Originally submitted on Sat, 16/07/2011 - 14:08
St Swithun's Day - 15th July. According to legend, if it rains on this date, it will continue for the next 40 days. So it was with slight trepidation that the prize-winners in the Scottish Seabird Competition were notified back in February that we were to visit the Bass Rock on this date to photograph nesting gannets, weather permitting. There has been some very strange weather going on in Scotland during this "summer" - gale-force winds one minute and heavenly days of sunshine the next. Last week we experienced two consecutive afternoons of thunderstorms and flooding, yet this week, there has been hayfever-inducing sun and cloudless skies.
However, to our relief, the day dawned fair and I was delighted to be able to slip, slop, slap on the old Factor 50 prior to taking a 9am boat across the water from North Berwick. Calm conditions are required in order to dock by the rock-carved steps up onto the island, and once disembarked, we shed our life preservers and outer layers. After a debate whether or not to wear a hat (protection against flying fluid!), I stuck to t-shirt, waterproof trousers, boots and no hat and climbed up with the others to the main nesting area.
It's noisy, bright, white and yellow, and very engaging. Birds fly in from all angles, some landing with grace, several less so. We were warned not to descend into a hollow as the "mud" was waist-high, but several birds seemed to find this a good crash-landing site. One of the competition judges, Laurie Campbell, accompanied us, and took time to offer tips on obtaining the best shots. We had to step carefully to avoid little white bundles of fluff, accompanied by angry parental beaks, but spent 2-3 hours absorbed in observing and photographing the activities around us.
I think it'll take a while to perfect shots of individual flying gannets as by the time each bird was observed, tracked and the lens focused, they were out of sight again! It was a problem for everyone, not just me. However, I'd forgotten that part of the day included "chumming" out in the boat. I first became aware of this word as a method of accompanying a friend (or chum) to go and do something, but in this instance, chumming involves throwing unwanted fish out the back of a boat for the eager birds.
Laurie advised us to use wider-angled lenses to start off with and initially it was the herring gulls who cottoned on to what we were up to. I'm not a fan of gulls per se, and particularly herring gulls who with their yellow eyes look to me to be rather malevolent. But I saw them in a new light here. Yes, they were still pushy and greedy, but there was a beauty about them on the wing that made them interesting to photograph. The real stars of the show though were the gannets who soon joined in. We were privileged to see them diving metres from the boat - not as deeply as they might for a live fish, but still in complete single-minded elegance as they pushed back their shoulders and torpedoed into the water at considerable speed.
How lucky were we? And to prove it, I received my first and only splat of the day - on the forehead!
Many thanks to the Scottish Seabird Centre for giving us this rare opportunity, Andy from the Seabird Centre for being our guide, Gordon and his mate for shipping us out there, and to Laurie Campbell for his steady hand on the photographic tiller during the day.