring against rocks. Although pretty much everyone on board had their binoculars with them we really didn’t need them as we had a fantastic view of the birds.
As we set off enroute to Lamb seabirds shot past us through the air and bobbed about in the water around us including more puffins, and what would turn out to be, the only fulmar we saw on the trip. Fulmars are related to albatrosses and defend their young by spitting out foul smelling oil. It was good to see one casually floating by rather than in defensive mode!
On Lamb there were guillemots all over the rocks and some swimming about in water around the island, along with a puffin. Overhead kittiwakes flew about. Allan explained that one of the easiest ways to identify a kittiwake is by looking at its wings. The very tips of the wings are black as if they have been dipped in ink.
While we were by the island the guillemots started making a right racket and flying off in groups. Allan pointed out a couple of gulls that were flying around the guillemots nests trying to chase them away so they could get at their eggs – they were only having limited success as the majority of the guillemots refused to budge.
From there we made our way to Craigleith and it was here that we began to see puffins in greater numbers. There was a group of them that seemed unperturbed by us passing by in the boat as they sat riding the waves created by Maid of the Forth. All the puffins we saw at Craigleith and during the trip were either in the air or on the water.
Puffins have burrows rather than nests so those not out and about must have been hidden underground, away from eager puffin fan eyes like mine and the rather long lenses of the cameras on board the boat. There was a group of three puffins just by the boat as we lingered by Craigleith. It was great to see them so close. I could see all the bright colours in their bills as they kept a watch on what we were up to.
Finally we headed for Bass Rock, home to the largest gannet colony in the world. There are 150,000 gannets nesting on this island and the smell of it hit us while we were still ten minutes away from reaching it. Having seen a couple of solitary gannets flying about earlier on the trip we now began to see ever increasing numbers of them until the sky above us was absolutely filled with them!
While I know that there are thousands of gannets on Bass Rock I was still blown away by just how many of them there were when we got there – I don’t think it’s really possible to comprehend the sheer quantity of them without going for yourself. They were packed onto the rocky cliff faces on their nests, flying about above us, diving into the water to gather nest material, constantly taking off and landing – they were everywhere!
We were told that gannets head back to the place where they hatched to nest which explains why Bass Rock’s population keeps on growing. There is a section of rock where all the juvenile gannets hang out but this is being increasingly taken over by pairs of gannets looking for somewhere on the island to build their nests.
As we watched the gannets flapping about and calling to each other, Allan alerted us that someone else had come to join our rather excited party. There was a seal a few metres away from the boat that seemed to be inspecting what we were up to. Curiosity satisfied, it disappeared beneath the water.
While we headed back to North Berwick harbour I turned back to have a look at Bass Rock. As we drew further away the individual gannets became specks which then merged into white across the whole island. It’s amazing just how these birds transform the appearance of Bass Rock every year.
We were almost back to the harbour when there was one more bird in store for us, spotted by an eagle eyed bird fan at the front of the boat – a common tern flying out to sea with its dinner in its beak.
It was brilliant to see the wildlife that lives just off the coast of our capital including so many of the species covered by the draft SPA: eiders, common terns, gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills, puffins, shags and guillemots. While I’ve know that the Firth of Forth is home to huge numbers of seabirds and marine life it was wonderful to finally experience it, including the puffins, for myself. I certainly felt I was in amongst the wildlife on my date with nature. Can’t wait to go on another one!
Find out more about RSPB Scotland’s Dates with Nature.
We can’t quite believe it’s August already. It feels like we’ve only just finished talking about Scotland’s fantastic summer visitors and now they’re up and leaving again! But don’t worry; there is still plenty to see this month. Here are some tips and facts from us.
What to see in Scotland this month VIII
August is one month of the year that brings a lot of change with it in Scotland. And I’m definitely not talking about the weather here, especially because no-one seems to know what’s going on with it this summer. I’m thinking about our wildlife.
Over the last few months we’ve been enjoying the company of migrant bird species that venture to our shores for summer, but the time has come for them to start leaving for warmer climes. This happens in dribs and drabs at first, but before we know it they’ll all have gone.
Whimbrels leave us from August onward and you might be lucky enough to see them stocking up on crabs and molluscs along the coast before departing. As do some more familiar birds like blackcaps, swifts, and house martins. Look out for clusters of swallows on telephone wires too.
Ospreys that come to Scotland in summer spend the winter in West Africa – a migration of around 3,500 miles. You’ve still got time to see them as they generally won’t leave for a couple of weeks yet; check out EJ and Odin at Loch Garten!
The female bird leaves first and the male stays behind to continue providing fish to their young if they have them. He will depart when the last chick has set off on migration (very attentive parenting there if you ask me). When chicks reach Africa they’ll often stay there for the first few years of their life and will return to Scotland when they’ve reached breeding age.
Another species which will be vacating our shores around now is the razorbill. They tend to leave their breeding cliffs towards the end of the summer for the sea. In this case it’s the male which leaves first, with the young leaving alongside him, while the female continues to visit the breeding site for up to several weeks before heading off too. The north and north-east of Scotland are among the best places to see seabirds, with the peak time being summer.
Razorbills are compact, sturdy creatures that belong to the auk family, are black and white in colour, and have a thick, blunt bill. In August and September, these birds go through a post-breeding moult and actually become flightless for a period.
But it’s not just birds you should be excited about this month, if you fancy a bit of an adventure with the kids, grab a net and bucket and head for the coast. Exploring rockpools is a fantastically fun activity that everyone can get involved with. Keep an eye out for barnacles, crabs, anemones, and maybe even a starfish!
Did you know that starfish can actually allow their own arms to drop off? It means they can escape if predators grab hold of them. They’re also able to regenerate the lost limb which is pretty amazing.
We’ve also heard there are good numbers of basking sharks turning up around the west coast of Scotland this month. So if you’re heading out to the Isle of Coll or Tiree anytime soon we’d definitely recommend checking out these giant beauties. If you’re a bit further afield and won’t get to see them in person, take a look at this drone footage of them that went on the Press and Journal website last week – it’s incredible.
Happy wildlife watching everyone! We’ll be back with a new blog in September.
Kirsty Potter from RSPB Scotland, has this update from the lucky winners of our competition with Walkers Shortbread. Justin and Susan went on a spectacular guided safari at our Abernethy reserve and shared the stories of the day with us.
A winning visit to Abernethy
On Saturday 11 July our Walkers Shortbread competition winners visited our beautiful Abernethy reserve to take up their prize.
For a period at the end of 2014, packets of Walkers Shortbread bore a special RSPB sticker featuring a red squirrel, one of the threatened species found at Abernethy, as well as details of a special competition. Devoted Walkers Shortbread buyers were asked to enter the competition on the RSPB website to be in with the chance of winning a VIP wildlife safari at Abernethy and a weekend stay at The Boat Hotel in Boat of Garten.
Justin and Susan, from Edinburgh, were the lucky winners of the prize and were delighted to have the chance to travel to the reserve in the heart of the Cairngorms to see some fantastic wildlife, led by the extremely knowledgeable and charismatic Desmond Dugan, Abernethy’s Site Manager.
Desmond knows the reserve like the back of his hand, having lived and worked there for over 30 years. He recommended an early start that morning so that Justin and Susan had the best chance of seeing as many of the 4,500 species that live on the reserve as possible and so picked them up from the hotel at 5am. Justin commented: ‘Getting up at 4.30am on a weekend has never been so easy!’
Luckily, the weather was good and the early start certainly paid off. Justin and Susan were able to see both red and roe deer, a badger, red squirrels, red and black grouse, a kestrel, merlin and buzzard, and red-throated divers amongst many other species. To find out more about some of the incredible wildlife that calls Abernethy home, have a look at the star species section on our Abernethy page.
After the early start, Desmond dropped Justin and Susan back at the hotel for breakfast and, after a quick pit stop to refuel, the group headed back out to see more of the reserve, rounded off with a picnic lunch in a high up spot overlooking the stunning landscape of the reserve.
Justin summed up their prize, saying: 'We had an amazing time at Abernethy. It was great to be shown around by Desmond who was so knowledgeable and passionate about this beautiful part of the world.'
RSPB Scotland is very grateful to Walkers Shortbread for their support in running this competition. We are now in our second year working with Walkers and are very proud to be in partnership with such a well-known and well-loved Scottish family business.
Walkers Shortbread supports our vision of expanding Abernethy forest up to its natural tree-line. This is a long-term project which may take up to 200 years to complete but it will create a wooded landscape at Abernethy, effectively doubling the size of the existing forest habitat, mainly through the natural processes of regeneration.
The company has helped to fund an on-site tree nursery that is already allowing us to plant seedlings, grown from seed collected on the reserve, and grow them on to saplings. Over the next few years up to 100,000 young trees will be planted to enrich the pine regeneration and to create a more diverse future woodland.
This will be of benefit to all of the fantastic creatures that Justin and Susan were lucky enough to spot on the wildlife safari amongst many others, and will ensure that generations to come will have the same opportunity to enjoy the area.