William Harvey

Wildlife & Nature Photography

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Seabirds of Scotland – Part 2

As hinted at the end of my previous post, this post will mainly be about gannets.

My first view of a gannet was on the boat across to the Isle of May, which I wrote about in part one of this post. I’m not particularly keen on boats at the best of times and, unfortunately, on that day the sea was particularly choppy, so it wasn’t an especially pleasant experience. The sight of gannets sweeping past the boat provided a welcome distraction though. There was no chance I was going to be able to hold the camera steady enough to photograph them on that journey, but I was determined to get some images of them before I left Scotland.

Scotland is home to the largest colony of Northern Gannets anywhere in the world. Every year over 150,000 congregate on Bass Rock, a small island off the coast of North Berwick. Viewed from a distance, Bass Rock appears almost white due to the sheer number of gannets covering every spare inch of its surface. The gannets scientific name – Morus Bassanus – comes from the name of the Island. I have a large panorama of Bass Rock I would like to embed into this post, but for some reason WordPress is refusing to display it properly at the moment – watch this space though…

The first logical step was to get as close to Bass Rock as possible. Unfortunately there are very few opportunities to land on the rock, and none coincided with the time I was around, so the next best option was to take one of the regular boat trips that go around the edge of the Island. The day I chose was thankfully much calmer than the one on which I want to May, and while the boat wasn’t ideal for photography, as it was constantly on the move, it did offer an incredible opportunity to see the gannets up close:


Gannet making a nest | Morus bassanus


Gannet | Morus bassanus


Gannet | Morus bassanus


Gannet | Morus bassanus


Gannet in Flight | Morus bassanus

The sheer number of birds on the Rock is astounding; there is barely any empty rock, and there are a constant stream of birds coming and going from the Island. The smell is also quite overwhelming – the rocks are streaked with gannet droppings, which have a very pungent, fishy odour.

There are a few other birds that have managed to find space amongst the gannets. The shags in particular stand out as specks of black in a sea of white.


Shag preening | Phalacrocorax aristotelis


Shag on nest | Phalacrocorax aristotelis

At this time of year the gannets are busy nest building and can be seen collecting seaweed to use in nest construction:


Gannet taking off after collecting seaweed


Gannet with beak full of seaweed

A few days after taking the boat trip around Bass Rock, I visited a beach further along the coast, hoping to get some photos of the Island from the shore. What I wasn’t expecting was to encounter an almost constant stream of gannets flying close to the shore. I made several trips back to the beach, each time experiencing incredibly close encounters (gannets don’t seem at all bothered by humans, in fact the first half of their scientific name “Morus” is derived from the Ancient Greek word moros meaning foolish – a name they were given because they were easily killed due to their fearlessness).

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Some were making shallow dives to collect seaweed:

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There were also some birds making high-speed dives – gannets can dive at speeds of up to 100km/h (c.60MPH), and reach depths of up to 5 meters. As they dive they draw their wings back and extend their neck so that they are completely streamlined on entering the water, as shown in the following sequence:

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The point of entry from a sightly different angle, showing the wings completely folded back:


Most of the birds passing were mature, however there were some younger birds as well. Birds that haven’t reached full maturity have darker wings – they gradually gain more white feathers with each moult:


Standing on the shore presented the opportunity to show the birds passing in front of Bass Rock:

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The beach was overlooked by the ruins of Tantallon Castle:

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Although the gannets held my attention for most of the time, it was also difficult to ignore the Fulmars which were nesting on cliffs overlooking the beach:

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About the author

William Harvey: Wildlife and nature photographer based in Surrey, England.

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