Saturday morning and it's a 5am rise. Hardly a welcome time to be getting up after a tough week in the office, but with the promise of finally making it to Bass Rock today, it is enough to get me moving (together with a caffeine injection).
If you have read my previous blog post you will know that I recently circled the Bass Rock in a boat, enroute home from the Isle of May, and believe me, it is quite a spectacle. Described by Sir David Attenborough as one to the top wildlife wonders of the world, it is home to 150,000 gannets, making it the largest single rock gantry in the world. Today - I am hoping to land. The trip has been booked via The Scottish Seabird Centre and, with the extremely poor weather this year, has been subject to cancellation. But this morning the sun is shining, there is no wind, and I'm hoping the sea will be calm.
I arrive at Dunbar harbour at 6.30am - just enough time to park up and find the meeting spot. The harbour at that time of the morning is just idyllic; with nothing but the sound of gulls and kittiwakes, and the smell of sea air, I watch four seals playing in the water and feel the last of my sleepiness slip away. I'm now ready for the Rock!
As people who know me will testify to, I don't have the strongest of sea legs. So my newly found exuberance was marginally tempered when I saw our mode of transport - a true, well used, fishing boat that fits the 11 photographers and their kit snugly! However, at the helm of the 'Fisher Lassie' is a skipper with 50 years experience on the sea, so I plant my sea legs down as firmly as I can, and put my trust in the skipper that I won't go for a swim. He doesn't let me down!
An hour of pleasant chugging along in the boat and we arrive at the Bass Rock. The skipper declares it safe to land, and the group heaves a collective sigh of relief that the swell of the sea doesn't send us back home. So we disembark and begin the ascent to the top of the rock.
Two words: Sensory Overload. The sight of so many gannets. The sound of so many gannets. The smell of so many gannets. All quite overwhelming! As we make our way up the unkept path, the gannets are within touching distance, and beat us a hasty retreat with their sharp beaks if they consider us too close to their offspring. I am surprised to find myself quite intimidated by them! They are far bigger than I expected; adults are 32-43 inches long, weigh 2.2-3.6kg and have a wingspan of 65-71 inches. And well at the end of the day, we are in their territory, and they outnumber us by 149,988, so I'm careful to respect them and am mindful of where I step! The convenience facilities are pointed out to us by the guide - no toilet, no hot and cold running water - just a 'private spot' in a dilapidated shed (well this is a wildlife wonder populated by gannets who are, quite rightly, not that bothered about catering for us fussy humans).
We arrive at the top of the rock and are told by the guide that we have three hours of free time. As I pull out my photography gear, it is difficult to know where to start. There is so much frenetic bird activity, and they are so close, that it is quite overwhelming. I move the camera over to a 'quiet' spot and simply sit and observe. And it's not very long before the photo opportunities come to me.......
...By way of background, adult gannets retain the same mate for several seasons, and return to the same nesting site annually. Their plumage is white with black wing tips, and during the breeding season their head and neck turns a light golden brown colour. The adult couples perform elaborate greeting rituals at their nest, stretching their bills and necks skywards and tapping their beaks together. It is quite something to watch. The photo below is a typical example of this behaviour.
Most of the adults on Bass Rock were with offspring and, with nests so close to one another, the birds were often displaying lots of territorial behaviour, chasing off other adults birds and humans alike! I was surprised that some of the baby gannets were so young at this time of year, but I sadly suspect the extremely poor summer had taken its toll on some earlier chicks and the adults had possibly bred again (gannets normally have only one chick per year).
It was quite fascinating to watch the family unit interact. Below is an over exuberant young gannet badgering its poor mother for food, and leaving her looking quite startled in the process! Mother gannets feed their offspring by regurgitating fish, and this bolshy one clearly thought it was time that she did so!
The below picture shows a young gannet being fed via regurgitated fish.
Gannet families are so bonded, just as we would expect in our own world. Below is a typical family unit of mother, baby, and father in the background. As was commonly seen, the young gannet's beak is pointed up at mum, always in the hope of a little something to snack on!
Below, a little mummy and daddy time with some mutual grooming;
Three hours on the rock went by like three minutes and before I knew it we were scrabbling past Angry Bird and her chick (who had placed themselves in the middle of the only path and weren't moving for anyone!) and heading back down to the boat. But more was to come! CHUMMING!
Chumming involves the skipper throwing unwanted fish into the sea, attracting literally thousands of birds. The process lasted for about 30 minutes and the only way I can describe it is with two words: ABSOLUTE CHAOS! Gannets and gulls alike, following the boat (within touching distance) and diving into a scrum when fish was spotted.
Birds under the water, over the water, on the water..........
Madness quite frankly, and there is nothing that can prepare you for it!
Alas, the fish runs out and the birds quickly lose interest in our boat which picks up speed to Dunbar. The odd bird continues to fly alongside in the hope of a little more fish, but soon they are all gone, back to their Rock and their little gannet families.
I was sad to leave the Bass Rock, but extremely grateful to have experienced it before the birds went back out to sea for the winter. As we pulled into Dunbar harbour I reflected on the behaviours that I saw - mothers tending to chicks, adults in elaborate displays of affection with one another........lots of Love on the Rock, gannet style!
And to round the day off perfectly , as I stepped off the boat, this boy popped his head up to say hello..... also wondering if we had some fish to spare! It was a strategy that had clearly served him well given the size of him, but unfortunately the greedy gannets had had his supper today!
Thank you for reading. I hope you have enjoyed my account of the Bass Rock. Feel free to say hello in the guest book, and please do visit again!