Growing gannets take flight

Gannets fighting
Gannets fighting

It has been wonderful to get some sunny, hot days and they are a joy to be out in.

Oh, the freedom of setting off for a walk without fleeces and waterproofs!

I walked out to Troup Head on one of the lovely days - it was a bit windy, but it was a ‘soft’ wind, warm and without the usual ‘bite’ to it. I wanted to see the young birds before they set off out to sea. Their appearance had certainly improved since the last time I saw them as very young, almost bald chicks. Back then, they looked almost reptilian, wrinkly, black skinned and covered with what look like white goosebumps.

By now they have passed through the cuddly ‘white ball of fluff with a beak’ stage and on this day I was looking at chicks with various amounts of down remaining. Most of them just had a ‘mohican’ of down on the tops of their heads and some on the wings, but there were a few, obviously late hatched ones, with quite a bit more.

The black, white-spangled plumage showed through, plumage like a starry night in the Carribbean. Soon these dark youngsters will be in flight and then gradually over the next five years they will lose more and more of the black plumage and gain more of the pure white feathers, until the only black remaining will be on the wing tips.

Watching the bulky, clumsy young birds squashed onto the smallest of nests alongside, sometimes two, adults, I marvel that any of them reach adulthood. They lumber around the nest, getting precariously close to the edges and frequently my heart was in my mouth. When they are younger and less in control of their movements I am amazed that they do not all fall to the rocks and sea below.

With the nests in such close proximity to one another, there is bound to be tension, arguments are frequent and a bit of violence not unknown. A bird landed on a nest just below another one. Immediately the bird on the higher nest extended its neck down to reach the other bird, beak wide open, revealing a the wide gape and long ridges running along the roof of its mouth. The lower bird retaliated in a similar manner and soon their beaks were locked, muscles in their necks twisting as they fought against each other’s strength. This went on for quite a few minutes and once, the sharp lower mandible of one bird was stabbing into the top of the other’s eye. It looked extremely painful and I was concerned that it was damaging the eye. A closer look through the binoculars showed that it was just catching the blue skin surround of the eye and when the hold was released the eye seemed undamaged.

With weapons such as these there are bound to be casualties, and as gannets rely so much on their binocular eyesight for fishing, I wonder how they would get on with only one good eye.

Sitting watching all the activity and listening to the caucophony of croaky cackles from the gannets, transports me into another state of mind. I have no head for heights, but at the tops of the cliffs, I am so drawn into the world of the busy bird city below me, that I do not even think about the height. Perhaps distraction is the way to conquer fear.

Following the path out to the clifftops, the scabious was in full flower, their pretty, domed, lavender coloured heads standing tall above the grasses. That in itself is not unusual, but what was truly astonishing, was that every singly flowerhead had three, four, five or sometimes more, six-spot burnet moths on it. I have never seen so many in one place.

These moths are day-flying, and are are at first appearance black, with vivid scarlet spots. However, when the sun catches their wings, they shine with a fabulous, oily, metallic petrol green. The air above the grass was full of moths, flying off drunkenly, sated with sweet nectar. As the underside of of their wings are solid red with black edging and their bodies a shiny blue black, in flight they are just a glossy blob with a blur of red above it. The effect of dozens of them all flying around at the same time is quite mesmerising.

Interestingly, nearby, in the shorter grass was bird’s foot trefoil and clover, both food plants of the moth in its caterpillar form. The caterpillar is pale green, fat and hairy with two rows of black spots running down its length. They obtain toxins from feeding on these plants and the adult moth advertises the fact that it is poisonous with its warning red and black colouring.

Further along, they were also feeding on the remaining thistle flowers, but there they had competition from fritillary butterflies (dark green fritillaries I think, but as it was windy, the stems were blowing around and also the butterflies were flighty, I couldn’t get close enough so I couldn’t be sure). Fritillaries are a rich, burnt orange, like autumn distilled into an insect, with black markings.

There were also lots of meadow brown butterflies flitting among the grasses, with their distinctive, black eye spot with a white centre on the tip of its wings and also on the tip of the underside. When resting with the wings folded, the underside of the top wing is flushed with russet - topsides of the wings are chocolate brown.

The nearby gorse, still blooming and still full of bees and other insects, was also strung with cobwebs and small birds were active among the bushes, picking the spider occupants off their webs.

Truly, the walk out, although not as dramatic as the seabird cliffs, was every bit as interesting in its own way.

I only wish that I had thought to take my macro lens for my camera. I should know by now to take everything, everywhere, as you never know what is going to turn up.

Let’s hope that by the time you read this, the weather is still as lovely - an Indian summer would be nice, but perhaps that is too much to hope for - and that I can get out and about enjoying the activity in the countryside, without a jacket!