Monday 29 May 2023

Fowlsheugh Aberdeenshire 25th May 2023

Some years ago, while on a visit to Stonehaven in northeast Scotland, my brother in law who hails from there took me to a little known, apart to the locals, seabird colony called Fowlsheugh at the nearby village of Crawton. It was mightily impressive as all seabird  colonies invariably are with its incredible concentration of seabirds, numbering in their thousands.

I thought no more about it and in the interim years have visited many seabird colonies from South Stack in Anglesey, Bempton in Yorkshire to Hermaness in Shetland. This year chance brought me, for a week in late May, to stay with friends in a remote cottage on the edge of the Cairngorms and consulting a  map I discovered Fowlsheugh was less than an hour's drive north.

Why not ? 

Thus on a glorious sunny Thursday morning I made my way north to Fowlsheugh. Much of the charm of Fowlsheugh is that it is isolated and very much off the radar with a minimal number of visitors. It is approached down a narrow lane, that follows a gorse lined gully to cliffs which rise seventy metres above the North Sea.There is no visitor centre to attract, no commercialism, no overt presence of officialdom and parking for only ten or so cars at the end of the lane, which is rarely full. 

There is also no fencing or protection on the cliffs, where you are very much left to yourself and it is a matter of personal judgement how close you wish to venture to the edge. 

The sight that greets you when you do look over is never less than impressive as you view the spectacle of up to a hundred and fifty thousand seabirds either on the cliffs or floating in groups upon the sea below. A ceaseless cacophony of sound from the birds rises up on the breeze to greet you and, it has to be said, also the pungent odour of fish and guano, the smell not unpleasant to my senses but others may differ.

So taken was I with the delights of both birds and the spectacular surroundings, I spent most of the morning here, wandering along the mile or so of clifftop that is now the responsibility of the RSPB although you would never know it as, apart from a small discrete notice board, there is no overt sign of their presence.

Here you really can be on your own with nature and if you have a mind to, slowly allow yourself to be absorbed into the life of the colony and the sheer beauty of the landscape in which it is situated.Having enjoyed myself so much I was reluctant to leave but I was keen to visit nearby Stonehaven to freewheel down memory lane and avail myself of probably some of the best ice cream in Scotland at Giulianotti's which put the seal on a perfect day out.

Delighted with my experience at Fowlsheugh  I resolved to return the next day to spend most of the day indulging myself in a sensory overload of endless sound  and movement at this veritable city of seabirds.

Friday was predicted to be another exceptionally sunny day as I set off north for Fowlsheugh. Passing through the wide and sweeping farmland of Angus and then into Aberdeenshire, I turned off down the lane to Fowlsheugh.

On leaving the car, a stiff onshore breeze conveyed the vanilla scent from the banks of Gorse flanking the gully, down which a burn wandered its invisible course to emerge further down, passing under a small footbridge, thence to gurgle to the sea amongst green cushions of soft springy turf, pink Thrift and bright yellow clusters of Marsh Marigolds.

I passed over the wooden footbridge and followed the well worn track upwards to the cliff top.On days like this Scotland is unrivalled in both beauty and atmosphere. The North Sea to my right stretched blue and green to a horizon made shimmeringly indistinct by the bright sunlight. Squadrons of auks returning from feeding out at sea, passed in the sky, heading back to the cliffs, their narrow wings beating rapidly to hold them on a steady course to a particular ledge, known only to them, on the vast cliffs.

The sharp strident exclamations of Kittiwakes, their name a crude replication of their call, dominated as they flew in a steady stream to a low area of clifftop to tear lumps of grass from the ground and carry them back to their nests on the cliffs.

Their numbers are huge, eighteen thousand pairs competing with forty thousand pairs of Guillemots and lesser numbers of Razorbills for nesting space upon the cliff faces but somehow they all manage to find a particular niche and there is little obvious rancour.The Kittiwakes loud cries are a very obvious part of the ceaseless soundscape, as pairs greet one another at the nest, the cries becoming magnified when they echo from under the overhanging rock buttresses or within the dark fissures in the cliffs.

Such pretty, demure and delicate birds with a soft benign look, an effect of their black eyes which impart a perceived gentility but is nothing of the sort. For most of the year they spend their lives far out at sea, toughing it out in all weathers. The larger Herring Gulls, of which there are a few pairs here, have pale yellow eyes which look contrastingly alien and unsettling, even threatening. 

At the top of the cliffs I followed an uncertain track through the long grass and drifts of red campion. Coming to an inevitable patch of gorse, a male Yellowhammer sang from a fence post marking the boundary of farm field from clifftop.His head, a paler yellow than the rich gold of the gorse, turned as he opened his bill wide and delivered the rapid whimsical notes that comprise his song. If anyone came along he would wait until the last moment before dropping into the thick gorse and re-emerge once the person had passed. At close quarters the male is beautiful, his yellow head marked with dashes of black. underparts similarly yellow, the breast washed with a broad band of pale chestnut streaks and a rump revealed to be a richer chestnut when he turned.

I moved to the cliff edge. Careful not to trip in one of the many rabbit holes concealed in the rank grass which potentially could cause a stumble, and being so close to the edge might well prove fatal. I looked over and along the cliff face, my uncertainty about the height and innate fear of falling causing my knees to tremble but after a moment the feeling of vertigo passed. 

The birds at the very top of the cliff can be very close to you in such situations, literally feet away and it is wise to take care they are not disturbed but today they show little concern and peer at you inquisitively, as you look over the edge, before going on with their lives. In a way it is touching to be so close to them and be accepted without the  birds showing the usual fear they have of humans.

Row after row, rank upon rank of Guillemots are ranged on and along the cliff's ledges, the birds crowding into each other, shoulder to shoulder in uneven lines or cramped huddles,.the numbers in certain areas just incredible, the cliff appearing coated chocolate brown, an effect of their plumage where they gather.The close packed Guillemots almost invariably face inwards, looking awkward and uncomfortable. Adapted to a life at sea they are unable to stand properly but squat on their legs with backs to the sea and face the rock inches from their bills. It seems impossible for them to perch where they do and remain like this for hours, days, weeks with just inches of ledge to support them as they incubate their single egg and rear their chick.No available space on the cliff is left unoccupied.Tenements of guillemots would not be an inappropriate metaphor for what I was looking at.

And all the while there is a constant murmur of sound from the birds, a purring, rising and falling, pulsing like a motor running distantly.Wherever I go on the clifftop the sound rises up on the wind from below.

Many will currently be incubating an egg and dare not leave it exposed for a moment or it will fall victim to  patrolling Herring Gulls and Jackdaws, ever watchful for an opportunity to steal an egg.

Others, probably non breeding birds, perch well away from the masses, keeping a distance from their fellows.Guillemots do not breed until they are five or six years of age but return to the cliffs until old enough to mate and breed.They are on a learning process of how the colony operates so findng a mate and a ledge to breed on will be familiar when their time comes around.

Amongst these hordes, I occasionally note a 'bridled' Guillemot, so called because the eyes are encircled with white which tails off in a thin line across each side of the head. It looks for all the world as if the bird is wearing a pair of wire rimmed spectacles. I have been told the further north one goes the more of this kind are evident but they always form only a fraction of the total numbers.

The other auk present here in numbers, sadly there are no longer any Puffins, are my absolute favourite, Razorbills. A smaller version of the fabled Great Auk brought to extinction by human greed and ignorance.They do not exhibit the attenuated elegance of their neighbours the guillemots whose stiletto bills and slimmer bodies give them a svelte appearance. Razorbills are altogether more bulky and bull necked, appearing brutish with a bill that is a thick blunt instrument. But their formidable appearance belies a gentle nature and unlike the guillemots they like to keep to themselves, either singly or with a mate, selecting a small boulder, rock or earthen ledge to occupy but never crammed shoulder to shoulder with many others of their kind. Like portly gentlemen in formal evening dress they stand or squat on their chosen few inches of cliff  or huddle with their partner in some shallow recess, stoically ignoring the surrounding noisy throng. For the most part silent they appear unhurried, almost lethargic compared to the more active guillemots, unmoving apart from an occasional craning of neck to look around. Often they will point their large head and bill skywards as if savouring something of which only they are aware. It is an image that is the epitomy of contentment and for no obvious reason they will occasionally open their bill soundlessly to reveal a startling butter yellow gape. If they ever make a sound, it is a quiet but harsh gurgle.

This Razorbill has a plumage aberration in which some white feathers have appeared on its normally black mantle

Their plumage is black and white as opposed to the guillemot's brown and white. Matt black above and silky white below, the thick, close packed feathers of their upperparts shine with a dull gloss in the sun.The black bill is adorned with a vertical pencil line of white on either side with similar thin lines of white running from the upper surface of the bill towards the almost invisible and surprisingly small eyes. 

Finally there are the Fulmars. Large, bulky and gull like, their noisy staccato cackling betrays their presence on the larger ledges and holes that they commandeer and where they can sit for hours on end.The cackling is used to greet a returning mate and also to warn off potential rivals and interlopers.Supreme fliers, they revel in the onshore wind, which brings strong updraughts from the fissures in the cliffs and where they hang, as if suspended by an invisible thread above the other birds on the cliffs before, with a tilt of wing or twist of tail, they sweep away from the cliff in a large arc before returning  back to the cliff to hang suspended in the air currents once again, regarding with soft black eyes my crouched form cowering at the cliff edge Their bill is almost prehistoric in appearance, the nostrils enclosed in a tube on top of a bill sporting a bulbous dodo like nail at the tip.

I was sated with taking photos but still felt a strange yearning, something intangible I could not identify or resolve. I was alone at the northern end of the cliffs and although the reserve officially ended here the cliffs beyond were still populated with many seabirds. I sat in the grass, feet from the cliff edge  in the lee of a scented gorse bush that provided shelter from the wind, the sun's bright light reflecting from the sea far below. 

I looked down and across to a vast cliff. its face a scene of incessant activity, while similar cliffs stretched in succession away to the north.The constant calling of thousands of birds was almost as soothing as that of gentle waves on a shore but it was the endless movement that stirred me. Birds were forever departing or arriving from the cliffs, auks mainly,  hurtling downwards to the sea to wash and refresh themselves from their onerous duties  on the dusty cliff face while Kittiwakes whirled like strewn white paper over the sea.

The sound of the birds, a pulsing rhythmic background that had become pleasingly familiar was never ending.I looked out and felt an inner peace amongst this whirlwind of activity. All cares forgotten and then came the revelation. I was home, in body and spirit. Scotland my inheritance, before and around me in all its majesty, birds in abundance, sky and sea unending.

looked to the sky.

Nothing more nothing less.

Please do not let it end.