Bass Rocks

From a distance it looks like snow. Only when you look closer with the aid of high powered optics do you realise the snowflakes have wings. Gannets. Tens of thousands of gannets. Wheeling around a tall offshore slab of volcanic rock, festooning every conceivable nook on its barren surface, carpeting the ledges, cramming onto narrow shelves and forming floating flotillas around its base. A truly awesome sight that cannot fail to impress all who make the short boat trip to experience the spectacle that is nesting season on Bass Rock.

As you draw nearer to the colony small parties of these large ocean wanderers appear close to. Some have clumps of seaweed in their beaks; males arrowing single-mindedly towards the rock to reinforce their nests. Others have possibly been fishing far away from home, perhaps off the Norwegian coast, and are returning to feed their single young. But it is only when the sheer cliffs loom close, dwarfing your tiny boat and rendering it and all its passengers insignificant, that the sheer numbers of birds on show becomes clear. It is truly breathtaking. Thousands of pristine bright white birds float around the cliff tops using updrafts to glide en masse in huge whirling clouds; more thousands litter the sloping surface sitting atop their seaweed nests placed with precision exactly a beak lunge apart from its neighbour; and more thousands still loaf on the sea preening, bathing or resting. The visual stimulation is enough to overwhelm; add the pungent aroma and the cacophony of noise and all senses are overloaded. Seldom is it possible to get so close to wild birds, but here, as in many seabird cities, we are privileged to be tolerated to within touching distance. Maybe the dozing eye may momentarily be half opened, maybe an inquiring head will be turned, possibly a beak may half-heartedly be pointed towards us in mock threat, but we are generally pretty much ignored as we slowly cruise around the base of the 100 metre high pillar. The scene is ever changing. There is constant motion. Birds are incessantly coming and going, gracefully approaching at speed to effect an awkward landing amongst the hordes, or bill pointing skyward prior to an effortless launch into the warm summer sea breeze.

Younger birds, those not yet mature enough to breed, but hopeful, are relegated to the bottom tier. Here they congregate in teenage gangs watching the antics of the older birds with envy, learning their mating rituals, watching the intimacies between bonded pairs and waiting for their plumage to morph into pristine adulthood. Maybe next year.

Whilst the overwhelming majority of birds here are gannets, there are other species exploiting the isolation of the rock to raise their young. On the narrowest ledges and in the darker coves guillemots, razorbills and shags can be found in small numbers adding their own screeches and guttural squawking to the melee.

The gannet colony on Bass Rock is one of natures true wonders, it is within striking distance folks and is so well worth a visit.  Words cannot do it justice and photographs only provide a reminiscent flavour of what it is really like, however I hope you get an idea of what it is like and I will post some pics when I return home. Next stop Orkney.





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