In the weeks running up to our East Coast Seabird Safari, we began to get very worried that the unusually late Spring was going to cause great difficulty in providing enough shooting opportunities for our clients. We had timed the workshop to coincide with the time when Puffins are usually frantically catching Sandeels to feed their newborn chicks but with Spring this year being almost 2 months late, everything else was happening much later too. We were so concerned that we actually carried out two pre-workshop recce trips instead of the usual one.
Our safari began with a trip to Anstruther on the Fife Coast, where we boarded the May Princess for the 45 minute sail to the Isle of May. This beautiful little island boasts the oldest lighthouse in Scotland (c.1636), a ruined 12th Century monastery and is a National Nature Reserve, hosting Scotland's oldest bird observatory, founded in 1934. The island plays host to several important seabird species during the breeding season, including Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags, Cormorants, Eiders, Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, Arctic Terns and up to 60,000 pairs of Puffins!
On alighting from the boat, everyone got a unique welcome to the island from the colony of Arctic Terns which nest right beside the jetty. These fiercely territorial birds will attack any animal that strays close to their nest scrapes and their razor-sharp beaks can often draw blood. Before we could escape from the onslaught, one of the researchers based on the island had to give everyone a briefing warning us not to leave the paths, as many of the Puffin burrows are right next to the path and stepping off could collapse the burrows.
Arctic Tern sitting on eggs in its scrape
Arctic Tern starting his attack run on the photographers
It became clear pretty quickly that the Puffins had still not had their chicks, indeed many of them had not even paired up yet but there were, at least, plenty of them around to photograph; even if we couldn't get the classic "beak full of Sandeels" shots.
Puffin posing for the camera
Although there was a lack of frantic activity from the Puffins, there was plenty going on with the other birds; some of which was not so good news for the Puffins! The Lesser Black-Backed Gulls had already nested and many were hatching chicks, which needed to be fed. Puffins make a good meal for the Lesser Blackie and it was no surprise when we came across one that was in the process of killing a Puffin.
The sadness of seeing the untimely end of a Puffin was certainly tempered when we found a Lesser Black-Backed Gull on her nest, with one freshly-hatched chick and two eggs. Up close, these are surprisingly pretty birds and the little chick, with his Leopard-spot camoflage was delightful.
The Isle of May, as well as being a Puffin city, is one of the best places to photograph Shags in Scotland. We found several at the old jetty on the other side of the island and on the cliffs near the old monastery, we found several nesting pairs, including some sitting on eggs.
Shag with a very prominent research ring
This visit to the Isle of May did not provide the classic Puffin with Sandeels shots we were hoping for but there was still plenty of drama to witness and photo-opportunities and we still had to run the gauntlet of Arctic Terns to get back to the boat!
Arctic Tern swooping in to attack
Karen running the Arctic Tern gauntlet to get back to the boat
Day Two began with a trip to the RSPB Fowlsheugh Reserve at Crawton, just south of Stonehaven. There was a good deal of satisfied chatter about the previous day's events and images along the way. There was a chill wind as we arrived at Crawton and the grey sky seemed to be threatening rain. Fortunately the weather remained dry, if a little cold and blustery. As we headed towards the cliffs, we found a Skylark using one of the information boards as a convenient perch to rest on before delivering its catch of insects to its brood.
Skylark with a beak full of goodies for its brood
On arrival at the cliffs, we were treated to a glimpse of a Kittiwake's two eggs, as she stood up from the nest to preen herself. There were also plenty of Razorbills and Guillemots around, although the Guillemots were nesting much lower down the cliffs than previously. The cliffs were so full that real estate for nesting on was at a premium and there were plenty of fights going on for the best spots, especially among the Herring Gulls. We also found a solitary Puffin pair who popped in and out of their burrow in turns.
Kittiwake preening on her nest
Razorbill exercising its wings among the Sea Pinks
Puffin takes a nosey outside its burrow
Fulmar flying over the Guillemot colony far below
Herring Gulls fighting for nesting space on the crowded cliffs
Fulmar getting chased away from a nest site by the current tennant
Excuse the quality. This was taken hand-held with just the on-board microphone on the A99, so there will be some movement,
voices of some of the other photographers and wind noise. I thought it would be good to include to give you an idea of how the battles played out.
Notice how the pairs go back to bonding once they have sorted out the territorial dispute.
From Crawton, we headed up to Aberdeen intending to photograph Turnstones, Redshanks, Sandwich Terns and Oystercatchers by the shore just outside the harbour. However, the birds did not show, so instead we watched the local pod of Bottlenose Dolphins leaping and bow-riding the oil supply vessels as they entered the harbour.
Bottlenose Dolphin bow-riding an oilfield supply vessel as it enters Aberdeen Harbour
Day Three began with an early start for the long drive up to Scotland's only mainland Gannet colony at the RSPB Reserve at Troup Head, near Banff on the Moray Firth. Normally, we would have been arriving as the first chicks appeared but with Spring being so late this year, most of the Gannets were still bonding and nest-building, with only a few having laid eggs. This could prove costly later in the year, when they have to begin the long migration to southern Africa, as the chicks may not have grown strong enough to make the journey safely.
The Gannets pack themselves close together in their colonies, with very little of the argy-bargy seen with other seabirds
Gannet preening on the nest
Preparing for take-off
From Troup Head, we travelled south again to the Bullers of Buchan, where once again we photographed Puffins and Shags. From there we headed to our final destination, the Ythan Estuary at Newburgh, where we hoped to photograph Sandwich and Little Terns and the huge Eider colony. However, there was a children's windsurfing class taking place at Newburgh and this caused most of the birds to head far out into the estuary. There were a few curious Grey Seals hanging around to watch the kids, so we photographed them instead.
Puffins outside their burrow
Shag on the nest
Shag with egg on the nest
Grey Seals in the Ythan Estuary
The solitary female Eider we found close enough to photograph at Newburgh
After Newburgh, we said our goodbyes and headed our seperate ways. Although the late Spring had meant we missed out on some of the shots we had planned, there were plenty of others we had not expected and everyone seemed pleased with the experiences of this safari and the shots they were able to get.
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