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23 September 2014
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Rocky Islands - Bass Rock

Bird paradise

Gannets on Bass Rock

Bass Rock is one of the most distinctive landmarks in Scotland, jutting out abruptly from the Firth of Forth.

Seabirds love islands like Bass Rock because they are safe from predators and have a plentiful supply of food.

Bass Rock is sea bird central in the summer.


A hundred thousand birds live cheek by jowl, occupying every single available space.

In common with the other Forth islands, the rock is the remains of a volcano - over millions of years the sea has worn away the softer layers of rock, leaving only a hard plug of solidified lava.

Bass has been part of many significant events in Scottish history.

It was a religious retreat in early Christianity, and a fortress and prison during the time of the Jacobites.

It also had a strategic position during many wars between Scotland and England.

Summer spectacle

Gannet on nestAs visitors approach Bass Rock in the middle of summer, it looks like it's covered in snow, but this is actually the sight of tens of thousands of Atlantic Gannets, who've come from the west coast of Africa to nest on the island.

Bass Rock has the biggest Gannet colony in Britain, and a trip to see it as an extraordinary sight and experience - the drama of the Gannets' lives unfolds just a few feet from you.

As well as the Gannets, other seabirds nest at Bass Rock - Shags nest not far from the splash zone, Guillemots crowd the lower ledges, and Kittiwakes can be spotted on narrowest ledges of the cliffs.

The bird prefers wind blown stacks to enable vertical takeoff and landing.

The male Gannet invests a deal of energy in his nest site which he keeps for life.

He defends it by his presence and display for a bigger part of each year than does any other seabird.

When the chicks are ready, they jump off the ledge on cliff and fly out to sea.

Many don't make it. Those that do are unlikely to return for three or four years.

Every July, many of the birds are beginning to leave but the Gannets stay on the rock until autumn.

Gorgeous Gannets

Gannet headGannets are one of the UK's largest sea birds.

The birds themselves demand attention with their striking white plumage and golden heads.

Gannets have probably nested on Bass for many thousands of years, but in recent centuries they were exploited for their meat, eggs, oil and feathers.

GANNET FACT FILE

* The birds have a wingspan of just under two metres.

* They slam into the sea like missiles, descending at speeds of over 90 mph to depths of 30 feet below sea level.

* The Gannet are designed for high speed impact as they hit water - they have built in safety features including a skull like a crash helmet and a throat pouch that swells like a driver's air bag.

*Gannets are fiercely territorial and very aggressive to neighbours and even their mates.

* Egg laying tends to be sychronised in one area so chicks tend to be same age.

During Victorian times the Gannets were hunted by shooting parties.

Since then the birds have become protected species, and their population has risen dramatically over the last 20-30 years.

Gannets have many advantages over other sea birds as they can forage over wide area.

The Bass Gannets are known to fish as far away as Norway, and feed on wide range of species, diving deep to hunt for them.

This means that while other seabird populations fluctuate, Gannet populations keep on growing.

The larger the population, the bigger the increase in numbers each year.

Nesting birds

PuffinThe Gannets' nests are densely packed with about three per square metre, just beyond pecking distance.

Usually the birds mate for life and recognise sound of their mates, ensuring they don't land on the wrong nest and get attacked.

The adult birds return to Bass in January or February while the weather is still poor but they want to ensure that no bird has pinched his territory.

Look out for the gannet equivalent of kissing - bill fencing, which pairs do to reaffirm their own bond.

If a Gannet is about to leave its nest, it adopts a peculiar posture pointing its beak towards the sky which signals its intention.

Its mate then remains on the nest.

Also look out for Peregrines on Fidra and Puffins in May.

 

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