Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Bass Rock Gannets

Yesterday me and a couple of friends headed over to the east coast of Scotland to visit the gannet colony on Bass Rock, and what an incredible experience it was! I'm not completely sure how to describe it all, because (as we were told at the start of the trip) the experience is pretty overwhelming but hopefully I try can do it some justice.

NOTE: As always, please click on the images to see them full size (and decent quality).

Looking for more tips on how to take the perfect shot? Check out my 'how to' guides for tips on photographing birds in flight, photography at sea and composing a great wildlife photograph.

Bass Rock
Image of Bass Rock as it was in 1690. From The Scotichronicon, 1867.

Bass Rock itself is a small, uninhabited island located off the south-east coast of Scotland in the Firth of Forth, protruding 120m above the surface of the sea and with a fascinating history. The island is a 'volcanic plug', which explains its steep slopes and distinctive appearance. Although it was historically used as an early Christian retreat (particularly by St. Baldred, a 6th century hermit), fortified with a castle by Lauder of the Bass (13th century), used as a crown prison (17th Century) and latterly, the site of a lighthouse (built in 1902 and unmanned since 1988), the island is now uninhabited by humans and instead has been completely taken over by gannets (Morus bassanus). With 150,000 individuals visiting the island every year to nest and breed, Bass Rock is the largest single colony of northern gannets found anywhere on Earth and has been described by David Attenborough himself as one of the 'wildlife wonders of the world'. Gannets are one of my favourite animals, and to say that I was excited about visiting the colony is a bit of an understatement!

The Bass Rock Gannets
I've been trying to get out to Bass Rock for about the last three years, but between the typical vagaries of Scottish weather and three busy summers of fieldwork it never worked out. Fortunately, this year was (finally) different and on Friday afternoon we got confirmation that our early-morning trip the next day was definitely going ahead. Of course, that's still no guarantee that it will be safe to land on Bass Rock itself, so there was always a possibility that we'd get out there and find out that we couldn't go ashore.

Bass Rock looming out of the fog

So on Saturday morning, we were up bright and early to meet our guide, Maggie Sheddan at 6.30am at Dunbar harbour and the boat (a local fishing boat, the Fisher Lassie) which would take us across to the island. The forecast for the day was good, but since the morning was about as foggy as I've ever seen, it was impossible to tell what conditions on the rock would be like. The journey out to the island took about an hour, and we could see virtually nothing except the occasional pieces of floating debris and fishing buoys looming out of the fog which made it all seem a little surreal! Eventually though, the steep volcanic cliffs loomed up ahead of us out of the fog and we were told it was safe to land! Hooray!

Every inch of free space is taken up by the gannets

Stepping off the little boat, everything about the island really hits you at once. The smell of hundreds of thousands of birds hits you eye-wateringly hard, while small groups of gannets, shags and gulls squawk all around you on the lower slopes and wheel overhead, and the walls of the ruined castle loom above you, with the stark white lighthouse towering up behind them and the sheer vertical seacliffs behind that. The paths leading up to the main part of the gannet colony are narrow, uneven and covered in bird faeces, fallen stones and marked with occasional carcasses of gannets which didn't survive the year. The path climbs steeply, passing through the overgrown castle ruins and finally out into the main gannet colony, where the noise rises to a cacophony of squeaks and squawks as the birds constantly remind each other (and us) of territorial boundaries. Combined with the constant blanket of swirling, thick fog it was a truly incredible experience!

Taking photographs on the way up the rock.

Fortunately, Maggie is obviously used to leading overwhelmed photographers around the colony and gave us a few minutes to just take it all in while she went to set up the paths we could use and our 'base' for the three hours we would be on the island, pointing out which individual birds we should avoid disturbing, and recommending that we just stop and watch the birds and their behaviours for a while. Even after spending just a few minutes watching them like this, it was immediately obvious that this was excellent advice and that we were in a wildlife photographer's heaven. Birds everywhere were performing their whole range of behaviours including their terrority-marking 'bowing' displays; 'beak-fencing' and 'sky pointing' were also being shown as part of the courtship displays between pairs, and the aggressive calling, lunging and pecking of animals that encroach too closely on another bird's territory was happening everywhere. On top of all of that, we'd obviously got the timing right for seeing the chicks at their fluffiest which was just too cute for words!

Our guide, Maggie, checking the gannets around our 'base'. The ground is effectively made of poo!

After a little while, we were led up the newly marked paths through a gauntlet of aggressively territorial parents (yes those beaks hurt about as much as you'd expect them to!) and up to a clear, flat patch with no nests where we could base ourselves and wander around to our heart's content. It's worth noting that the 'ground' was basically hardened bird poo though so it's not somewhere to wear your best clothes or bring food you need to eat with your hands!

It was kind of hard to concentrate with so much cuteness everywhere!

I'd gone on the trip prepared with a bit of a 'wish list' of photographs I hoped to take, which turned out to be a pretty good idea since half my brain refused to do anything useful for about an hour (it was stuck on 'wow!'). I'd read a lot of other trip reports where people were recommending 500mm lenses for portraits, but that length isn't really necessary (though I won't argue with the quality you get from the primes!) as we were able to be incredibly close to the gannets without disturbing them. Maggie explained that because they're territorial themselves, if you sit down quietly in one spot they'll simply assume that you've 'claimed' that space for yourself and will ignore you and behave completely normally.

Since I already have a lot of flight shots from the fishing boats and it was still foggy when we arrived, I started the day using my 300mm F4 IS for close-up portraits and detail shots which worked pretty well I think:

An adult gannet 'sky pointing' as part of its courtship ritual

A young chick appears from underneath its parent.

These are simply too cute for words.

An adult 'sky pointing'

I was also keen to get wide-angle shots of the colony, for which I used my 17-40mm F4 lens and the 70-200mm F4:

Balancing for a scratch

Getting in close with the wide angle lens

Using the 70-200mm to pick out individuals

Lastly, I wanted to try and get shots of the gannets coming in to land. This wasn't such a high priority since I already have a lot of in-flight shots from working on the fishing boats, but as the morning wore on, the fog began to lift a little and more and more of the birds starting taking flight. By about 11am, there was a constant stream of birds coming and going from the colony, and the ridiculous way they land was too good an opportunity to miss! It seems like they'll fly in so far, put the brakes on hard about a metre off the ground and then basically plummet into whatever happens to be underneath them. If they happen to crash in the wrong part of the colony they then have their own gauntlet to run past aggressive territory-holders! It was hilarious to watch and offered some great photo opportunities. For this set, I used my 70-200mm F4 to get a bit of flexibility in the zoom range and because they were moving far too fast and close for the 300mm.

Coming in to land. Hope there's space!

Putting the brakes on

Landing gear deployed!

Finally, after an incredibly short three hours it was time to leave again and we were taken back down to the Fisher Lassie. With the fog lifting a bit it was finally possible to see just how steep and wild the Bass Rock really is.

Bass Rock

On any other trip it would have been disappointing to have to leave the colony after what felt like such a short time, but we knew we still had another spectacle in store for us on the way back in. The boat took us a short distance out from the island, and began to 'chum' the water, throwing old fish out to bait the gannets in. We had been warned that this would be fast and furious, but that doesn't really do it justice! The gulls arrived first, and the first gannets started coming about 30 seconds later, making shallow dives into the water for the fish. A few minutes later and the sky was black with birds, all careening into the water and jostling for the fish (almost as much as we were jostling for spaces around the sides of the boat!). Most people (myself included at first!) adopted the 'spray and pray' approach to shooting the spectacle, because it is simply too hard to focus on what is happening in front of you. The display lasts longer than you expect it will (about 5 minutes) though, and as before, taking a few moments to watch the huge flock of feeding birds will help you make sense of the chaos and put together a photograph that works well. I started off with my wide angle lens to try and get a photograph that conveyed some sense of the sheer numbers of birds circling and diving around us, but I needed to stop and step back for a minute before I got anything worthwhile.

Feeding chaos around the boat!
I also wanted to try and separate individuals from the crowd, and for that I switched to my trusty 70-200mm lens (though I only used the wide end). Because the birds were making shallow dives from a low height, there wasn't much time to track them once they started diving so I found the best thing to do was to pick and track an individual in flight well before it indicated that it was going to dive. Sometimes they dived, sometimes they didn't, but there were more than enough opportunities to try again and I found this strategy worked really well (geeky science fact: this is also how predators cope when hunting 'grouped' animals e.g. lions vs. a herd of gazelle, hawks vs. flocks of prey birds, dophins vs. baitballs of sardines).

Banking round ready to dive

Gannet diving by the boat

Needless to say this final diving event was stunning. It felt like we were under a low ceiling the whole time and seeing that many gannets all flying, feeding, diving and swimming at once was a truly incredible experience, and I'm glad I took a pause from the camera to just watch it for a little while.

Finally after all that, we returned back to Dunbar harbour, exhausted, elated and covered in poo! It is not a trip for the faint-hearted, as the island is completely wild and there are no facilities, but it is so worth doing if you have any interest at all in wildlife. Finally, I would like to thank our exceptionally knowledgeable guide, Maggie for all her advice and information on getting the most out of our time on the island. It was an incredible experience and I hope I'll be able to get back there again next year!

For more gannet pictures from this trip and many others, check out my Gannets Gallery 

Getting There
Landing trips to the Bass Rock gannet colony are run exclusively by the Scottish Seabird Centre, and run through the summer months every year out of Dunbar Harbour. Depending on when you choose to visit, you can expect to see different behaviours from the birds, from pair-bonding rituals and nest-building at the start of the season, incubating eggs and young chicks through the middle of the summer and larger, nearly-fledged chicks by the end of the summer in August-September. I booked my trip for early August because I wanted the chance to photograph the chicks while they were still fluffy, but large enough to be easily seen, and I certainly wasn't disappointed! Of course, wildlife doesn't operate on strict schedules and even at this later stage of the summer we were still able to see all the typical adult behaviours.

Current tickets prices are £120 per adult (2015 prices) and you can choose between 7am or 1pm start times. You can also book online here.

My kit bag: