Wednesday, 20 May 2015

A seabird spectacle at Fowlsheugh

In spring and early summer the cliffs of north east Scotland are home to some of the largest concentrations of seabirds in Europe.  The sheer number of birds, the clamour and the smell of the cliff nesting colonies is one of nature's real spectacles whether viewed from land or from the sea.  On a day of sunshine and blustery showers we visited the RSPB's Fowlsheugh bird reserve, at Crawton a short distance to the south of  Stonehaven.

The cliffs here are indented by a couple of deep geos which give great views right into the heart of the seabird colonies. The air is a blizzard of wheeling birds at this time of year; dazzling black-and-white against a blue sea.....

...with colourful wildflowers and lichens adding splashes of brilliance to the green of the clifftops. 

The path along the cliffs starts with short rise to a viewpoint looking across to a cliff where Guillemots (Uria aalge), Kiitiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) and Razorbills (Alca torda) jostle for position.  These three species in that order are the most numerous of Fowlsheugh's estimated 130,000 pairs of seabirds - and this is just on one small 2.5 kilometre cliff along a coast with many hundreds of kilometres of cliff nesting sites.

The shallow and productive North Sea is a rich feeding ground for the birds but all of these species and indeed most seabirds are in decline here for a variety of reasons such as declining fish stocks, the stormy weather of recent years and the gradual effect of climate change.

As we walked further along the cliff path there were fresh assaults on the senses around every corner.  The updraught brought us the screaming cacophony from the crowds below - and also the very distinctive smell of a seabird colony! In this geo we were able to clearly see birds diving from the surface and swimming down through the clear water.

Below us, every conceivable ledge and outcrop was absolutely crammed with nesting birds.  Guillemots and Razorbills are well adapted for this high-rise life; they lay eggs which are very sharply pointed at one end so that if one is accidentally kicked as a bird lands or takes off it will roll in a very tight circle and reduce the chances of it falling off the ledge.

That's not the only risk to the eggs and chicks though; predatory gulls and crows patrol the cliffs waiting for a chance to raid unguarded nests. The empty shells on the cliff path tell their own tale of loss for one bird being gain for another.

We were able to get really close views of birds which spend most of their lives well out at sea - it's even tricky to get close views like this from a kayak as the birds dive readily when approached.  The great advantage of reserves like Fowlsheugh is the chance to get close to the birds and share a part of their world.

There are fewer Razorbills but they still number into the thousands of pairs.  Blacker and stockier than the Guillemots, their strikingly marked bills make them easy to pick out in the crowd.

The predominant noise is the onomatopoeic calls of the Kiitwakes, a gentle looking bird with a raucous voice.  We were also privileged to watch a Fulmar laying her egg, picking at the Thrift flowers to place under her as she did so.

Among the hundreds of thousands of seabirds here, there are a tiny number who attract birdwatchers more than any of the other species; Fowlsheugh (the name means simply "bird cliff") is home to a few pairs of Puffins (Fratercula arctica) who nest on a slope on the cliff conveniently close to a good viewpoint.  As Puffins are burrow nesting birds they need a good layer of earth which is in short supply on the conglomerate cliffs of Fowlsheugh.  We were lucky to spot two of these characterful little birds - just two little birds among the many hundreds of thousands of other cliff residents but a great sight all the same.

Looking back along the cliff from the end of the RSPB reserve, the full height of one of the cliffs is seen to good effect. This isn't really a place to bring small children unless they're very well marshalled!

Looking north towards Stonehaven, Aberdeen and beyond, the cliffs go striding into the distance, many of them with their own seabird "cities" waiting to be explored.

A clifftop walk is rewarding at any time of the year, but in Spring it can be really special.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Douglas - a great place to visit!


  2. Great seaside!... lovely

    xoxo, Juliana | PJ’ Happies :)

  3. Ian, thank you for bringing this very special place to our attention. We must try to get there. Great to see you on Saturday! Warm wishes from us both.

    1. Well worth a visit Duncan; though even here you'll be pushed to get closer views than we did on Saturday!

      Best wishes to you both :o)