Monday, 10 February 2014

The Bass Rock and The Northern Gannets

The inhospitable but amazing Bass Rock
The Bass Rock, or simply 'The Rock' as it is referred to by locals, is a volcanic plug that rises out of the waters of Scotland's Firth of Forth and dates back some 320 million years. It shares a common ancestry with the not too distant Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh and also Castle Rock on top of which stands Edinburgh's world famous castle.

To reach Bass Rock necessitates crossing the waters at the mouth of the Firth and Forth and it is only when doing so that you realise just how inhospitable and inaccessible The Rock is. Even in a gentle breeze the waters around the steep cliffs that rise from the depths have a notorious swell and dangerous swirling currents that make landing on The Rock very difficult.

Trips to the Bass Rock can only be arranged through the Scottish Seabird Centre in nearby North Berwick as they have exclusive landing rights. I have made the crossing on a small traditional Scottish fishing trawler and there is only one place where the boat can manoeuvre alongside the cliffs to permit me to disembark. It is not an easy operation and involves a delicate approach to a steep staircase that forms part of the vertical cliffs. The boat rises and falls precariously as the crew get a temporary mooring and the few of us who have made this crossing disembark.

Once off the boat, it is a short climb to a more level area and here I get the first chance to take in my surroundings. Over to the west I can clearly see the Scottish Coastline and above me The Rock still towers ever higher but it is the birds that dominate the scene. Everywhere I look there are thousands and thousands of seabirds. The sky is full of them and those that aren't flying cover the rocks and cliffs all around me.

Seabirds cover the Bass Rock
I climb higher and come to an old fortified wall through which I have to pass before continuing. It is here that I first become aware of the dark secrets of this place. Although unoccupied today it was not always so and The Rock has a sinister past. In the 6th century it was home to St Baldred, a Christian missionary and recluse and the place where I am now standing is the site of an ancient castle dating back to the 13th century. It was also the site of a crown prison in the latter part of the 17th century. Here, in terrible conditions, many Covenanters and Jacobite supporters were imprisoned and died for their beliefs. Being at the mouth of the Forth on the approach to Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh resulted in Bass Rock becoming an important part of Scotland’s historic defences  Canons from the castle could fire down on approaching ships and Mary Queen of Scots had a garrison here, including French troops, in the early 16th century. The dank history of the place is palpable in the crumbling stones around my feet.

A further climb takes me to the site of an ancient chapel. This is as far as I can go and standing below the 105metre summit of the Rock that still rises above me I find myself in the middle of the largest single-rock gannet colony in the world. Sixty thousand breeding pairs of northern gannets surround me.

Northern Gannet with Nesting Material
Birds soar overhead, some carry nesting material while others proffer seaweed and feathers as courtship gifts to their mates. 
Chicks and parents sit on nests so densely packed that there are more than two nests to every square metre of ground. Looking down to the sea I watch gannets fold their wings and turn themselves into avian missiles plunging up to five metres into the water at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour (96 km/hour) in search of fish. The scale of the spectacle is breathtaking. 

Northern Gannet with Gifts for his Mate
The northern gannet  is the largest indigenous seabird to be found in the UK with a wingspan of just under two metres. Some 60% of Europe’s gannets make Scotland their breeding ground and the latin name of the species, Morus bassanus reflects the significance of Bass Rock in its classification. They have a lifespan of up to 35 years. Mature birds are strikingly white with a long neck and yellow blush around their heads and weigh around 2.4–3.6kg. The ends of their wings are black. They have long pointed grey-blue beaks with black linear markings and a stunningly vivid blue eye surround. Early records reveal that gannets have been occupying The Rock since at least the 6th century. Bass Rock offers a safe and suitably remote site with an adjacent rich supply of fish. It is an ideal location for raising offspring. Although most gannets start to settle on The Rock from March some will arrive as early as late January. Most will stay until late October although some may leave earlier.

Mature Northern Gannet
Young birds usually pair at around three years of age with pair bonds generally lasting for life. Once the mature birds have arrived on Bass Rock they await their mate whose arrival will instigate a courtship and bonding ritual comprised of stretching wings accompanied by often prolonged rubbing and ‘fencing’ with their distinctive beaks. They are highly territorial and nest sites are fought over and protected fiercely. Straying into another pair’s territory will result in a noisy confrontation and often an unpleasant clash of beaks. One of the reasons these birds prefer rocky stacks is that the wind uplift permits an almost vertical take off and landing from the nest site. A bird that has to walk through the territories of others in order to reach its nest will be made to suffer.  

Northern Gannet with Chick
Only a single egg is laid, usually between mid April and mid June and it will hatch around six weeks later. One parent remains with the chick at all times while the other searches for food comprising mainly fish. The parents will feed the bird for about 11 weeks after which time it will attempt the dangerous journey of gliding down to the sea. This is the stage at which the young bird, or guga as it is known, and its parents separate. Alone at sea, gugas have to learn quickly how to fly and fish in preparation for their journey south along with the rest of the gannets in October. At this stage the mortality rate is high with approximately 75% of youngsters coming to grief during their descent or succumbing to starvation and exhaustion in the ensuing weeks.

Northern Gannet with Chick
With much talk in the news these days about dwindling fish stocks it is good to see the gannets faring well. Part of the reason for this is that summer fishing is generally good on the rich fishing banks close to The Rock. However, the birds are capable of travelling significant distances to get food and have been recorded fishing as far away as 200km from Bass Rock. Because of this they fare better than some other seabird species.

For gannets born on Bass Rock those that survive the harsh journey towards adulthood will head to areas around the Mediterranean with some traveling down the west coast of Africa. Some of the young birds will return to the place of their birth in their second year although for others it may be later and they may make the journey several times before being ready to breed.

As I leave the Bass Rock behind and return to the Scottish mainland I am in no doubt that I have witnessed one of the world’s most amazing wildlife experiences on an ancient rock that has also played a significant part in Scotland’s history.

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Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

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