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