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Saturday, 04 July 2009 23:51

Birds of Scotland I: Bass Rock – wildlife wonder of the world


IMG_2088PSOne of the wildlife wonders of the world – this is how Sir David Attenborough called the rocky island standing up from the waters close to the coast some 35 km east of Edinburgh. When I saw the first pictures of Northern Gannet from Bass Rock on the internet, I realized that the documentary I watched few years ago and where David Attenborough is watching large Gannet colony was shot here on Bass Rock. scotland_bass_rockAt that time I thought that the documentary was shot somewhere far north in arctic waters. Bass Rock Gannetry is a very special place in several aspects – it is not only its location (just 2 km from the Scottish coast) and accessibility but mainly the fact, that it is the largest single-rock colony of Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) in the world. Although the information on the web are bit confusing – you can read that the largest colony is the Bonaventure Island in Canadian Quebec province (60 000 birds) or the Boreray Island (30 000 pairs), the part of St. Kilda archipelago but Bass Rock is indeed the largest, numbering about 50 000 nesting pairs and about the same number of single birds (Summer 2009). So is no wonder that the island itself gave the latin name to Northern Gannet – Morus bassanus.


IMG_1859PS The view of Bass Rock Island from North Berwick – the nearest spot on the Scottish coast is fascinating; a grey volcanic island with steep cliffs, maximum elevation 107 meters and extent of 3 ha is literally covered with white layer of Gannets and from a distance it might look like a beehive – that is because of the huge numbers of Gannets crossing the sky above the island in their never-ending journeys to the sea and back. When you see this, it is quite difficult to imagine the island becomes abandoned after the autumn migration.


IMG_2083PSBass Rock as most of the land in United Kingdom is kept by private owner but there is a possibility to visit the island through the Scottish Seabird Center, that is settled in North Berwick and has exclusive rights to land on the island. In summer months a small fisherman boat that can load on 10 visitors leaves from Dunbar harbour. The sailing takes an hour in maximum, then you stay for about 3 hours on the island (landing is weather permitting), the cost of the trip is 95 GBP per person. When you book the trip through www.photographersonsafari.com then the time spent on the island is a bit longer (4.5 hours) but you also pay adequately more money (149 GBP). Although quite expensive, these trips, that are run about 10 times per month during the season are being booked up pretty quickly – and it is no wonder, visiting the Bass Rock is really a spectacle and life-time experience!


1D3_2517PS The itinerary of each trip is identical – the boat crosses from Dunbar towards Bass Rock, here the visitors watch the feeding Gannets for about half an hour and then the landing on Bass Rock (weather permitting) follows. Fortunately the boat is stable enough and the captain experienced so the landing is possible most of the trips! The paths on the island are limited and the guide from the Scottish Seabird Center controls properly that you do not disturb the birds or walk across the places you are not allowed to – the penalty for breaking the rules or destroying the bird nest is not only the immediate departure from the island but it might reach up to 2000 GBP fine. The place designated for watching and photography of gannets is located just above the fortress and the lighthouse that is in about a middle of the height of the island on its east side.

















1D3_2885PSIt is really an experience to be in the middle of the birds` colony, especially when the birds are Gannets – beautiful big birds with fascinating blue-rimmed eyes and the place you are standing is the largest Gannet colony in the world! Ear-piercing shriek is all around and over us.1D3_2645PS Our guide is slowly progressing ahead into the colony and delimiting our space for next hours by rope fence. The weather is perfect, rather cloudy with casual short drizzles. As I expected, the number of Gannets is so great that there is no sense in trying wide and whole-bird shots – there would be lot of mess in the pictures. So I focus on the “portraits”, take out 500mm lens from the bag and mount it on 5D mark II body – this is what i have been looking forward to do all the time – to test the possibilities of the new full-frame for wildlife photography! i make few pictures to set up the correct manual exposure setting. At beginning Im a bit unsettled where to point my camera, but after a while I calm down and focus on tha places where „something happens“ – the single birds or the birds temporarily without a partner are rather quiet or watch for their partners coming back from the sea. IMG_1921PSMuch more interesting are the pairs who reunite again, they perform interesting rituals, chafe against each others beaks, gently nibbling each other, giving each other small presents like wood, feathers or see-weed and sometimes we can also see some pairs mating. Individual pairs are so squeezed in next to each other so quite often struggles burst between the birds, they scream to each other and with clinched beaks they fight for their small place on the rock. Gannets are accustomed to live on the sea and they are moving somewhat clumsily on land – sometimes some of the birds does not manage landing or taking-off and ends up in horrible-looking crash few meters below on the rocky slope. So there is plenty to see on the island. We have also seen some new-born chicks (16.6.2009) and the others were on the way – but there are restrictions to come near to the nests with chicks because the adults could leave their nests and the chicks would become easy prey for near-watching gulls.






I’m mounting 135mm lens to my camera in order to make some nice picture with this real-portrait objective but I give up after a while – although it is allowed to get close to the single Gannets, I would have to get very close to them and I do not want to disturb them more than it is necessary. So I get back to 500mm lens and try some birds-in-flight pictures but that does not produce much, the pictures are not worth making because of the dark clouds in the background. So I get back to portrait photography but now I set the lens on 1D III body – what if the pictures from 5D II went wrong?! You can never judge the quality of your pictures on the small LCD screen of your camera so it is better to keep the finger on the shutter and look at the pictures later at PC. After two hours we get a message that the weather is changing and we have to quickly leave the island thus losing 2 hours of watching and photography. This was unfortunately not the last bad news – right the next day the whole trip to Farne Island, which should had been the „top“ of the Scotland trip. has been cancelled. On the other hand this was just another reason why to come back and see the Bass Rock (and Farne Island) again. Bass Rock trip was an unforgettable experience and first of all – the pictures taken with both cameras were OK :-)




Related articles:

Birds of Scotland II: east coast – Fowlsheugh and Troup Head

Birds of Scotland III: Cliff colonies of North and West coast

Birds of Scotland IV: A few notes from Outer Hebrides


Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 February 2011 08:29
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