Up until last spring there had only been three occasions in the last 30 years or so when gannets had been seen settling down on the cliffs at St Abb’s Head. In late May 2016, a number of birds started prospecting one of the large seabird stacks (Foul Carr) with a few settling onto the stack and pairing up, looking like they were getting ready to breed. One pair even brought in nesting material which, but nothing came of it.
This year, the prospecting birds came earlier and in larger numbers, with around 70 gannets scouting out the same stack, and with many pairs settling on the stack and performing courtship displays. However, as with last year, after a short flurry of activity most of the birds left, leaving just three pairs of birds which have been sitting tight since then.
The sighting of an egg, at the beginning of June, was a first in itself, and we have been watching and waiting with baited breath to see if anything would come of it.
It was such a momentous record that when Zander spotted it he called me and I went up to verify the sighting. Gannet chicks are naked when they hatch, so the adults sit pretty tight on them to keep them warm until they develop insulating down. So it was a nail biting hour and half, a during which we were only getting the briefest of glimpses of something in the nest, before I was able to get a good enough view to confirm that it was definitely a chick and Zander wasn’t just seeing things! Its also been tricky getting a photo of the small chick - but Zander did manage to snatch this shot when the adult stood up to stretch. No doubt we will get more once the chick gets a bit bigger and grows down.
With Bass Rock, the world’s largest breeding colony of gannets just a few miles up the coast, full to capacity, it was only a matter of time before gannets started checking out the cliffs at St Abb’s Head for suitable nest sites. Gannets are stunning birds to behold and there has been a palpable air of excitement surrounding their presence here at St Abb’s Head over the last couple of years. However, we do have slightly mixed feelings about them taking up residence at St Abb's Head. Over the last 20 years seabird numbers at St Abb’s Head have declined from 80,000 to just under 45,000 birds, reflecting UK wide declines. The only species that have maintained their numbers have been guillemots and razorbills. The stack on which the gannets have chosen to breed is a favoured breeding area for guillemots, so I fear that as gannet numbers increase, as they are bound to, the guillemots will be pushed out. This feels very much like a pivotal moment for the seabird colony at St Abb’s Head, and only time will tell what will happen in the years to come.