The wind felt chilly as the boat turned northwards. From the ocean, the quaint little fishing town of Seahouses looked as pretty as a painting. Our conditions were far more uncertain, thanks to the wind, and a few of my co-passengers were already seasick.
Nest egg: Nearly 120,000 gannets, Europe’s largest seabird, call Bass Rock home. Photograph: D.K. Bhaskar
We’d been warned. “The sea is rough, it may be difficult to land on the rocks,” an old man with a deeply lined face had told us. A few minutes later, I realized he was Billy Shiel himself. A fisherman, Shiel, 79, was the first to open the eyes of the world to the fabulous bird life around Farne, an uninhabited group of rocky islands off the coast of Northumberland in north-east England.
In the 60 years since then, Shiel has been awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) and even accompanied Queen Elizabeth II on her tour of the islands. It was the same boat, Glad Tidings V, that 15 of us hopped into early one April morning. He was spot on about the weather and as infallible when it came to spotting bird and animal species.
“To your right is a pair of puffins, on the rocks, to the left, you see grey seals with pups, in front are guillemots and eiders. Welcome to Farne Islands!”
To be very honest, that is what we assume he said: Around 100,000 birds greeted us in their shrill voices as we landed on the island. Curious seals popped in and out of the water to survey the new intruders as the sun shone on the yellow-green lichen-covered rocks. Just then, a huge wave rose off the North Sea and drenched us all to the skin. Talk of a cold greeting!
Also See Trip Planner/Farne Islands and Bass Rock (Graphic)
“Wear your caps and be watchful. There are nesting birds all around,” warned Shannon Marsh, a National Trust warden and caretaker for the island. It was spring, and impossible to miss the line-up of eggs and incubating mothers. Abandon all thoughts of a look up close, though: A mind-reading Arctic tern swooped on my head with its powerful red beak, possibly with the intention of pecking out any such ideas I may have entertained. The pain was instant and excruciating.
Uniquely, these islands are home mostly to ground-nesting species of birds. A tiny square segment of beach below the rocks was dotted with hundreds of sandwich terns, incubating eggs or feeding their young. Stepping carefully to avoid any chicks or eggs, we raced uphill.
Bird of prey: Around 75,000 puffins breed on the islands. Photograph: D.K. Bhaskar
And right into a puffin colony. These curious-looking birds, with parrot-like beaks and monastic plumage, dominate the islands. “More than 75,000 puffins breed on these little islands, along with 30 other species of seabirds. Nearly 160 different species of birds migrate through this passage every year,” said Marsh, carefully guiding us along the wooden pathways.
Along the way, male and female puffins peeped out of burrows with their brilliant large eyes, unperturbed by the human invasion. Their bright beaks created a designer contrast with their black-and-white bodies, but the colour would dim with the passing of the breeding season, Marsh said.
The black-and-white theme continued further up the North Sea, off the coast of Scotland, blown up in 70mm in the form of elegant gannets. Like Seahouses, North Berwick, about 1km from the sea, finds a place on the world map solely because of its proximity to a bird island. Bass Rock has been described as “one of the most exhilarating wildlife experiences available to man” by broadcaster-naturalist Sir David Attenborough and I was soon about to find out why.
Bass Rock’s Shiel is a man named Chris Marr, a Scottish fisherman with an inherited knowledge of weather patterns and a 41ft converted fishing boat called Sula II, which he uses to take travellers to the island. “The gannets…they are waiting for us on top,” he said.
Fifteen minutes into the water, just as I was becoming convinced I wasn’t dressed for the Scottish spring, Marr pointed to a huge upright formation painted in white and yellow. White and yellow, in what I knew was essentially a volcanic plug? As I did a double take, I realized gannets covered every inch of the rocky black surface, fighting for space as some rose squawking, careening, wheeling, whizzing, and returned to find their perches taken.
“The birds are very loving towards their mates and they do a lot of petting and bonding. They (spend the) winter in south-west Africa and return to mate with their one lifelong partner here at the Bass,” said Marr as we landed.
If the Farne Islands are a national nature reserve, Bass Rock is protected by the Scottish Seabird Centre, an active nature conservation group. Sighting the gannets—Europe’s largest seabirds—here is supposed to be the avian equivalent of the great migration of the African savannah or the swarming of the Monarch butterflies in Angangueo, Mexico. Around 120,000 gannets and other seabirds live on the island; the buzz of activity makes it a bit like being in the busiest airport in the world.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
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