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Bringing People Closer to Nature The Scottish Seabird Centre is an independent charity dedicated to inspiring people to appreciate and care for wildlife and the natural environment. Support the Centre and enjoy unlimited access all year by becoming a member. For further information contact us on 01620 890202 or at

Scottish Seabird Centre • The Harbour North Berwick • EH39 4SS

The Souvenir Guide

Scottish Seabird Centre • The Harbour North Berwick • EH39 4SS

JULY The breeding season comes to a close for all species except gannets and fulmars. Guillemots and razorbills have gone to sea by mid-July, puffins almost all gone by the end of the month. Gannet chicks are at the large, fluffy-white stage. Shag juveniles form groups with adults. Fulmar chicks appear. Gull and tern chicks start to fledge.



First winter visitors such as turnstones arrive back. Gannet chicks change from white to dark juvenile plumage. Kittiwake juveniles form flocks along with adults, heading out to sea by mid-month. Fulmar chicks fledge. Shags, eiders and gulls can still be seen.

Many gannet chicks are fully fledged and start to leave for Africa. Winter visitor numbers increase. Eiders, shags, cormorants, gulls and peregrines present.

Most gannets leave the Bass by the end of the month. Eiders, peregrines, shags, cormorants and gulls present. Winter visitors such as knot, purple sandpipers and turnstones increase in number. Grey seal numbers start to build on the May for the breeding season – pups are born most days from the second week.

Eiders, peregrines, shags, cormorants and gulls present. Winter visitors such as knot, purple sandpipers and turnstones reach peak numbers. Grey seals arrive to pup on Craigleith. On the May, grey seal numbers peak at about 3,000 – pups are born most days. Pups born in October moult and are weaned.

Eiders, peregrines, shags, cormorants and gulls in evidence, as well as knot, purple sandpipers and turnstones. First fulmars return after three months at sea. Grey seal numbers dwindle, but a few pups and adults are still around into late December.

Wildlife calendar

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Bringing People Closer to Nature The Scottish Seabird Centre is an independent charity dedicated to inspiring people to appreciate and care for wildlife and the natural environment. Registered Scottish charity SC025837 Support the Seabird Centre and enjoy unlimited access all year, email wildlife updates, discounts in the Cafe, Shop and on boat trips, as well as newsletters and special events. For further information call 01620 890202 or email

Credits Written by Anna Levin Production Editor: Lynda Dalgleish Editors: Tom Brock and John Hunt Designed and published by Creative Link, North Berwick ( Front cover: photography by Laurie Campbell, Laurie Campbell Photography ( except for grey seal pup by Danny Green and puffins billing by Andy Rouse. Back cover: Clockwise from top: Bass Rock, late 17th Century, artist unknown. Reproduced by kind permission of Sir Hew HamiltonDalrymple; two gannets, Tom Brock; boat trip, Lynda Dalgleish; and Professor David Bellamy OBE and grand-daughter by Epic Scotland. Photographs by Laurie Campbell, Laurie Campbell Photography (, except for the following: Page 4: John Boak Page 5 Clockwise from top: unknown, East Lothian Council Museum & Libraries; unknown; Tom Dodds. Page 6 Tom Dodds Page 7 Tom Dodds Page 8 Clockwise from top: Lynda Dalgleish; Epic Scotland; Nick Sidle, Heartstone Page 9 Clockwise from top: Douglas Robertson; Lynda Dalgleish; Douglas Robertson Page 10 Angus Bremner; Paul Prince Page 11 Simon Grosset ( Page 13 Top left: Douglas Robertson; Peter Barlow, Outersight ( Page 14 Main picture: Jane McMinn Page 19 Isle of May inset: Scottish Natural Heritage Page 20 Main picture: Ken Clark, Wolfshead Photographic Page 22 Main picture: Danny Green Page 24 Main picture: Derek Braid, Braid Image ( Page 28-29 photographs by Laurie Campbell, except for gannet pair, Tom Brock; puffins billing by Andy Rouse;

great black backed and lesser black backed gulls, unknown; herring gull, John Hunt; sandwich tern by Andrew Easton Page 32 John Muir c1902. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, Library of Congress Page 34 Main picture: Christine Howson Page 35 small insets Christine Howson Pg 36 Main picture: Michael Macgregor, Michael Macgregor Photography ( Page 38 Main picture: Derek Braid, Braid Image ( Drawings generously donated by John Busby, except for the following, also kindly donated: Inside Front Cover Illustration of the Firth of Forth by Margaret Nisbet; Page 34 Seal pup, Paul Bartlett ( We are grateful to Sir Hew HamiltonDalrymple for permission to reproduce the following pictures on Page 15 and Back Cover: Bass Rock Late 17th Century (Artist unknown) The Prisons of the Bass (Sam Bough 1865) Shooting Party, Bass Rock (Circa 1870) Identifying Birds Pg 28 compiled by John Hunt Wildlife Calendar Pg 38 compiled by Gregg Corbett. We are also grateful to the many individuals and organisations who have contributed to the creation of this guide book, with particular thanks to the following people: Jay Butler; Calum Duncan, Marine Conservation Society; Forth Estuary Forum; Bill Gardner; Peter Gordon, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple; Erich Hoyt; David and Lillian Kelly; Rob Meijer; Judith Misson; Jo Moulin, John Muir’s Birthplace Trust; Dr Bryan Nelson; Kevin Rideout, National Trust for Scotland; Wendy Smith; Mary Tebble, Scottish Seabird Centre Volunteer Group.

Contents Foreword


A Dream Takes Flight


Journey of Discovery


SOS Puffin


A Wonderful Cause


Remote Viewing


The Bass Rock A Year in the Life of the Bass Gannets


The Isle of May






Treasure Islands


Winter Waders


Identifying Birds




The Surrounding Area



The Marine Environment 34 Scotland’s Seabirds


Wildlife Calendar

38 Contents




Foreword Foreword by the Chairman, Rear Admiral Neil Rankin CB CBE


n behalf of the Board of Directors, staff and volunteers, welcome to the awardwinning Scottish Seabird Centre. Our aim is make your visit as enjoyable and informative as possible, bringing to you the abundant offshore wonders of nature via noninvasive advanced camera technology. Not only do we promote a strong environmental awareness but we hope also to stimulate your interest in the rich history of the area.

The Centre has gone from strength to strength since opening in 2000, with the improvement and expansion of our facilities adding to the value of the visitor experience and resulting in a continuous increase in numbers. Our undoubted success has been acknowledged in a steady stream of awards, including the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise. Acknowledged as a world leader in remote interactive wildlife viewing, our innovative products, services and expertise are internationally recognised and acclaimed. The Scottish Seabird Centre enjoys enthusiastic and loyal local support and, indeed, its creation would not have been possible without the outstanding backing of local groups and organisations, on whose help the Charity still relies for its continued operation. In turn, the Centre provides a strong community focus and facilities, with a venue for talks, events and the local cinema club. Our varied events bring a vibrant atmosphere to the harbour area and the Centre has played a leading role in the rejuvenation of its environs, whilst also making a significant contribution to the economy of North Berwick.

Scotland’s wildlife and natural places are very special and we must not take them for granted. The Seabird Centre is actively involved in conservation and campaigning to ensure that future generations can enjoy this outstanding resource. Some wildlife populations are thriving, but others are threatened, and we can all play a role in helping to safeguard our marine life and its environment for future generations. To this end, our Education Department provides a comprehensive programme, aligned to the National Curriculum for a wide range of school visits and also supports higher and post graduate studies. As part of our overall education remit, the Centre runs boat excursions that include ranger-led landings to some of the Firth of Forth islands, where active conservation work is also being undertaken by volunteers. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the continued, unstinting efforts of our staff, volunteers and dedicated supporters, without which none of what you see would be possible. We are all proud of our association with the Scottish Seabird Centre and, as a result of your visit, hope that you will be as well. Enjoy your stay with us and thank you for your support.



The Scottish Seabird Centre

– a dream takes flight


he Scottish Seabird Centre is situated at North Berwick harbour – an area which has always been the historic heart of the town, and the place to which visitors are drawn. In mediaeval times, those visitors were pilgrims on their way to St Andrews. Today visitors to the Scottish Seabird Centre pass the ruins of St Andrew’s Auld Kirk on Anchor Green, where the pilgrims prayed before continuing their journey across the Firth of Forth. In the late sixteenth century, the church gained notoriety as the setting for the North Berwick witches, who gathered on Anchor Green in an alleged attempt to bring about the death of King James VI, returning from Denmark with his new bride, Anne.

During the seventeenth century, part of the church fell into the sea and a replacement was later built in the town centre.


The Scottish Seabird Centre

In 2005, with the help of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a community initiative led by the Seabird Centre ensured the long term conservation of the remains of the Auld Kirk, with interpretation to tell its fascinating history. During the various stages of construction of the Scottish Seabird Centre, layers of history, have been carefully uncovered, documented and preserved. It is an ancient site, probably seventh or eighth century and, during the construction of the Migration Flyway, the remains of an eighteenth century settlement were discovered. Earlier excavations unearthed Roman coins, a Viking comb and the clay mould used for making the pilgrims’ badges, depicting St Andrew on the Cross.

Many people remember the open air swimming pool at the harbour. North Berwick had become a popular tourist destination in the nineteenth century, enhanced by the arrival of the railway in 1849 and the sea water pool was developed to cater for the tourist trade. By the early twentieth century, the harbour area was a lively place in summer as residents and visitors alike flocked to the pool and to variety shows and Saturday night dances held at the Harbour Pavilion.

holidays. The outdoor pool was still open seasonally but was expensive to maintain and slowly fell into disrepair. By the late 1980s, North Berwick was at a low ebb: shops were closing, the celebrated pool seemed doomed and the harbour pavilion – once alive with dancing crowds – had become a dilapidated eyesore. The future of the town, which had once marketed itself as the ‘Biarritz of the North’, was not looking bright.

These prosperous times lasted into the 1960s, with midnight galas at the pool featuring live music on the esplanade. But in the 1980s, the nature of tourism was changing and, like many British coastal resorts, North Berwick suffered as more and more people went abroad for their

It was at this time that local businessman and community councillor Bill Gardner had an inspirational idea. North Berwick had a unique asset standing just 4km (2.5miles) offshore: the Bass Rock and its spectacular gannet colony. A keen ornithologist, Bill knew the colony to be of

Clockwise from top: Illustrated reconstruction of St Andrew’s Auld Kirk; The former outdoor pool at North Berwick harbour; The old Pavilion; Tom Addyman & Kay archaeologists painstakingly unearth mediaeval skeletons on Anchor Green, during the construction of the Seabird Centre in 1999.

The Scottish Seabird Centre

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Clockwise from above: Ronnie Corbett OBE, comedian and television personality; Frank Thomas, Provost Tom Ferguson and Rear Admiral Neil Rankin CB CBE at the Seabird Centre’s temporary information centre; Bill Oddie, comedian, ornithologist and wildlife presenter; Centre Director Tom Brock with staff and volunteers

international importance and that the technology existed to allow a non-invasive, closer view of the birds from the shore: “Close enough to see into a gannet’s eye”. Perhaps the wonders of the Bass could bring people back to the harbour and breathe new life into the area? Nearly 10 years of hard work, dedication and dogged determination followed to turn the dream into reality. Sir Hew HamiltonDalrymple, whose family has owned the Bass for more than 300 years, supported the project. The Scottish Seabird Centre was registered as a charity that included among its trustees Dr Bryan Nelson, an eminent seabird biologist and a world leading expert on gannets. Tom Brock, a zoologist and tourism manager with international experience in waterside revitalisation, was appointed as Centre Director to take the project forward. The campaign gathered momentum with the commitment of key supporters and the wholehearted support of the local community and construction began in March 1999. 6•

The Scottish Seabird Centre

Generously lending their support to the fundraising effort and helping to raise the profile of the Seabird Centre were Ronnie Corbett OBE and his wife Anne. Bill Oddie also visited and made his mark on the exciting new initiative. The late Frank Thomas, a leading light in the town, galvanised support for the Seabird Centre, with the ‘Buy a Brick’ campaign and a temporary information centre in North Berwick High Street. He also chaired the Volunteer Support Group which continues to go from strength to strength today and without whose support the Centre would not exist. The distinctive building, designed by the architects Simpson & Brown, with its swooping copper roof designed to resemble a bird’s wing, created a wonderful new landmark at the harbour. On 21 May 2000, the Scottish Seabird Centre was officially opened by HRH Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay. A carnival atmosphere prevailed at the opening ceremony. As bands

Clockwise from top: The crowds wait to see HRH Prince Charles; HRH Prince Charles aboard the Sula II with the late Fred Marr at the Scottish Seabird Centre opening ceremony 21st May 2000 and taking a closer look at the Bass Rock from the Telescope Deck; Tom Brock, Centre Director of the Seabird Centre escorts HRH Prince Charles around the Centre.

played and crowds gathered to celebrate the new Centre and the achievements of all those who had worked so hard to make it happen. In the long history of North Berwick’s harbour area, a new chapter was beginning. Since opening, the Seabird Centre has gone from strength to strength, attracting over 250,000 people a year. With an innovative approach, the Centre is constantly changing and evolving. Starting with just three cameras (two on the Bass Rock and one on the island of Fidra) a year later, in 2001, a new winter attraction was created with cameras installed on the Isle of May to bring back wonderful images of the grey seal colony during the pupping season in winter, as well as puffins in summer. With the evolution of new technologies, broadband and alternative energy sources, visitors now enjoy a close encounter with an increasing array of wildlife, in remote locations, without disturbing the animals. For example, high definition cameras on the island of Craigleith send live pictures of puffins, cormorants and seals

to the Centre, while a camera located at Dunbar Harbour gives close-ups of the remarkable kittiwake colony on the old castle ruins. The Centre has grown in size, as well as stature, with the Discovery Centre expanding underground in 2004 to create the Environment Zone and Migration Flyway. The Centre keeps changing with new exhibitions and features added and suggestions incorporated from staff, volunteers, members and visitors. An extensive events and exhibitions programme also brings a new and interesting dimension throughout the year. The Café has also been extended and new kitchens and decking added, providing much needed extra space and income. As a self-financing independent charity, the income from all parts of the Centre is vital to the Charity’s survival and ongoing work. The Centre operates Seabird Seafari Boat Trips around the islands and has exclusive landing rights to the Bass Rock, granted by the owner, Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple. The Scottish Seabird Centre


Journey of Discovery A

t the very heart of the Scottish Seabird Centre is the Discovery Centre. There’s nowhere else like it in the world. An international leader in remote wildlife viewing and winner of more than 20 major awards. Visitors descend into the Discovery Centre, a giant virtual hide with screens broadcasting fantastic close up live animal encounters. This is remote wildlife viewing at its best, where people can get closer than is possible in real life and experience the puffin’s world at first hand. The solar powered cameras are located on the islands but visitors back on dry land are able to zoom in to observe the tiniest details, like the ID rings on individual birds’ feet or the meticulous preening of the adult gannets. A Discovery Centre session (above); Gannets on the Bass Rock (below); Professor David Bellamy OBE and his grand-daughter Tilly visit the Discovery Centre.


Journey of Discovery

One of the joys of the Seabird Centre is that things are always changing. From spotting the first puffin and the first gannet chick in spring, to watching the antics of the young seal pups playing together in winter, each season there’s something new to enjoy. The Discovery Centre is also constantly evolving, experimenting with the latest

technology and adding new attractions and displays. The Discovery Centre is a journey of discovery and includes a giant interactive model of the Bass Rock, the Wildlife Cinema showing an excellent and changing programme of films and features, Telescope Deck overlooking the islands, Environment Zone and Migration Flyway. The magical Kids’ Zone was created in memory of Sheana Dryden, a wonderful supporter of the Seabird Centre whose particular wish was that, the Seabird Centre should be fun for children. Thousands of children have also benefited from innovative education programmes, such as the Junior Tour Guides project, where local primary school children learn skills including confidence building and presentation techniques to become fully fledged tour guides. A partnership with another five star visitor attraction in Edinburgh, Our Dynamic Earth, delivers an exciting Outreach programme for children in schools across Scotland. The Centre also works with university students and scientists providing access to cameras and equipment for research.

Clockwise from below: Seabird Seafari Boat Trips out to the Bass Rock; controlling the interactive live cameras in the Discovery Centre; having fun in the Kids’ Zone.

Journey of Discovery


SOS Puffin


uffins, like many of our seabirds, are in serious decline in Scotland with insufficient food to go round, due to overfishing and climate change. An added threat, however, faces the puffins on two islands in the Firth of Forth.

The puffin colony on the island of Craigleith Island, 3⁄4 mile (1km) from the Seabird Centre, once one of the largest in the UK, with about 30,000 pairs, was experiencing a dramatic crash in numbers, a phenomenon first spotted by the Seabird Centre’s volunteers. A similar situation was emerging close by on the island of Fidra, an RSPB nature reserve. The cause of the problem turned out to be a plant, a giant alien invader called Tree Mallow (Lavatera arborea). Growing to nearly 3m (9.8ft) in height, it forms an almost impenetrable jungle, choking the puffins’ burrows and preventing them from rearing their chicks (pufflings). First introduced to the Bass Rock over 300 years ago as a medicinal plant for use by the garrison of the fortress, it has spread in recent years to cover almost all of Craigleith and a third of Fidra. It has also affected other birds including eiders and fulmars. This is when the Seabird Centre stepped in. The Centre believed that this was one area of climate change where direct human intervention could 10 •

SOS Puffin

make a difference and SOS Puffin was launched. With the help of over 200 volunteers and funds generously provided by Viridor Credits and Scottish Natural Heritage, the islands are gradually being reclaimed for the puffins. The puffins are left undisturbed from late April to July, but for the rest of the year the islands are regularly visited by the Seabird Centre’s volunteers who are ferried to and from the island, armed with loppers and shears to fight the mallow. It’s hard work, but very satisfying, especially when the puffins can be seen live on camera returning to their old burrows once again. With the support of a team of wonderful volunteers, hopes are high that the tree mallow can be brought under control and the puffin population restored. However, this huge effort needs to be maintained for many years. Volunteers come from all walks of life to help with the effort; schools; companies and environmental organisations and, most importantly, people who just want to make a difference. SOS Puffin still needs volunteers, whether for just one work party visit or more often. Call 01620 890202 or visit to find out more. You can also help by giving a donation or adopting a puffin online at or at the Seabird Centre Gift Shop.

A Wonderful Cause T

he Scottish Seabird Centre is an independent conservation and education charity dedicated to inspiring people to appreciate and care for wildlife and the natural environment. Thousands of people visit the Centre every year, including a large number of school children, to find out more about the wonderful wildlife all around them and how they can respect and care for the environment in which we all live.

All proceeds from the Seabird Centre are reinvested in the work of the charity and the Centre relies on the help of all our volunteers, members and sponsors to survive. The volunteers provide support in every aspect of the Centre; from organising fundraising events and festivals, coffee mornings and raffles, to working as guides in the Centre, writing wildlife reports and creating a popular birdwatching group, their support is invaluable. The Centre also has the solid support of thousands of members, who have helped to make it the success it is today.

The Seabird Centre works with wildlife and environmental organisations around the world to raise awareness of issues affecting our planet. With the help of volunteers, members and supporters, the Centre is involved in conservation through projects like SOS Puffin, campaigns to prevent the transfer of crude oil from ship to ship in the Forth, initiatives to reduce the amount of waste plastic and litter, which can be so harmful to wildlife and working with scientists to address the issues of overfishing, pollution and climate change. The Centre also provides information and education on renewable and alternative energy sources and runs a highly successful Outreach programme for schools, engaging and inspiring children about the wonders of the natural world. The Seabird Centre has been awarded more than 25 prestigious awards since opening, including VisitScotland Five Star Attraction, Green Business Tourism Gold Award, Visit Scotland Thistle Award for Sustainable Tourism, and the Queen’s Award for Enterprise.

Staff and volunteers of the Seabird Centre celebrate winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise.

A Wonderful Cause

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ow can more people be encouraged to watch wildlife, without disturbing the very creatures they have come to see? How do you get incredibly close views without disrupting natural behaviour? How can people of all ages and abilities have access to wildlife on remote, rocky islands? How can you watch wildlife all year round in Scotland, in warmth and comfort?

All these questions are answered in the Scottish Seabird Centre’s innovative approach to interactive remote wildlife viewing. The Discovery Centre is a virtual hide, from which you can explore the spectacular wildlife of the Forth islands. Remote cameras on the islands beam live images back to the Centre, which are displayed on giant screens and can also be seen live on Using a joy stick to control the cameras, visitors can explore at their own pace – panning around the islands and surrounding seas, focusing in on eye-catching cameos: perhaps the delicate silvery fluff of kittiwake chicks in their nest, or a gang of puffins gathering on a headland. Through the Centre’s cameras, the wildlife world can be viewed throughout the year. Cameras on the Bass Rock enable visitors to watch the gannets arrive early in the year and to follow their progress as they nest, rear their chicks and depart late in the autumn. On the island of

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Remote Viewing

Fidra, a camera looks onto cliff-nesting seabirds such as guillemots, razorbills and shags, while peregrines can be seen all year round. On the Isle of May, puffins are the star attraction in summer, and the birth of fluffy white grey seal pups in autumn ensure gripping viewing when many seabirds have left. The island of Craigleith is also an important puffin colony and the cameras here provide even closer views of puffins, as well as nesting eider ducks and cormorants. Craigleith is the focus for the Seabird Centre’s major voluntary conservation project SOS puffin to remove the invasive plant tree mallow which prevents the puffins from nesting. At Dunbar Harbour the kittiwakes which nest on the ancient ruined walls of the historic castle can also be enjoyed at close range, uninterrupted, through the Centre’s live cameras.

Remote viewing – The pictures and sounds are transmitted to the Centre by a wireless microwave system, similar to the technology used for your mobile phone. There are no wires or cables involved, just microwave dishes on the islands and on the roof of the Centre. The Seabird Centre is committed to using sustainable and renewable energy, and the cameras are powered by solar panels. The Scottish Seabird Centre is a world leader in the use of this technology and is now advising projects nationally and internationally on the development of remote viewing. But being at the cutting edge means new challenges must continually be overcome. Constant salt spray, gale force winds and stormy seas created initial problems for the cameras and transmitters, but the latest cameras are now small enough and tough enough to withstand even the most severe winter gales. They also have washers and wipers, controlled from the Centre – an essential feature in a seabird colony! The Centre is committed to finding new ways and the latest technology to bring people closer to nature, without disturbing the animals.

Get closer to nature Clockwise from top left: Active remote viewing inside the Seabird Centre; Kittiwake with chicks; Gannets greeting; Remote camera with windscreen wipers on the Bass Rock.

The Scottish Seabird Centre is a world leader in the application of this technology, and advises projects nationally and internationally on the development of remote interactive wildlife viewing.

Remote Viewing

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The Bass Rock


utting abruptly from the sea, just 4km (2.5 miles) from North Berwick’s shore, the Bass Rock is one of Scotland’s most iconic landmarks. Described famously by Sir David Attenborough as “one of the wildlife wonders of the world”, whether gleaming white against a blue summer sky, looming out of the mist, or dark and moody in the winter storms, it is always a spectacular sight.

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The Bass Rock

a religious retreat during early Christianity, a fortress and prison in the times of the Covenanters and Jacobites, and as a strategic stronghold during many wars between Scotland and England and the twentieth century world wars.

Like the other Forth islands, the Bass was formed some 320 million years ago and is the remains of one of many active volcanoes in the area. In the intervening millennia, the sea levels have risen and the surrounding layers of softer rock have been worn away, leaving only the hard plug of solidified lava which forms the sheersided, 120m high basalt island that we know today.

Owned by the Hamilton-Dalrymple family for 300 years, remnants of these historic roles can still be seen today. Amidst the snow-field of nesting gannets beside the lighthouse, the ruins of St Baldred’s Chapel still stand, a fifteenth century tribute to the seventh century monk who brought Christianity to East Lothian and lived as a hermit on the rock. The lighthouse was built in 1902 on top of the old fortress, the impressive walls of which still bar access to the island, while providing nest sites for fulmars and shags.

In various guises, the Bass has been a part of many significant events in Scottish history – as

The lighthouse was manned by a team of keepers who stayed on the island for four weeks

The Bass Rock in mid-summer, home to over 100,000 gannets.

at a time, followed by two weeks at home with their families. Supplies were brought by boat every fortnight and vegetables were grown in the walled garden. The last keepers left in 1988 when the lighthouse was automated. Regardless of human presence, the true owneroccupiers of the Bass have always been the gannets. The first records date from the fifteenth century, but gannets have probably nested on the Bass for many thousands of years. The human history of the area has always been intertwined with the gannet population, which were once exploited for their meat, eggs, oil and guano. In Victorian times, the gannets were even shot for sport by parties from Edinburgh and London. More recent human-gannet interaction has been happily benign. Much of our knowledge of the Bass gannets comes from the pioneering research of Dr Bryan Nelson MBE, a leading seabird biologist and world authority on gannets, as well as a trustee of the Seabird Centre. For three years in the early 1960s, Bryan and his wife,

June, lived in a temporary hut on the Bass, studying the birds. Bryan explains that gannets have many advantages over other seabirds: they forage over a wide area – Bass gannets are known to fish as far as Norway – and feed on a wide range of species, diving deep to hunt for them. This means that while other seabird populations have fluctuated, gannet populations have kept on growing. Whether that will continue to be the case remains to be seen.

Bass Rock, late seventeenth century, artist unknown.

During Bryan’s research in the 1960s, the gannets mostly nested on the cliffs and numbered about 13,000 pairs. Now, at the peak of the season, well over 100,000 gannets crowd the Bass, making it the largest single-rock gannet colony in the world. The Scottish Seabird Centre has been granted exclusive landing rights for the Bass Rock, by Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple and, throughout the year, organises guide-led photographic trips to the island. See for more information.

A shooting party, Bass Rock, circa 1870.

In various guises, the Bass has been a part of many significant events in Scottish history The prisons of the Bass, Sam Bough, 1865.

The Bass Rock

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owards the end of January, as winter storms pound the Bass, there is a growing sense of anticipation at the Scottish Seabird Centre. All eyes are on the sea and sky, watching and waiting. Any day now, someone will spot white birds on the horizon – bigger and brighter than the gulls, gliding and diving with a graceful, powerful flight – and the good news will spread like wildfire: they’re back! The first gannets have returned.

Atlantic gannets in various stages of development, from chick (top right opposite) to juvenile ‘guga’ (above).

Over the following weeks, the Bass changes colour as more and more gannets return to their breeding ground. At first there is just a sprinkling of white, like a dusting of icing sugar, but soon the entire rock will be shining so white with the sheer mass of gannets that it appears snow-covered throughout the summer months. Gannets usually return to the same mate and nest site each year, arriving sufficiently early to secure their place on the crowded rock. Established pairs then reunite, and new partners bond with ceremonial displays of bill-fencing. Each pair’s territory is highly prized and ferociously guarded, and so the nests are evenly spaced – just out of reach of the neighbour’s powerful bill. Gannets can live to over 30 years. Both birds share the parental duties, taking turns to incubate the single egg under their webbed feet and then to feed the hungry chick with regurgitated fish. The chick grows quickly from a naked, helpless newborn into a large, fluffy white ‘guga’, and by 13 weeks old it is bigger than its parents and ready to leave the nest. At this stage the plumage is black, speckled with white spots: by looking so different from an adult, it lessens the chances of being attacked by other gannets. Leaving home is a perilous time for the young guga. They are too heavy to take off and so must spread their wings and glide to the water below. Falling is easy for those nesting on the sheer cliffs, but gannets born on the top of the Bass have to run the gauntlet through the crowded colony before taking the plunge. Once at sea, the guga lives off its fat reserves, and as soon as it is light enough to fly, must quickly master the specialised skills of fishing gannet-style.

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The Bass Gannets

Gannets glide high and use their superb eyesight to spot schools of fish below the water’s surface. They then plunge down, folding their wings at the last moment and hitting the surface at speeds of up to 100kmph (60mph). Their bodies are specially adapted to this dramatic fishing method – with sealed nostrils, protective membranes that cover the eyes and air cells that cushion the skull and body from the shock of the high-speed impact. Once underwater, they use their wings to swim down in pursuit of their prey.

A year in the life of the The young gannets are the first to leave the Bass, while the parents stay on until late autumn to defend their territories. Then, as the first snows fall on the hills, the Bass changes colour again, gradually darkening as the departing gannets reveal the underlying rock.

Gannets are long-distance fliers, and the colony disperses widely across the seas. The older gannets stretch their long wings and scatter across the North Sea and the Atlantic, as far south as the Mediterranean: they have no need to come on land except to breed. The young head south towards the west coast of Africa, many of them reaching the equator. When the young gannets are two years old, instinct calls them back to the place where they were born. They leave the southern sun and fly north to their basalt island home off the coast of North Berwick. There they will begin the long process of finding a nest site and a mate – it may take a further four years before they are ready to breed and start the whole cycle of reproduction once again.

Gannets have a lifelong mate and return to the same nest site each year, arriving sufficiently early to secure their place on the crowded rock.

Bass gannets

The Bass Gannets

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The Isle of May


ook straight out to sea from the Scottish Seabird Centre and you’ll see a long, thin island, stretched out on the horizon as if one side is reaching for the coast of Fife and the other for the open ocean. This is the Isle of May, or the ‘May Isle’ as it is known in Fife, the largest of the Forth islands and a wildlife haven.

The name May is thought to derive from the Norse ‘Ma-ey’, meaning gull – an appropriate name for an island so dominated by seabirds.

Often described as the “Jewel of the Forth”, in the months of May and June, the island is carpeted with the white flowers of sea campion and decorated with bright patches of pink thrift. Puffins are everywhere – dotted all over the surrounding seas, gathering in gangs on the grassy slopes and flying in to their burrows with beaks stuffed full of sand eels. Eider ducks are also widespread, the sleek brown females nesting alongside the paths all over the island while the crooning calls of the black and white males can be heard from the sea below. Three species of tern – arctic, common and sandwich – nest on the May, and these elegant ‘swallows of the sea’ swoop and screech around their nest sites. The steep cliffs to the west of the island are noisy, crowded seabird cities, densely packed with kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and fulmars. The abundant wildlife continues below the waves with rich marine life where the sheltered waters of the Forth meet the more open expanses

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The Isle of May

Above: Sea campion. Left: Arctic tern. Below: Grey seal pup.

of the North Sea. Rocky reefs in the tide-swept waters around the May support kelp forests, with anemones and sponges, which in turn provide foraging grounds for the island’s grey seals and superb sites for human divers! Minke whales are regularly sighted throughout summer, and harbour porpoises can be seen on calm days. The island’s importance as a wildlife site has long been recognised. Now owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, it has been a National Nature Reserve since 1956, and the site of one of Britain’s longest-running bird observatories – established in 1934. More than 250 species of birds have been identified here, with owls, woodpeckers and nightingales among the species recorded in the log book. As well as the regular summer residents, the May is an important stopover for migrating birds.

The May has experienced a turbulent human history, from the seventh century when marauding Vikings murdered the resident monks, to the fifteenth century, when Scottish and English navies clashed in the nearby waters, and the twentieth century, when the May’s strategic position at the mouth of the Forth ensured it a role in both world wars. The reefs around the May once led to numerous tragedies as ships were wrecked on the jagged rocks. In 1636, Scotland’s first manned ‘light beacon’ was built on the island. This was later improved with a new lighthouse built by the Stevenson family. The lighthouse is now automated, and today the only residents are the researchers studying the birds and the Scottish Natural Heritage wardens who welcome visitors to the island throughout the summer.

Clockwise from top right: The Isle of May from the air; Female eider duck; shag; fulmars nesting.

The island’s importance as a wildlife site has long been recognised.

The Isle of May

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Puffins T

hey’re the last to arrive and the first to leave, but during their short breeding season in early summer, the puffins are the undisputed stars of the screen at the Scottish Seabird Centre. Visitors are entertained and enchanted by the puffins’ performance as they strut around in their elaborate clown’s make-up and pantomime costume of smart black dinner jacket and bright orange feet.

The Isle of May is home to a large colony of over 40,000 pairs of puffins. It’s a great place to be a puffin: it’s far from mainland predators; there are plenty of rabbits to help with the burrow digging and there are rich fishing grounds in the surrounding waters where the Forth meets the open sea. Visitors to the island are asked to keep strictly to the footpaths as the

20 •


grassy slopes are riddled with puffin burrows and straying from the path could mean crushing a burrow and its occupants. The island of Fidra has around 1,000 puffins and Craigleith Island, previously one of the largest puffin colonies in the UK, with around 30,000 pairs, has seen a drastic reduction in numbers, due to an invasive plant called Tree Mallow (Lavatera arborea) which can grow up to 3m (9.8ft). Helped by warmer winters due to climate change, it has taken over both islands, preventing the puffins from using their nesting burrows. Thanks to SOS Puffin, a project led by the Seabird Centre, action is now being taken to deal with this problem (see page 10). The first puffins are normally seen towards the end of March. They gather around the islands, hanging around on the surrounding sea as if not wanting to be first at the party, and when sufficient numbers arrive they come ashore en masse. When coming into land or heading out to sea, puffins often fly together in the same direction, circling in wheeling flocks. This air traffic control system means safety in numbers as predators are confused by the mass of whirring wings.

The puffins are flighty when they first land: there may be thousands seen one day and none the next, but eventually they settle back into island life, forming social ‘clubs’ where they meet up with neighbours. Puffins greet each other by ‘billing’, moving their heads from side to side and knocking their bills together. As well as all this meeting and greeting, the puffins get busy sorting their accommodation for the summer. Younger, non-breeding puffins come ‘house-hunting’ – checking out potential burrow sites for next year. Established pairs return to the same burrow each year, but after so many months away, extensive renovations and spring cleaning may be needed before nesting begins. Over the next six weeks, the breeding pair takes turns incubating the single egg in a nest chamber at the end of the burrow. For visitors watching through the Seabird Centre’s live cameras, the first sign that the chick has hatched is the characteristic sight of puffins flying in towards the burrows with their beaks stuffed full of sand eels. It’s a busy time at the colony as parents dash in and out, constantly fishing to provide enough food for the growing pufflings. In recent years puffins have been suffering from lack of food, due to overfishing and climate change. The Seabird Centre is campaigning with other environmental organisations for the introduction of new marine legislation to protect this precious habitat.

15m (49ft) in pursuit of sand eels. They are perfectly adapted for this fishing method and the bulky body and short wings which make flying look like hard work enables them to move with speed and agility underwater. When the puffling has developed from a dark grey ball of fluff to a black and white version of the adult bird, it leaves the safety of its burrow at night in order to avoid predators and heads out alone to sea. And then, at the height of the summer, while the cliffs on the May are still rowdy with the screeching and squawking of the seabird colonies, the puffins disappear. Leaving the party in full swing, they flee, Cinderella-like, in the middle of the night, before their bright costumes turn into the drab greys of their winter plumage. For the rest of the year they scatter in small groups far out at sea. As if not wanting to be seen without their make-up, they stay far away until the next spring. Then, when their beaks are bright and their mascara perfect, they gather in the waters near the islands, ready to face the cameras again.

Puffins fish by ‘flying’ underwater, using their wings to propel themselves to depths of up to Puffins

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y autumn, the rowdy colonies of seabirds have dispersed across the seas, leaving the vast cliffs on the Isle of May empty. But to the south of the island, at Pilgrim’s Haven, another great gathering begins as hundreds of grey seals congregate and come ashore to breed.

The Firth of Forth is home to grey seals all year round, and small groups can often be seen around the islands. But outside of the breeding season they spend most of their time at sea, only hauling out on land to rest between fishing trips. In October, however, numbers on the May swell from about 100 to 3,000 seals, making it the largest grey seal colony on the east coast of Scotland.

22 •


Recently, a small number of grey seals have also been breeding on the island of Craigleith.

Grey seals are widespread in Scotland – and are actually more common than their smaller relatives the common seals – but in world-wide terms, they are one of the rarest species. In recognition of the importance of its seal colony, the May has been awarded European protection as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The May is closed to the public from October until April to protect the seals’ breeding site from disturbance, but the Scottish Seabird Centre’s cameras at Pilgrim’s Haven

Cameras located at Pilgrim’s Haven create a window into the seals’ world: mothers suckling their young and the huge males fighting for supremacy. Though cumbersome on land, seals are lithe and graceful under water.

Left: grey seal pup. Clockwise from top left: Grey seal pup; grey seal adult; grey seals at Pilgrim’s Haven.

and on Craigleith provide a unique opportunity to get close to the seal’s world – visitors can pan around the bay to find the seals lying among the sea-smoothed rocks and then zoom in close to the action to see the huge males snarling and fighting or the fluffy white seal pups shuffling and wriggling along the beach as if trying to walk in a sleeping bag. With their big, dark eyes and soft, creamy coats, grey seal pups must be one of nature’s most endearing sights. Visitors to the Scottish Seabird Centre can follow the pups’ progress from birth as they are nursed on their mothers’ fat-rich milk

and gain weight fast, gradually shedding their white fluff for a sleek coat of mottled greys and browns. Sadly, nature isn’t always cute or kind, and there is a high infant mortality rate at the May colony. Winter is an inhospitable season to come into the world, and, exposed to the full force of the winter gales, more than half of the pups may not survive. It can be sad to see the pups die, just as it’s a joy to watch them live. But this is the ultimate ‘reality tv’, and sex, birth and death are all part of this real-life drama, an unedited glimpse of life in the wild. Seals

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Craigleith, the Lamb and Fidra – North Berwick’s


he Telescope Deck at the Scottish Seabird Centre offers panoramic views across the Firth of Forth, looking east to the Bass, the May and out to the open sea, and north to the long, tapered coastline of Fife. Close by to the west, three small, rocky islands stand just offshore from the sandy stretch of North Berwick’s beaches. The powerful telescopes on the deck enable visitors to explore these wildlife havens.

Craigleith The island of Craigleith lies just offshore from the Seabird Centre, allowing distant views of the many puffins dotted among nesting gulls or bobbing on surrounding waters, the gangs of guillemots tucked into the cliffs and the cloud of kittiwakes and other gulls that surround the island like feathers flying from a burst pillow. Above the eastern cliffs, which are white with guano all summer, can be glimpsed a colony of nesting cormorants amongst the dense covering of tree mallow. This invasive plant is being removed by volunteers as part of the Seabird Centre’s SOS Puffin project (see page 10). Craigleith is also important for large numbers of nesting eiders. These attractive ducks can be seen all year round near North Berwick’s beaches, with creches of ducklings during the summer. 24 •

Treasure Islands

The Lamb The smallest of the islands, The Lamb is a miniature seabird city. Its sheer cliffs provide a high-density, high-rise home to guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, and its sloping summit is crowned with cormorants. Nearly a hundred pairs of cormorants breed here and they can often be seen silhouetted against the skyline, standing upright in a grand posture with their wings held out to dry. In the early summer breeding season, a white thigh patch below the wing helps to distinguish the cormorants from their smaller relatives, the shags, which strike a similar pose on the lower rocks. Grey seals haul out around the Lamb and Craigleith and are often seen basking motionless, draped over the rocks around the islands. Seals are inquisitive creatures, and when a boat approaches the island they slither into the water, reappearing close by and looking up at the passengers with their deep dark eyes.

treasure islands

Fidra As well as teeming seabird colonies, Fidra boasts a lighthouse built by the famous engineering firm founded by Robert Stevenson, the grandfather of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. The family spent their summers in North Berwick, and the young Robert Louis enjoyed exploring the area. The East Lothian landscape inspired his later writing, with Fidra reputedly the inspiration for Treasure Island. The Seabird Centre’s remote camera on the island, an RSPB reserve, overlooks gentle grassy slopes with nesting gulls and puffins, as well as cliff ledges with guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes. A pair of peregrine falcons have become the surprise stars of the Fidra screen. Everyone loves their fierce beauty, if not their habit of picnicking on pigeons and seabirds. The fastest animal in the world, they may be seen all year round.

Castle and the Forth Rail Bridge, 40km (24.8 miles) away, and, panning round to the east, the other islands and the Scottish Seabird Centre itself.

Clockwise from top: Fidra and the Lamb from North Berwick; Cormorant; Puffins and razorbills; Shag on nest; Tree mallow; Peregrine falcon.

The close proximity of the camera to the nesting sites allows incredibly close-up views of the puffins during their short time on land, and the fluffy chicks of kittiwakes and herring gulls are especially popular with younger visitors. As well as these intimate views, the camera’s 360 degree range offers spectacular vistas across the Forth. On a clear day, you can zoom in on Edinburgh Treasure Islands

• 25

Winter waders n winter, when the last gannets have departed, the remote cameras can be used to scan North Berwick’s sandy shores and follow busy little figures as they scuttle along the tideline, rummaging in the seaweed like ladies at a jumble sale – picking up this, poking at that, always on a mission.


These are the waders, the next arrivals to the area after the summer seabirds have left. Huge numbers arrive in the Forth Estuary throughout the autumn – some are just stopping to refuel before continuing their journey further south, but many stay for the winter. The cold, windswept beaches of the East of Scotland may seem an unlikely choice for a winter retreat, but these birds are escaping an even harsher winter at higher latitudes.

26 •

Winter Waders

Estuaries such as the Forth contain huge areas of intertidal mudflats and sand banks, which form a very rich natural habitat. The large numbers of worms, shellfish and small crustaceans provide a banquet for wading birds from which each selects their special dish: curlews probe deep into the mud with their long, curved bills to reach for worms; knot feed on tiny cockles and mussels; and oystercatchers, with their strong, brightorange bills, hammer open shellfish. Turnstones, as the name suggests, turn over stones and seaweed with their small, upturned bills to find sandhoppers, periwinkles and small crustaceans. They are among the most common waders seen around the North Berwick shore, and small groups can be seen feeding on the beach nearly all year round. Turnstones from northern Europe pass through in July and August on their way to Africa, while those from Canada and Greenland arrive in early autumn and stay right through the winter. By late April and May, the few still remaining have transformed from the dark brown and black of their winter plumage into their beautiful summer dress of rich chestnut.

Purple sandpipers are often seen with turnstones and can be found on the rocks close by the Seabird Centre. Although they are rare locally, North Berwick is one of the best places in East Lothian to see them. Despite the exoticsounding name, they are dumpy little dark-grey waders, perfectly camouflaged against wet sand and kelp-draped rocks. Waders hang around together, roosting in large mixed flocks with long-legged redshanks standing high above the groups of dunlins and plovers. Their specialised diets mean there is little competition for food between the species. In flight, waders provide an attractive winter spectacle as they swirl over the bay in tight flocks. Knot are among the most striking, appearing to flash dark and then silvery white as they twist and turn in perfect synchrony.

Left: Dunlin. Clockwise from above: Purple sandpipers roosting at high tide; Waders on the shore at dawn; Oystercatchers; Turnstone.

Winter Waders

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Atlantic Gannet Morus bassanus

Identifying Birds Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

Britain’s largest seabird, with a wingspan of 1.8m (5.9ft). The adults are brilliant white with black wingtips and eggyellow head and neck. Only one egg is laid and the chick is reared by both parents from the fluffy white stage to the grey-black juvenile which leaves the nest after 13 weeks. Gannets plunge dive at speeds of up to 100kph (60mph) to catch fish. The most famous residents of the Bass Rock, the largest island colony in the world, they nest on cliffs and remote islands spending the winter at sea.

28 •

Identifying Birds

A large and conspicuous waterbird though it can easily be confused with the smaller shag. Adults are brown-black in colour and, when breeding, have white thigh patches and white throat. Juveniles are dark brown above and white beneath. It lays 3-4 eggs and both parents care for the young. Nests on Craigleith and other islands but often uses inland waters where its appetite for fish is unpopular with anglers. Like the shag it is often seen standing with its wings held out to dry.

European Shag Phalocrocorax aristotelis

Breeding shags are all black with a green gloss on the body and a yellow mouth, sporting a crest in the early Spring. They nest along rocky shores and on seacliffs. Three eggs are laid and the reptilian looking chicks soon develop the brown immature plumage. They feed on small fish and are not found on fresh water. Seen all year around North Berwick.

Common Guillemot Uria aalge

Guillemots huddle, penguinlike, on cliffs and offshore rock stacks, providing safety in numbers. Their single egg is cone-shaped to prevent it rolling off the cliff. They have pointed bills and are slightly larger than the similar razorbill, with dark brown back and wings. The chick flutters down to the sea from the nesting ledge when only a third grown and moves away with its father which feeds it until it is fledged. Nests on all the islands near North Berwick.



Fulmaris glacialis

Alca torda

Black back and wings with a deep blunt bill marked with white lines distinguishes it from the guillemot. Nests in similar cliff locations but usually in crevices and on smaller ledges. The single chick also leaves for the sea when still very small. Expert swimmers, they eat small fish and crustacea.

Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica

The instantly recognisable seabird clown, the puffins are smaller, at 26-29cm (10-12in) in length, than the other auk species, guillemots and razorbills. They nest in burrows excavated with their bills and feet where they lay just one egg. The chick (puffling) is fed with small fish brought by both parents and only leaves the burrow when it finally departs at night for the sea.

The fulmar is an ocean-going member of the petrel family with its typical tubelike nostrils distinguished from gulls by its stiff-winged, gliding flight. They have medium pale grey wings with white beneath. To protect itself the adult and chick can spit out their stomach contents, an oily foul smelling liquid. Only one egg is laid, usually on grassy ledges near the top of cliffs, and the chick fledges in September. They are common in the Firth of Forth and live for up to 50 years.

Common and Arctic Tern

Great Blackbacked Gull Larus marinus

Sterna hirundo and Sterna paradisaea

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla

The largest British gull, up to 74cm (28in) long with a 1.7m (5.4ft) wingspan. The adults have black upperparts with white wing tips and fleshcoloured legs. The call is deeper than the smaller gulls. With its massive bill the great black-backed gull is a formidable predator capable of killing puffins which they can catch in flight. They frequently rob other seabirds of their catch. They typically lay 3 eggs in a lined nest on the ground often on a rocky knoll or stack.

Lesser Blackbacked Gull Larus fuscus

The lesser is a smaller bird than the great blackbacked gull, with dark grey upperparts and yellow legs. They also nest on the ground with typically 3 eggs. The bill is yellow with a red spot which the young peck to induce the parent to regurgitate food. The call is a “laughing” cry like that of the herring gull (to which this species is closely related) but with a markedly deeper pitch. Most migrate south during the winter.

Herring Gull Larus argentatus

The herring gull’s pale grey upperparts and pink legs separates it from the lesser blackbacked gull. Both species breed in large colonies on most of the Forth islands. Like other Larus gulls they are omnivores, catching, stealing and scavenging a wide variety of food at sea and inland. Immature birds go through different brown stages before reaching adult plumage in their fourth year. Present all year in East Lothian.

The black legged kittiwake has a white head and body, with grey upperparts, wings tipped solid black and a yellow bill. It is a small and delicate gull and its name comes from the sound of its piercing call. They are the only exclusively cliff nesting gull and construct a substantial nest out of guano, vegetation and mud cemented onto tiny cliff ledges. They lay 2 or 3 eggs and a good supply of sand eels is needed if all the chicks are to fledge. There is a colony at Dunbar Harbour and on many Forth islands. Kittiwakes are away at sea during the winter.

Eider Somateria mollissima

A large sea duck present all year along the East Lothian coast. The mainly black and white males, with their distinctive crooning call, contrast with the brown females. They nest in good numbers on the more vegetated islands in the Forth with 4-6 eggs incubated solely by the female. As soon as they hatch the chicks leave for the water where “creches” of young are cared for by several females. Eiders feed mainly on mussels which they reach by diving.

Terns are medium sized seabirds, distinguished from gulls by their black caps, slender bodies, pointed wings Sandwich Tern and long forked Sterna tails. Their flight is more graceful, The largest of the none more so British terns (37than the very 43cm long, 15in) similar common with a black bill and Arctic terns, with a yellow tip often referred to and a harsh as “comic terns”. grating call. A Breeding colonies few sometimes are on the Isle of nest on the Isle May and they are of May but many often seen at birds from North Berwick. elsewhere on the Typically 2-3 eggs East coast are laid in a concentrate in simple scrape on the Forth Estuary the ground. during the late They feed on summer and they small fish by are often seen diving or dipping and heard at into the sea. The North Berwick. Arctic tern migrates to the Antarctic, making it the greatest traveller in the bird world.

Identifying Birds

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Migration –


orth Berwick may look like a quiet seaside town, but from a bird’s perspective it is an international airport with all the hustle and bustle of a global hub as flights arrive and depart from locations all over the world. For passing migrants, the area is like a transit lounge where they can rest and refuel before continuing their journeys.

The flyways are busy all year round with peaks of activity in spring and autumn. The first incoming flights are gannets returning from as far as equatorial Africa, and they are followed by other seabirds returning throughout the spring from their offshore winter sorties. Meanwhile the departure lounge is busy as the winter waders leave. Chiffchaffs are coming and going in spring: they are the first summer songbirds to arrive – landing in March from the Mediterranean, while others from central Europe that have spent the winter here make their way back home. The puffins are the first seabirds to go, rushing through the departure gates as early as mid-July, while the other seabirds gradually depart through the autumn, with gannets lingering until late in October. Waders such as turnstones, knot and 30 •


North Berwick

purple sandpipers arrive in increasing numbers throughout the autumn from Canada and the Arctic. Thousands of fieldfares and redwings fly in from Scandinavia and these colourful thrushes can be seen feeding in the sea buckthorn thickets between Aberlady and North Berwick. Geese make a spectacular entrance in September, arriving in vast numbers and filling the skies with their evocative calls. Barnacle geese from Svalbard (the most northern part of Norway) pass through on their way to Galloway, in South West Scotland, while pink-footed geese from Iceland either settle to feed on the rich farmland or move further south into England.


Above: Pink-footed geese over the Firth of Forth.



West Africa North Africa South Africa Canada Antarctica Norway Scandinavia & Russia

February March April May May September/October October/November

(of species)

Gannet Chiffchaff Swallow Knot Arctic Tern Barnacle Geese Fieldfare


DEPARTURES November October October August/September August/September April/May April/May


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The surrounding area isitors to the Scottish Seabird Centre will find a wealth of wildlife to explore in the locality – in the immediate surroundings of North Berwick’s beaches, as well as the diverse habitats of dunes, woodland and hills in the wider area.


Sandy beaches stretch away from the Centre on both sides and the outgoing tide leaves hundreds of rock pools to explore. Oystercatchers are resident all year round and can nearly always be seen pottering around the shore in their bright red stockings. The sea is constantly dotted with eider ducks and the striking black and white males and brown females can often be seen waddling out of the waves to preen themselves on the rocks. The beaches to the west lead into Yellowcraig – a stretch of golden sands, fringed by dunes and backed by woodland. In spring, the woods are full of wild flowers and birdsong, swallows flit across the dunes in summer and in autumn the thicket of sea buckthorn behind the dunes is bright with masses of shiny orange berries, a magnet for winter thrushes. All along the coast, the morning skies in autumn are full of geese, arriving in long flowing strings as they head in to their wintering grounds. Many thousands of waders and wildfowl arrive in the Forth to overwinter, and vantage points to watch them include Musselburgh lagoons and Aberlady Nature Reserve. Pines at the John Muir Country Park.

The heather clad Lammermuir Hills, rich in wildlife with their nesting red grouse and curlews, define the skyline of East Lothian. John Muir Country Park and John Muir’s Birthplace A famous name in the US, John Muir is less well known at home and the Seabird Centre is working in partnership with John Muir’s Birthplace in Dunbar to celebrate the life and

32 •

The Surrounding Area

legacy of this great Scot, regarded today as “the Father of modern conservation”. The nineteenth Century explorer, writer and conservationist John Muir is mostly associated with the US mountains that he championed, but he attributes his passion for wilderness to his early experiences exploring the fields and shoreline under East Lothian’s light-drenched skies. His birthplace houses an inspirational visitor centre which tells the story of his life, from his childhood in Dunbar and journey to America at the age of 11, to his enchantment with the wild mountain landscapes and the realisation that loving the mountains was not enough – he had to act to save them. The Centre also charts his explorations, writings and botanical work, and concludes by saying: “Over to you…” reminding visitors that one person’s commitment can make a difference to the world.

“To-day I reached the sea. While I was yet many miles back in the palmy woods, I caught the scent of the salt sea breeze which… suddenly conjured up Dunbar, its rocky coast, winds and waves; and my whole childhood, that seemed to have utterly vanished in the New World, was now restored amid the Florida Woods by that one breath from the sea … I could see only dulse and tangle, long-winged gulls, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth…” From A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf by John Muir, October 23rd, 1867.

Criss crossing the heart of John Muir Country, the John Muir Way is a network of walks stretching from the Borders to Edinburgh and includes a beautiful stretch of coastline which also celebrates this local hero. The John Muir Country Park reaches from the ruins of Dunbar Castle – where he played as a boy and where kittiwakes and fulmars now nest. The Seabird Centre has a camera at Dunbar Castle to observe the kittiwakes, the most accessible colony in Britain. The path winds through woodlands, estuary and rocky headland to the dreamy, dune-backed sands of Tyninghame beach. This mosaic of coastal habitats hosts diverse wildlife and is particularly noted for its rich flora, including thrift and sea aster on the saltmarsh and bird’s-foot trefoil on the dunes. Viper’s bugloss, with its tall stems of purple and blue flowers, can be seen along the grassy edge of the woodland. St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve Further east down the coast, St Abb’s Head provides a dramatic setting for one of the UK’s most accessible seabird colonies. Many thousands of guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes arrive here in spring to nest on the cliffs and stacks of angular, volcanic rock. A freshwater loch nestles behind the headland, and the National Trust for Scotland, who own and manage the reserve, have planted trees and scrub around it to provide shelter for migrants, such as sedge warblers, as well as the resident blackbirds and robins. The reserve also includes hilly grassland, rich in colourful plants such as thrift and purple milk vetch. The rare brown argus is among the many butterflies which thrive in the reserve; its caterpillars feed on the leaves of rock rose, while the butterflies drink the nectar of the abundant wild thyme. Clockwise from top: Thrift at St Abb’s Head; Beadlet sea anemone; Kittiwakes courting.

The Surrounding Area

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The marine environment t’s the spectacular gannets and brightlycoloured puffins that draw visitors to the Scottish Seabird Centre. Dolphins which are sometimes seen during the Centre’s boat trips, cause great excitement. Their presence here, however, is dependent upon many creatures that are far less glamorous – small, slithery things like sand eels and lug worms and the tiny plankton that form the basis of the food chain. We often think of conservation in terms of separate species, but all marine life is interconnected in a delicately balanced ecosystem and so, if we want the charismatic species to thrive in the Forth, we need to look after the whole habitat.


The role of the Scottish Seabird Centre in actively lobbying and campaigning and providing a vehicle for people to find out about the issues facing our wildlife and natural environment is an increasingly important one. The Centre was successful in helping to lobby against the ship to ship transfer of Russian Crude Oil in the Firth of Forth. 34 •

The Marine Environment

Led by Tom Brock OBE, Chief Executive of the Seabird Centre and Chairman of Scotland’s National Sustainable Tourism Partnership, the Centre is campaigning with environmental and wildlife organisations for the introduction of marine legislation to protect our precious Scottish coastline against the effects of pollution, development and overfishing. The Firth of Forth is one of the most outstanding estuaries in Britain for its diversity of life. The rich marine environment supports hundreds of species of bottom-dwelling invertebrates and at least 45 species of fish, including salmon and sea-trout which run up the estuary to spawn in fresh water. In turn, these invertebrates and fish support vast numbers of birds: more than 80,000 wintering wildfowl and waders and more than 300,000 breeding seabirds in summer.

Above: Ballan wrasse. Below: Grey seal pup.

The Forth also supports marine mammals – large populations of grey seals, some visiting common seals and several species of whales and dolphins. The Scottish Seabird Centre records sightings of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the area. Bottlenose dolphins have delighted visitors and staff at the Centre by coming close to the Telescope Deck. Minke whales have also been spotted through the telescopes and are seen in summer from the Isle of May. Whale researcher and author Erich Hoyt is a North Berwick resident who has watched whales and dolphins all over the world for the past 30 years. He feels that the presence of the Seabird Centre has contributed to increased sightings, as many more people are keeping watch on the water, but there is also evidence that bottlenose dolphins from the North-East are ranging over a wider area, which now regularly includes the Forth. “Whales were once present in the Forth in much greater numbers, before the populations were nearly eliminated in the whaling days, but there is evidence that some species are starting to return. If water quality continues to improve, perhaps we’ll enjoy the sight of more whales and dolphins around our shores,” he says. In recent years, the water quality of the Forth has greatly improved, and the increasing number of designated ‘blue flag’ beaches are a testimony to the cleaner marine environment. But the Forth is still heavily populated and is the second busiest waterway in Britain after the Thames. While there are many examples of heavy industry and wildlife happily coexisting, the relationship is a fragile balance. Many threats remain, including agricultural run-off, with pollutants flowing into the Forth from rivers and surrounding land, overfishing throughout the North Sea, and increasing levels of marine litter including fishing gear and plastic rubbish which can kill seabirds and marine life.

continues today, and yet every small ribbon of coast is a vital part of the estuarine ecosystem, and so it’s important to look at the Forth as a whole and to question how much more coastal development it can sustain. Addressing many of these problems requires government action and international cooperation, but we can all contribute on a personal level, and keep up the pressure on elected representatives to ensure that safeguarding marine life is a high priority. Overall it’s a simple equation: the healthier the marine environment, the more wildlife we’ll see. “People don’t think about the water quality as being necessarily connected to the pleasure they get from watching seabirds, whales and dolphins and other sea life, or whether they find lots of shells on a beach, or only a few,” says Erich Hoyt. “But there is a direct connection. Most marine pollution comes from our activities on land.” So if you enjoy watching wildlife, stop and think about how you live your life. Do you think about what chemicals and detergents you use in your house? Do you think about what you flush down the toilet? Do you really need to use plastic bags? Do you ask your fishmonger where and how your fish was caught? In short, do you think about the consequences of your actions and how they might affect the sea and Scotland’s environment?

Clockwise from above: Daisy anemone; Red sunstar; Bottlenose dolphins with calf.

One of the biggest issues for the Forth environment is coastal development – nearly half of the surrounding land has been claimed from the sea over the past 200 years for use in agriculture or building. This land claim The Marine Environment

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cotland would be described by a seabird estate agent as the ultimate ‘des res’. An ideal location (on the sea-swept, northwest fringe of Europe), it’s close to all amenities (rich marine life all around) and has stunning period architecture with many original features and spectacular views. It’s also a popular residential area, with particularly sought-after regions in the North and West. No wonder that seabirds have made Scotland their European capital and a major global HQ, with over 5 million inhabitants, home to 45 per cent of Europe's seabirds, including more than half of the world’s Atlantic gannets, around 40 per cent of the world’s Manx shearwaters and 60 per cent of all great skuas.

Scotland’s appeal to nesting seabirds is not surprising given the all-pervading presence of the sea. The coastline twists and turns and doubles back on itself, reaching far into the land in long fingers of sea lochs. It stretches over 11,000km (6,835 miles), more than two thirds of the entire British coastline, and comprises a diverse range of

36 •

Scotland’s Seabirds

habitats to suit all seabird needs: sheer cliffs for gannets to launch from; cliffs with craggy ledges for guillemots to balance their eggs on and soft grassy slopes for puffins to dig their burrows in. Islands are particularly desirable as they offer easy access to surrounding waters and are safe from mainland predators such as rats and foxes. Seabirds in Scotland are spoilt for choice with the galaxy of islands on offer. Significant numbers of Scotland’s gannets nest on the Bass Rock, but until relatively recently it was the only colony on the east coast. Most gannet colonies find the cliff space they require on the rocky islands of the West. Ailsa Craig is one of the best known – a mound of granite, 15km (9.3 miles) off the Ayrshire coast, that has been home to gannets for hundreds of years and now hosts more than 30,000 breeding pairs.


The islands of St Kilda form the last outcrop of the north-west fringe of Europe, some 65km (40.3 miles) from the Outer Hebrides. This is the true wild west, and the full force of the Atlantic crashes against the enormous sea cliffs and towering stacks that hold an awesome seabird city, home to the greatest numbers of fulmars and puffins in the UK and the largest gannet colony in the world. The Northern Isles of Orkney, Fair Isle and Shetland are also a paradise for seabirds and birdwatchers alike. Shetland alone has a tenth of all British seabirds, and Orkney has some of the highest sea cliffs in Britain, crowded with teeming colonies of fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins. These archipelagos are the main stronghold for the great skua, with 90 per cent of the Scottish population. Great skuas, or ‘bonxies’ as they are known by their traditional Shetland name, are powerful predators and skilful pirates, killing other seabirds in their colonies or mobbing them at sea and forcing them to disgorge their catch of fish.


Scotland’s other species – to watch storm petrels, Britain’s smallest seabird, fluttering low over the waves or the larger, elegant Manx shearwaters, gliding over the surface and twisting and banking on stiff, outstretched wings. Manx shearwaters breed in several locations in the west and north, but by far the biggest colony is high in the mountains on the Inner Hebridean island of Rum. Like storm petrels, shearwaters only return to their nesting sites under cover of darkness when the night air is filled with their hoarse cackles and wailing cries. A visit to any part of the Scottish coastline will reveal something of the magic of seabirds, whether a glimpse of a rare migrant passing by in spring, the smooth choreography of gannets gliding in formation, or the full-on, multisensory assault of raucous calls and teeming crowds at a cliff-face colony. We hope your visit to the Scottish Seabird Centre will inspire you to explore further and to see for yourself the worldrenowned treasures of Scotland’s wildlife.

Clockwise from above: Red cushion star with jewel anemones, St Kilda; Fulmar; Great skua; Gannets on Boreray, St Kilda.

Great skuas breed only in the North and West of Scotland but may be seen on passage in the Forth. The Forth Estuary is home to 18 of Scotland’s 24 species of breeding seabirds, but it is worth a trip to the West to see some of

Scotland’s Seabirds

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Wildlife calendar JANUARY


Shags, eiders, gulls, cormorants and peregrines. Winter shorebirds, such as turnstones, knot and purple sandpipers. Fulmars and guillemots on nest sites if the weather is good. The first gannets arrive back at the end of the month.

There’s lots to see on the Seabird Centre’s live cameras all year round – become a member and enjoy unlimited access 364 days a year! 38 •

Wildlife calendar

Eiders, gulls, cormorants, and winter shorebirds such as turnstones, knot and purple sandpipers. Gannets coming ashore in increasing numbers. Fulmars, razorbills and guillemots on nest sites if the weather is good. Shags and peregrines displaying.

Eiders, gulls, cormorants, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots more often on nest sites and displaying. Shags and cormorants start to lay eggs. Winter shorebirds such as turnstones, knot and purple sandpipers are still present. Gannets fully established on nest sites by end of month. Peregrines lay eggs at end of month and become much more secretive over the next few months.


Puffins return in large numbers and begin to nest. As the month progresses, gannets, razorbills, guillemots, eiders, shags, cormorants and gulls lay eggs. The first shag chicks by the end of the month. Some winter shorebirds are still around.

MAY Over 300,000 seabirds now present on the Forth islands, including 50,000 pairs of gannets and 50,000 pairs of puffins. Kittiwakes and terns arrive back and begin nesting. Guillemots, razorbills, puffins, gannets, shags, cormorants, eiders, gulls and fulmars either on eggs or already have chicks. The last of the winter visitors depart northwards.

JUNE This is the best month to see seabirds – all are now feeding chicks.

Scottish Seabird Centre • The Harbour North Berwick • EH39 4SS

JULY The breeding season comes to a close for all species except gannets and fulmars. Guillemots and razorbills have gone to sea by mid-July, puffins almost all gone by the end of the month. Gannet chicks are at the large, fluffy-white stage. Shag juveniles form groups with adults. Fulmar chicks appear. Gull and tern chicks start to fledge.



First winter visitors such as turnstones arrive back. Gannet chicks change from white to dark juvenile plumage. Kittiwake juveniles form flocks along with adults, heading out to sea by mid-month. Fulmar chicks fledge. Shags, eiders and gulls can still be seen.

Many gannet chicks are fully fledged and start to leave for Africa. Winter visitor numbers increase. Eiders, shags, cormorants, gulls and peregrines present.

Most gannets leave the Bass by the end of the month. Eiders, peregrines, shags, cormorants and gulls present. Winter visitors such as knot, purple sandpipers and turnstones increase in number. Grey seal numbers start to build on the May for the breeding season – pups are born most days from the second week.

Eiders, peregrines, shags, cormorants and gulls present. Winter visitors such as knot, purple sandpipers and turnstones reach peak numbers. Grey seals arrive to pup on Craigleith. On the May, grey seal numbers peak at about 3,000 – pups are born most days. Pups born in October moult and are weaned.

Eiders, peregrines, shags, cormorants and gulls in evidence, as well as knot, purple sandpipers and turnstones. First fulmars return after three months at sea. Grey seal numbers dwindle, but a few pups and adults are still around into late December.

Wildlife calendar

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Bringing People Closer to Nature The Scottish Seabird Centre is an independent charity dedicated to inspiring people to appreciate and care for wildlife and the natural environment. Support the Centre and enjoy unlimited access all year by becoming a member. For further information contact us on 01620 890202 or at

Scottish Seabird Centre • The Harbour North Berwick • EH39 4SS

The Souvenir Guide

Scottish Seabird centre Official Guide  

SSC guide to events , exhibitions etc and local wildlife issues

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