I had seen gannets a few times before; on a trip to the Isles of Scilly they had flown over the boat, and more recently I’d enjoyed watching them dive for fish near where I live in Moray. However, nothing could have prepared me for Troup Head. This RSPB site in Banff, about an hour’s drive from Aberdeen, provides nesting grounds for two thousand pairs of gannets, as well as thousands of other seabirds. During the short walk from the car park to the cliffs, both sounds and smells intensified until they reached a crescendo of squawks and guano pongs.
There were gannets everywhere. Without wanting to make them sound like flies, they swarmed around the cliff, gliding in deep circles as they came into land on the rocks. Many of them had chicks – currently clouds of white down with black reptilian heads. Dotted among them were the auks: guillemots, razorbills and the occasional puffin all grappling for a bit of wing room in the tight squeeze. Peering carefully down, I noticed just how high up we were. The swan-sized gannets – Britain’s largest seabird – looked like sparrows at sea level. Even the coastguard helicopter that passed by was below us. Troup Head really was a bird’s eye view.
The site became a significant birdwatching spot when gannets began to colonise it in 1988. Troup Head is now Scotland’s largest mainland gannet colony. We spent seven hours wandering along the track, shuffling across the tussocks to get the right vantage point for photos. Gannets came sweeping in to land in an endless queue, many suspended in mid-air and bobbing in the wind. There was something very duck-like about the way their webbed feet stuck out to the sides, and more than once a bird would crash-land quite unceremoniously with a ruffle of the feathers.
It was interesting to see lots of gannet behaviours up close. The birds pair for life and return to the same nest site each year with the same partner. To cement their pair bond, males and females will ‘fence’ together, clicking their bills from side to side and mutually grooming one another.
To ensure that one parent remains on the nest at all times, a gannet will stretch its neck and stare straight upwards in a pose called ‘sky pointing’, which signals to its mate that it is about to take off.
With so many birds on one cliff, it’s inevitable that there will be disputes over space. If a gannet gets too close to a neighbour’s nest, there is a display called ‘menacing’, where the birds will open their bills and lock them together in an attempt to jostle each other off the cliff.
While some quarrels are short-lived, others develop into full-blown fights, and with such formidable bills these can be aggressive.
Gannets have been a favourite of mine for many years, so to see such a vast colony so full of activity was a real treat. I was even more impressed that I didn’t get pooed on once!