White Birds in a Whiteout

When I arrived at Troup Head I could barely see. The mist was so thick it obscured the sheep chatting away in a field less than 30ft away. Seeing as I was here to photograph gannets at their clifftop nesting site, visibility as poor as this suggested impending disaster.

Refusing to waste a journey, I geared up and set off on the coast path. I took the long route to the cliff in the vain hope that the mist would have cleared by the time I arrived. Sadly not. As I approached the nesting site I could make out the blurry outlines of gannets gliding past – white against slightly duller white.

I settled on the grass and propped my camera lens on my knees. The entire ocean had disappeared, but luckily a cluster of gannets were perched close enough for me to actually see them through the fog.

I already had huge respect for gannets, with their vast wingspan, dagger-like bills and ability to slam into water from a great height without injuring themselves. But watching them navigate a jumble of clifftops through what was essentially a white-out was even more impressive.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, after several hours I managed to get some shots I was happy with. Gannet goings-on continued as normal, and I watched bonding behaviours between mating pairs, grooming, and the occasional brawl when a neighbour shifted too close.

You can anticipate exactly when a gannet is going to launch itself off the cliff, as it takes several slow steps along the ledge with its bill pointed straight up, as if either limbering up for take-off or encouraging its companions to watch. It’s a bit of a showy thing to do and I love them for it.

By midday the mist hadn’t moved and my stomach was grumbling, so I called it a day and strolled back along the coast trail. Scottish weather is nothing if not predictable, but this means you usually don’t have to wait long for it to change.

Sure enough, when I returned the next day the sun was gleaming and the ocean was back. This time I could see gannets everywhere, swirling in the now cloudless sky as well as perching on their precarious ledges.

I’d taken lots of stationary shots the day before so I turned my attention to birds coming into land. This provided its own set of challenges – unlike their sky pointing routine before take-off, there was no warning before they popped up in a flurry of white wings.

It was a pleasure to spend time with such striking and charismatic birds and watch their daily routine from the lofty heights of the clifftop colony.

In Search of Puffins

There are certain birds that I look forward to seeing every year. As the seasons shift, there’s a constant shuffle of some leaving the UK and others arriving. One particular spring/summer visitor who’s pretty much everyone’s favourite is the puffin.

Recently I set off on one of my annual pilgrimages to see these tiny seabirds at one of the clifftop nesting sites they share with guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes. They blend in well despite those luminous bills, often tucked away in their burrows and out of sight altogether. The key is to look for orange legs, which the other cliff inhabitants don’t have.

After a bit of fruitless searching I was just rummaging for some elevenses when a flash of orange made me abandon my search for chocolate. In a scrap of a second I’d seen a puffin fly past, curving around the cliff edge and back out towards the open sea. I hurried into position in case it returned and luckily for me it did, performing four rapid fly-bys with spectacular feet dangling.

Later in the day I tried my luck at a different spot, settling in a cup of earth in view of several grassy burrows that looked promising. I got distracted by a puffin on the water, some 100ft down. Even from that distance I could spot orange legs beneath the clear surface, so I enjoyed watching it through my binoculars as it bobbed around with its larger neighbours.

Birds are like buses in that they’re notoriously unreliable and just when you’ve waited long enough for one, two show up. Once I put down my binos, I found myself staring at another puffin perched 20ft from my lens. The little scamp! Luckily it had decided to take in the views before disappearing into its burrow, giving me a chance to make up for lost time and get some portrait shots.

Forty minutes later, a magic trick occurred and two puffins popped out. Either I’d missed the first one while I was ogling the water, or it had been hanging out inside the burrow the whole time. They lunged off the cliff together and I tracked them heading way out to sea, shrinking to black dots. Not ideal, as I had no idea how long a puffin took to fish.

Two hours, as it turns out. The sun had been screened by cloud all day but of course once I had no puffins to photograph it broke through and illuminated the burrow entrance like a theatre spotlight. By that point I’d spent seven hours on the cliff and evening was drawing on – I had a runny nose, numb bum and grumbling stomach and was ready to call it a day. But any superstitious photographer fears that as soon as you leave, the action happens. A combination of bird FOMO and my usual stubbornness made me stick it out a little longer.

Less than five minutes after I decided not to leave, the puffins returned, now looking radiant in the sun. A snaky pair indeed. Every minute spent staring at an empty burrow was suddenly worthwhile, and I finally left feeling ravenous yet thrilled with the day’s success.