Sunday, 14 August 2011

They think its all over...but they're wrong!

As the vast majority of the seabirds have disappeared from our cliffs and have headed out to sea, where they spend most of their lives, most people think that it is not worth coming to St Abb's Head for a seabird experience at this time of year. But actually there is still plenty to watch, particularly those species that are overlooked in the height of the season because the hoards of bustling guillemots and kittiwakes steal the limelight!

If you look down at the bottom of the cliffs, on flat-topped rocks and wide ledges, you will see large dark birds with long necks. These are shags, and they are always worth watching. Shags are the earliest of our seabirds to nest, laying up to 3 eggs as early as March, and quite often there are still juveniles at or around the nest right the way through till September. Shags build big untidy nests of twigs, seaweed, vegetation and, well, anything they can find really; they often utitlise bits of marine litter too. The picture on the left is a shag I spotted on the Farnes who had built itself a real des res! And the birds spend a lot of time tending to their nests, rearranging things, bringing in new material and quite often stealing material from their neighbour's nests when they are not looking! And quite often the twigs that are brought in are a little too long to be practical, and the scene is like the classic slapstick routine with a builder carrying a long plank and knocking people over!

At this time of year you see large groups of juveniles standing about on the rocks, which is somewhat reminiscent of groups of youths hanging around on shop corners (picture right). In fact, I have just googled "collective noun for shags" and, apart from the obvious collection of crudeness, one offering was a "hangout" of shags, which seems highly appropriate! There is often a certain amount of squabbling and jostling for space which is fun to watch. And when they are not "hanging out" on the rocks they are learning the art of catching fish in the shallow inshore waters around their breeding site, before they disperse further afield.

So, not only are the shags a veritable soap opera to watch, but it is worth searching out the fulmar nests too. These oft overlooked birds nest further up the cliffs on small flat ledges often in cracks between rocks. Actually, nest seems rather a grand word for the small scraping with maybe a few bits of vegetation that they make do with. Fulmars are the last birds to nest in the colony; one egg is laid in mid to late May, and this is incubated for 50 odd days and then it is another 50 odd days before the chicks fledge so it means that there are fulmar chicks on the cliffs at the moment. There is certainly not much action as far as fulmar chicks are concerned (unless you get too close, in which case you may be on the receiving end of a stream rancid fish oil!), but they win the cute competition as far as I am concerned, being basically a round ball of fluff with a small head perched on the top! The picture on the left illustrates how tricky they are to spot sometimes, but worth searching out for sure!

And that's just the seabirds that are still breeding. If you look out to sea there is a constant steady stream of gannets flying up and down the coast in search of fish, when they find a shoal then they plunge dive spectacularly into the water to spear them with their 6 inch, pointed beaks. And then there are terns diving in a more delicate fashion in the shallow bays and shearwaters, petrels and skuas that are on passage out to sea.

So, all in all, still quite a seabird spectacle to be seen at St Abbs, I think you'll agree!

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