A couple of weeks back we decided to have a week up North in Nairn. We were driving up and decided to take the longer, more beautiful coastal route as there was a couple of places we really wanted to see.
Our first stop was Scotland’s only hidden village; featured in one of my parent’s favourite films Local Hero, Pennan.
After driving down a steep hazardous road you enter an idyllic fishing village which is a perfect place to have a picnic and a stroll.
Once we had explored the village we moved on to our next, very different location. RSPB Trouphead, home to Scotland’s only mainland Gannet colony! Further down the main road you take a turn off onto a small farm road. You follow this road through a working farm, follwing the RSPB signs at every junction until you reach the car park. From there you have a 10 to 15 minute walk to the sea cliffs. The walk takes you through a beautiful wheat field.
As you get closer to the reserve you are treated to some incredible views of the Scottish coastline.
Once you are eventually in the reserve you are met by a crossroads, a red and a blue walking path. Each path leads to a different area of the cliffs, the red path to the right leads to an area where you can best see Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes (which were all out at sea by now) and the blue path to the left leads to a viewing point where you can get up close to the gannets. Of course, we took the red path first to get to the cliffs and saw only a couple of Gannets before walking back and then taking the blue path (you’ve been warned!).
It was a really windy day, so even though we knew we were very close to huge colony of large seabirds (mainly due to the smell!) we really couldn’t hear a thing. That changed dramatically when we arrived at the viewing point.
Thousands of brids were busy squabbling on the steep cliffs..
Hundreds more were either flying out to sea or returning from a fishing trip, circling in the air until there was room to land.
The Northern Gannet is easily one of the most distinguishable seabirds, bright white with black wing tips, bright blue eyes and a golden head it is the largest seabird in the North Atlantic with a wingspan on up to 2m and also one of the most photogenic.
The gannets come to these sea cliffs and many other similar locations around Scoltand in the summer to breed. The colonies in Scoltand are estimated to be home to 180,000 breeding pairs which is roughly 40% of the world’s gannet population! The Bass Rock is also the largest gannet colony (also known as gannetry) in the world!
Returning from there winter migration in North-West Africa the gannets come back to the same breeding area to breed with the same partner every year as they mate for life. The pair likely won’t see one another over winter but will easily recognise one another once they have returned to their breeding grounds. When the couple meet they engage in a greeting ritual known as ‘billing’ where they cross beaks while looking skyward. They engage in this ritual every time they meet.
Once reunited the couple set about finding their own quiet spot on the cliffs to build a nest. Gannets are very territorial so landing on the wrong cliff edge or getting too close to your neighbour can cause a ruckus.
Once they’ve found their spot they use seaweed, sticks, grass anything they can easily get their beaks on to build their nest. Once built, each couple will only lay one egg. Seeing two eggs in a nest is very rare and usually only happens because a gannet mistakes another birds nest for its own. The chick stays on the cliffs after hatching for roughly 11 weeks before flying down onto the water where it will learn to fly and fish.
During our visit the chicks would have only been 3 to 4 weeks away from leaving the breeding grounds but they were still mostly big balls of fuzz wanting to be fed.
Some were a lot less fuzzy and were closer to fledging than others.
As we were watching the chicks stretch their wings and get preened by their parents the wind picked up a lot and since it was getting later in the day and we still had a fair bit of driving to do we decided to make our way back to the car. As we were walking back along the cliffs we were treated to watching some adults fishing out at sea.
Gannets are incredible at fishing. They dive almost vertically into the water from a big height hitting the water at speeds up to 60mph. Unfortunately they were fishing far into the distance which although we could see with our naked eyes we couldn’t capture on camera. I hope to make this a future post from a boat trip or even better, a snorkeling adventure! so keep your eyes peeled.
Our tips for a visit;
1.) Make sure you wear appropriate clothing, especially footwear. The seacliffs are very windy and even on a really hot day like the day we visited it can get pretty chilly. I would definitely advise wearing a good pair of boots as you are walking on uneven ground around the cliff edges and some waterproofs just in case the weather turns on you. Be careful around the cliffs, they are very high so don’t get to close. Be particularly careful when using a camera, I know you always want to get that bit closer to make your pictures better but it’s not always worth it.
2.) A visit to Pennan is a must! This beautiful village is less than 15 minutes drive away from the car park and is really worth seeing. Make sure to take care on the steep, windy, single lane road into the village and then once in enjoy the views! If you have a bit more time you can also visit the other small local villages Crovie and Gardenstown which are equally as beautiful.
3.) Feel free to check out this RSPB page about the decline of Seabirds if you’ve been inspired by these beautiful birds!
Thanks for reading!
Elliot & Kirsten