Kirsty Nutt explains why now is a perfect time to get out and enjoy Scotland’s seabird cities.
It’s a time of change on Scotland’s cliffs
The clocks have sprung forward; the evenings are getting lighter and the days warmer. Spring is definitely on its way. And with the shift of seasons, changes in the natural world are all around.
Trees are coming in to bud, birdsong is filling the morning air and birds that we only see during the spring and summer are arriving. I spotted my first swallow last week, but the change I most look forward to is in full swing around Scotland’s coast – the return of seabirds to breed.
Cliffs that were empty up until a few weeks ago are rapidly being occupied by thousands of noisy neighbours all jostling for space on the packed ledges.
The sight of thousands of birds packed so tightly on almost vertical cliffs is awe-inspiring. How they cling on, let alone protect eggs and chicks and raise young in these precariously positioned nests is phenomenal.
Guillemots at Fowlsheugh
It’s only enhanced by the raucous, community atmosphere.
As you wander along the cliffs, you are surrounded by the familiar uplifting surround-sound of kittiwakes calling their own names, interspersed with the less frequent growls and grunts of razorbills and guillemots. Add to this the oily pungency that on calm days you can almost smell all the way in the bottom of your lungs and you’ve had the triple whammy of this must-experience wildlife spectacle.
Scotland is a fabulous place for seabirds and wherever you go there are places to visit to enjoy one of nature’s most remarkable experiences. Many of them are RSPB Scotland nature reserves, from my local favourites Fowlsheugh (20 miles south of Aberdeen) where more than 100,000 seabirds return to breed each year and Troup Head where the towering cliffs are home to Scotland’s only mainland gannet colony along with razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, to ones further away.
Gannets at Troup Head
The Mull of Galloway sits at Scotland’s most southerly point, and is Dumfries and Galloway’s largest seabird colony. Cameras on the cliffs help visitors to spot nesting kittiwakes, fulmars, shags and razorbills, while gannets nest just offshore on an island called Big Scar Rock and can be seen fishing nearby. It’s a great place to spot cetaceans like dolphins, but also unusual butterflies like the wall and grayling, and beautiful spring and summer flowers. Very lucky visitors might even spy one of the few puffins that nest nearby.
Then at the most northerly tip of the British mainland, Dunnet Head awaits discovery. With its stunning sea cliffs and coastal grassland and weekly Wednesday walks to spot puffins and other birds nesting in the seabird cities, it’s well worth a visit.
Further north still, are four Orkney reserves each offering visitors something different. Hoy’s famous for its sea stack but it’s the reserve’s mix of moorland and sea cliffs and of white-tailed eagles, great skuas and puffins that make it a dream wildlife-watching destination. Marwick Head, on Orkney Mainland, just four miles from Skara Brae, is home to the Kitchener Memorial and thousands of seabirds. While dramatic Noup Cliffs on Westray houses Orkney's largest seabird colony including gannets and Arctic terns. Once seen, it's never forgotten! Last, but not least North Hill on the tiny island of Papa Westray, is home to Scottish primroses – tiny flowers that are found nowhere but Orkney and north Scotland. But there’s stiff competition to be the star of the show with seabirds such as tysties (black guillemots), puffins, Arctic terns and Arctic skuas. A statue on one of the trails commemorates the last breeding great auk in Britain that was shot here in 1813. A stark reminder to value our seabirds to make sure we don’t lose any others forever.
And then there is Sumburgh Head at the southern tip of mainland Shetland. A must-visit destination for puffin-lovers of all ages, the reserve also has a reputation as a good spot for seeing minke whales and orcas. While slightly further north the uninhabited island of Mousa is home to other seabirds with their own unique stories to tell – thousands of storm petrels nest hidden from view below and between the stones of the boulder beaches, dry-stone dykes and fallen walls. These tiny, seabirds are nocturnal, but day trips to see the island’s Arctic terns, tysties (black guillemots), seals and skuas are a delight.
For the even more adventurous Ailsa Craig lies nine miles offshore of South Ayrshire and rises to 1,109 feet. The dramatic seacliffs are home to the third largest gannet colony in Scotland – around 33,000 pairs – with a supporting cast of guillemots, razorbills, black guillemots and an increasing numbers of puffins. The reserve is best seen from the sea through an organised boat trip, which also helps to avoid disturbance. Companies run trips from Girvan or Campbeltown on calm days throughout the summer.
It’s not just RSPB Scotland nature reserves that provide important homes for seabirds though or opportunities to see them. Last year, we ran events in St Andrews, to help people enjoy the antics of the fulmars that nest on the cliffs on the coastal path near the cathedral. We hope to repeat them this year. And there are plenty of other places in Scotland you can visit to experience the springtime spectacle of a seabird city.
Sadly, recent decades have seen numbers of many of these seabirds plummet, particularly in the Northern Isles where there are approximately 90% fewer kittiwakes on the cliffs now compared to the 1980s. There have been similarly shocking declines in the numbers of Arctic terns and Arctic skuas, around half of the guillemots have disappeared and puffins have failed to breed too.
Help may be at hand. In 2014, the areas of sea around our coasts that are most important for seabirds were rooted out and chalked up for protection. Although it’s now two years later, we are working to have these places designated as Special Protection Areas, protected by one of two European Laws which protect the most vulnerable wildlife and wild place in Europe. (You can find out more about our campaign to save the Nature Directives here).
Many of the draft Special Protection Areas are big areas of sea, a long way from anywhere we can visit – it’s hard enough getting to Foula, let alone to the seas offshore from it! However, others are far better known to us. The Firth of Forth, The Solway Firth and Scapa Flow have all been shown to be of international importance. These areas are seabird hotspots throughout the year – in the summer puffins, gannets, razorbills and breeding eiders bring them alive, then through the winter they fill up with divers, grebes and seaducks.
These aren’t necessarily no-go areas or reserves set aside only for the seabirds. But they are areas where seabirds will be protected. Networks already exist throughout most of Europe and their designation may bring us to a point where we can recover numbers of prey such as sandeels and restore our vibrant seabird populations. We want to help bring back the huge colonies of Marwick Head for example, which are now preserved only in sepia.
Marwick Head in the 1970s and in 2013
Although we’re not quite there yet, and this year our seabirds won’t be fishing in protected areas, we hope that progress will soon be made and that the generations of young puffins, gannets and eiders which leave our shores at the end of this summer, will return to Scotland and its protected seas. For more information and updates visit rspb.org.uk/choosesealife.