Discovering East Neuk - one of the 12 Wildlife Wonders of the World
Do you need to blow away the cobwebs? Pull out your sightings book and head to the Scottish coast to see some of the most incredible seabird and seal colonies in the UK. Whilst you’re about it, recharge on negative ions to boost up your serotonin levels. Grab your binoculars, wellies, anorak and your backpack, keep your eyes open and watch out for missiles from above.
Just over an hour from Edinburgh and 2 hours from Glasgow, the East Neuk has a wild and rugged coastline, bound by the sea on three sides, with volcanic rock formations and tales of pirates, pilgrims and prisoners. It is easily accessible by sleeper train from London, or a quick flight. A magical coastal experience awaits, bursting with avian life.
On every birder’s bucket list and described by David Attenborough as ‘one of the 12 Wildlife Wonders of the World’, is Bass Rock. A precipitous round ‘plug’ of volcanic rock, a mile in circumference, it is crammed with 150,000 gannets in breeding season. Close by is the Isle of May, with its towering cliffs, just 1.8 km long and less than 1/2 km wide. In the summer, the isle is chock-a-block with nesting seabirds, notably the Puffin and, in the autumn, the breeding ground for one of the largest Atlantic grey seal colony in Eastern Britain.
The East Neuk (neuk, an old Scots word for corner) stands to the eastern corner of Fife, between the Eden estuary at St Andrews and the shores of the Firth of Forth. It is well-known for the five centuries-old fishing villages of Crail, Anstruther, Cellardyke, Pittenweem, St Monans and Elie, all linked by the Fife Coastal Path, which in total span 117 miles. From there, right before your eyes are bountiful avian and sea life. Standing at the sea edge, you see a vast round sky, the weather rolling in and rolling past you; on some days it is almost like two seasons in one day.
The Bass Rock - Rising precipitously at 150m, at first, access seems impossible. Now uninhabited by humans, it earlier functioned as both a hermitage (7th century) and a prison (17th century). Chris Packham recently described the island as “the most exciting birding spectacle in the UK.”
In peak breeding season, the sky is white, thick with a swarming cloud of birds, the best feeding grounds having been passed down from generation to generation. The throng of Gannets on the rock is deafening, both from parents talking to each other, as they swap tasks, as well as a storm of arguments with neighbours as they compete for space. Adult Gannets are robust and have absolutely no qualms about nipping their neighbour, or the ankles of an unsuspecting visitor. Gulls nest alongside the gannets, who have a tendency to dive bomb people should they get too close to the nesting site.
The colony consumes 200 tons of fish every day and the birds can travel up to 540 kilometres or 330 miles in search of food. Bass Gannets have been satellite-tracked as far as Norwegian waters on hunting expeditions. Impressive birds, brilliant white and with a 2 metre wingspan, Gannets are dramatic to watch as they feed. From 30m high in the sky, they plunge down reaching 60 mph, sending up plumes as they impact the water’s surface. However, getting going for the Gugas (the young gannets) is challenging and brutal. From first attempts at flight off the Rock, many tumble down and don’t survive. Shockingly, from hatching through to migration, 75% do no survive their first year. Those more successful, spend a couple of weeks bobbing in the water and building up their wing muscles.
To see the Rock activity at first hand, it is well worth taking a boat trip. They run between Easter and Autumn, weather permitting, with various sailing and viewing options available. Choose between catamarans or rib tours (for thrill seekers) to get a closer view of the Gannets.
The nature reserve is maintained by the Scottish Seabird Centre, whose primary work is path maintenance and the clearing up marine litter that gets washed up or brought in by gannets for nesting materials. The white covering of guano is somewhat kept at bay by wind and rain, until the end of November, when the birds leave, returning back again to nest in the Spring.
The Isle of May - Have you ever spotted a Puffling at close range? Once you had to jostle with smugglers to set foot on the Isle, now it’s bird life, or seals. The Isle of May is located at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, 8km off the mainland coast with seabirds crammed on the ledges of the Isle's towering cliffs. The island is also home to the Puffin, one of Scotland’s best-loved birds. The west side is rocky vertical cliffs, attracting Guillemots, Shags, Kittiwakes, Razorbills and a few Fulmars, sloping gradually to sea level on the east side with three small beaches. To the east and north of the island, puffins nest in burrows, and the flatter areas of the island’s surface are almost entirely occupied by herring and Lesser Black-Backed Gulls. Over 285 bird species have been recorded on the island. Make sure to look out for the nesting Arctic Terns near to the jetty. The breeding success of many of the species is influenced by climate change, as this in turn affects food sources.
The Atlantic Puffin returns to the Isle in late March through to July/early August, and the last census counted 40,000 nesting pairs across the colonies. It is a long-lived bird, however, it is sensitive to changes in fish availability and distribution. Healthy puffin colonies signal productive seas! Pufflings benefit from the fact that puffins can hold up to a dozen small fish at one time crosswise in their bill (rather than regurgitating fish), meaning they get better fed.
On the Isle is Scotland’s oldest Bird Observatory, founded in 1934, with its building dating back much further. The Isle, a key stop off for migrating birds, is well-positioned to see any falls in numbers. In a regular October, the migratory arrivals include Continental Robins, Blackbird, Fieldfare, Redwings, Warblers, Chiff Chaffs, Blackcaps, you name it, all on the way over from Scandinavia.
Ferries run to the Isle of May from April through to September, with June and July the best breeding months. Top tips – wear a hat and a waterproof layer, which you can pop in the wash, should you be lucky enough to be hit by guano from above!
Photography (Bass Rock): Susan Davies
Photography (Isle of May): David Steel