Monday, 8 February 2016

Roger Lever - Gannets and The Bass Rock

Bass Rock has been described as the 8th wonder of the world. One could easily think that if you have been dumped in the middle of a colony of 150,000 gannets on this big chunk of Basalt jutting out of the Firth of Forth.

Getting there is another story however. A bit like St Kilda, landing on the island is governed solely by the weather and sea conditions. You have to prebook your trip months in advance and keep your fingers crossed that the weather is going to be kind for you. It took me 5 attempts the first time I tried BUT on the fifth all went smoothly. The 3/4 hour trip from Dunbar went on time at 6am and we were assisted onto the concrete staircase that takes you up onto the Rock itself.

The first thing that strikes you even before you have landed is the amazing visual spectacle of thousands of gannets flying around, landing and taking off in all directions. It looks like utter chaos but you soon begin to realise that it is not. There is actually an ancient organisation within the colony. There has to be otherwise there would be total meltdown and death of the colony. The next thing is the noise which is loud and constant.

After 3 or 4 hours in the midst of it your brain seems to cancel it out. And then of course there is the SMELL. Well what else would you expect when 150,000 birds shit guano many ( hundreds) times a day either from their nest site or from above. The thing that I noticed was that birds on the nest fired it horizontally so as not contaminate their own nest. I don’t think they really cared where it landed after that! The winter rain and storms do a good job in pressure washing the island ready for the gannets return the following year.

Making ones way up the path towards the centre of the colony is quite and obstacle course, the obstacles of course are gannets - of all ages. They breed from early spring through to late autumn. Over the last 50 years the original small colony has grown to take over 80-90% of the available surface area on the island. Seen from a distance the island looks almost totally white. The nesting sites are crammed together with a small but finite distance between them. Needless to say at this short distance there are mistakes resulting in arguments and brief encounters with other parents offspring.

Gannets generally mate for life unless one or other dies for whatever reason and they occupy the same nest site each year. The gannets life is governed by body language, displays and call signals developed over thousand of years. Of course they are organised! They are also very prolific hunters of fish, travelling sometimes hundreds of kilometres a day returning with crops full of fish for their single offspring. All this has resulted in the gannet being one of our most successful breeding seabirds.

We wouldn’t know all this of course without the intense studies made by Bryan Nelson and his wife June. They lived on the island in a wooden hut for three years. How better to study any species of animal. Live with them.
I have been very fortunate to meet Bryan and June. Bryan's book ‘On the Rocks’ is well worth a read should you wish to find out more about their adventures studying the various gannet species around the globe.

I have made two short films of Bryan one in my studio and the second at his home in Kirkcudbright which was not that long before he died on the 29th June 2015 at the ripe old age of 83.

Here is his obituary from the Herald newspaper

If you wish to watch the first film then click below

1000 Faces Scotland - Bryan Nelson from Roger Lever on Vimeo.

Roger Lever

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