Seabird colony comparable to a huge city...

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Recently, due to reasons I will not go in to, I have not been able to plan my wildlife watching and have to grab the opportunity whenever it presents itself. Luckily, the weather has been so good that almost any day that my outings land on have been fine.

I decided one morning to visit Troup Head on the Moray coast, as I knew that the seabirds would be congregating on the cliffs for courting and nest-building and I was keen to spend some time watching them, as I find seabird colonies fascinating.

I was particularly keen to observe the gannets - one of my favourite sea species. The numbers were not at their peak but there was still plenty of activity.

A seabird colony is like a huge city and after the initial apparent confusion, patterns start to emerge and you get a feel for what is going on with individuals and pairs and also for the whole dynamic of the colony, and to observe interaction within and between species.

For instance, some female gannets, experienced, with a few breeding seasons under their belt, were sitting on already quite substantial nests and were building on their previous years’ nest - a heap of seaweed, mud, grasses and other plant material, liberally splattered with guano (that’s droppings to you and me!)

The male of the pair would periodically fly in with a beakful of nesting material, but it would not go straight to its awaiting partner, but instead do a flypast, performing a few circuits to show off his nest gathering skills, coming tantalisingly close to the female to make absolutely sure that she had seen it before eventually landing. Both help with the building but it is mainly males that collect the material. The flying circuits behaviour was going on all over the cliff face, with birds that weren’t carrying nest materials doing the same thing but hovering for a second or so in front of the site head turned to inspect it. Some birds were obviously first-timers, squashed onto smaller ledges and less desirable sites and with no visible nests as yet.

Other breeding behaviours were taking place too - ‘beak fencing’, to bond pairs together; neck nibbling; pecking arguments between neighbours; ‘sky pointing’ with their neck and beak stretched straight up in the air – a signal that they are about to take flight; squadrons of gannets flying in low from out at sea, before fanning out and peeling off close to the cliff edge to fly to individual sites. I love the shake that they give themselves as they fly off the nest, as though a shiver had just run through their whole body from tail to head.

The air was a mass of white flying cross shapes, which looked strikingly beautiful against either the flawless blue sky or the rich royal blue sea. The air was also full of deafening calls, the volume of which is so much a part of the seabird experience.

An individual call is stuttering, growly, croaking, but the combined calls of thousands of these birds creates a cacophony that assails you as soon as you reach the cliff edge.

It is only when you step back a distance from the edge and all is quiet do you realise just how noisy it is!

Of course, there are many other birds sharing this seabird city with the gannets. Tucked under overhangs in spaces too small for the gannets were pairs of razorbills, a beautiful sooty black with perfect white lining on their faces, sitting quietly and companionably side by side, such a contrast in looks and behaviour to their large, exuberant neighbours.

On the narrow ledges that sloped and stepped diagonally up the cliff perched guillemots, like rows of toy soldiers, more dark chocolate than the razorbills’ black and more elegant with their fine beaks.

Kittiwakes, the prettiest of the gull family, sat on impossibly small ledges. It is hard to imagine how any egg and then chick could remain safe on such a small, precarious area.

I spent a happy four hours or so observing the activity before meandering back to the car, stopping en-route to admire the red and less common white campion, inhale the lovely honey scent of the gorse, which was in full bloom, a mass of orange yellow blossom and busy bees.

In the rough grass alongside the gorse, meadow pipits were abundant and a pair of wheatears kept just ahead of me, flying along the posts of the fenceline and occasionally flitting down to the grass to pick up insects. The Zorro-like masked male bird is very attractive with its black and grey wings and back, peach flush on its chest and as it flies away from you, the T-shaped black tail pattern set against its white rump is very conspicuous.

These birds are migrants from Africa and my mind is totally boggled by the fact that a short time ago the birds feeding in the newly sown fields on the Moray coast were feeding around exotic species in central Africa.

Returning home late that afternoon, I took my cup of tea out into the garden. Over the last week, there has been an invasion of orange tip butterflies in my garden and they are a joy to see. They are a true spring butterfly and, in previous years, I have always found quite a number in the countryside around my home, as there is plenty of garlic mustard and lady’s smock, or cuckoo flower as it sometimes called, growing locally, but have only even seen an odd one in the garden.

This spring there have been lots and I have put it down partially to the weather, but also to the fact that I have grown masses of honesty and sweet rocket flowers this year.

Orange tips will lay eggs on both of these plants and the adults feed on the flowers too. In flight, the male looks like an orange flashing light as his wing tips open and close revealing and concealing the bright orange tips. However, have a look at either the male or female when they are at rest - the undersides of their wings have the most amazing greenish patches, which are made up of tiny dots of different colour. They are very difficult to pick up among vegetation, but worth the search.

As the spring careers onwards in full flow, I am looking forward to many more wildlife-watching times – happy days!

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