Scotland Bass Rock is a bird’s paradise

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The birds weren’t supposed to be there. A length of rope hanging along the rocky ground of the island was clearly drawing a path, the boundary separating tens of thousands of gannets from my group of eight. If anyone had explained this to things, they wouldn’t let it. The four of them stubbornly sat on the path I wanted to move, their merciless icy blue eyes and long white necks stretched out toward me, menacing their scissor-like bills. I remembered our guide’s advice, Maggie, not to slow down, lest they be fixed on our legs. Too late. I went up to the road and paid my rickshaw bill.

I was on the island of Bass Rock, the small Scottish island from which the northern trash derives its scientific name. Moros Basanos. As I wince at the stab of pain in my leg as I speed across the road, I try to focus on a greater sense of humility. I was an outsider in a world that belonged completely to the gannet, and it was surprising that birds, in a sense, could bear my existence.

In Scotland, ferry exploration of the Inner Hebrides

‘The Bass’, as it is known locally, stands right in the Firth of Forth about three miles offshore North Berwick, about 30 minutes by train from Edinburgh. Over 150,000 northern seabirds (large seabirds with a wingspan of six feet) are nesting on the island at the height of the breeding season. The few humans allowed to visit are either wildlife researchers or tourists on the only tourist boat with landing rights. But while this mass of volcanic basalt carpeted with birds seems utterly inhospitable to people, it has seen more than its share of Scotland’s complex human history.

The island’s first occupant is believed to have been the Christian hermit Saint Baldred, who died in his humble cell in 606; In the 15th century, a chapel was built on its site. Sometime after 1058, a castle was built that, in 1406, protected James I, son of Robert III, from his enemies. By the seventeenth century, the Bass had become a prison for religious and political prisoners, notably the Scots Presbyterians known as Coventures, and later, the Jacobins, four of whom were able to hold their jailers and hold the island from 1691 to 1694 in the name of the exiled King James VII. Hugh Dalrymple bought it in 1706, and the bass remained in the possession of his descendants, who surrendered to protect the birds.

During much of the dramas that were shown to bass, gannets were present in varying numbers. The birds have long been hunted for their meat, eggs, and oil, but it was the Victorian shooting parties that wiped out the colony for sport. Over the past century, as wildlife protection laws dictated the shift from killing birds to watching them, the colony has recovered, so much so that a 2014 census revealed it was the largest colony of janet birds in the world.

North Berwick is a chic little seaside town that has long been a haven from Edinburgh. Since 2000, visitors have also been able to visit the Scottish Seabird Center, where they can control live zoom cameras on gannets, as well as puffins, Guillemots and razorbills, on Bass and the neighboring islands of Fidra, Craigleith and Isle. mayo. The center also runs popular boat tours around Bass Rock, as well as smaller, less frequent tours that allow landings from late April to early September.

I was always curious about the trip but was stingy about the cost (about $169). But, in the last days of April, when I was looking at the center’s website idly by, I noticed that every tour for the next few months was fully booked – except for a day or two. Felt like a sign. I read through a disclaimer from the center that due to the weather, flights are often canceled with short notice and that landing on the steep bass is just for agility and confidence. Expectations sounded promising, and I consider myself fairly fit, so I booked the last spot.

We walked halfway through Scotland’s West Highland to fulfill an old hiking dream

It was cold but clear and serene when I met Maggie in the harbor at 5:45 a.m. “You’re going to the coolest place,” she said, sparking excitement even in the eyes of our group. “It’s really overwhelming,” said she, “so much so that she’d better give us her talk there before we got to the island, and it was hard for us to pay attention.” She asked us not to inadvertently disturb or threaten the birds, and to sit quietly and watch. “Use your ears. Listen,” she added, looking at everyone holding their cameras.

On the voyage to Bass, the captain, Alan, told us that in the past year only half of the scheduled rides have landed. I didn’t want to count my luck until I set foot on the island–the waves hitting its inexhaustible rocks reached so high that landing is often impossible–but within minutes, we were there.

From the ground, the bass seemed to be frozen with white snow. But as we approached, the white began to move, and my perception shifted to the realization that I was looking at tens of thousands of dazzling white birds bonding, mating, fighting, scurrying and tumbling. The short trip was barely enough to prepare for the sting of the senses completely slapped upon arrival: the relentless screaming, the stench of ammonia, the lifelike rocks.

It was overwhelming. It was beautiful – if you find beauty in untamed nature rather than neatly framed. I felt chaotic and lawless as if violence could erupt at the slightest provocation. I saw gannets fighting on the ground so hard that their wings and beaks were stained with blood. I watched one viciously bully the other from a cliff. Crossing my ominous path was tinged with amazement and dread as they approached. But I also witnessed the couples’ passion (gannets mate for life) “duel” during their reunion. “It’s like cuddling each other,” said Maggie, who encouraged me to focus on the individual birds, to see what they were doing and to understand why. She told me to watch the birds “pensive” their bills, a sign that they were about to head out to sea, so their partner should stay in the nest.

We know these details thanks to the late ornithologist Brian Nelson, who spent three years with his wife in a shed among the ruins of a church in Bass. It sounds very obvious – of course they need a cue to ensure the nest is not left unattended – but it took several long hours of thoughtful observation of booby behavior to come to this conclusion.

Was it important for me, as a tourist only, to understand this? I am a bird watching enthusiast. I absolutely love them and enjoy the life or death force of a seabird colony. But as I watched, focused on individual pairs and tuned in to the bustle, I felt a familiar but almost forgotten sensation. For a moment, the world was small and incomprehensible. I watched a fold pointing its beak to the sky and knew what would happen next. I had come to the bass in search of a scene, but I was already overwhelmed. My world was crushing for two years. I needed something like their predictability.

I watched the birds hopping around, then flying away, coming back and greeting their companions. By October, her young will have escaped, and she will follow them all, back to sea. But they will return next spring and the years after that. I thought about this consistency, and I felt calm. I continued watching them until my three hours in their world had elapsed, and I was back in the chaos of myself.

Gardiner is a writer based in Baltimore. Her website is karengardiner.com. find it on Twitter And the Instagram: karendesuyo.

12 Quality Street, North Berwick

A three-minute walk from the harbor, this cozy boutique hotel features recently renovated rooms, some with views of Bass Rock. Breakfast is included in the rate and served in the bistro, while the beer garden is a great place for evening drinks. Prices per night are from about $87.

Brawl Sands, North Berwick

Largely perched on a cliff top and housed in recycled shipping containers, this café offers seasonal produce-focused meals and excellent views of Bass Rock. Open daily for breakfast and lunch from July to September, 9:30am-5pm; Other months until 4 pm

1-3 Westgate, North Berwick

For dinner and cocktails, visit Herringbone, where food and drinks take inspiration from the surroundings. Try the East Lothian seafood soup and the NB sea dog cocktail made with gin. Reservations are recommended. Open Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 11pm; Thursday to midnight and Friday and Saturday until 1am entrees from about $15.

The Harbour, North Berwick

Interactive exhibits include live cameras that visitors can use to zoom in on birds in the Firth of Forth Islands. The center also runs boat tours around Bass and to the Isle of Mae, as well as Bass Rock landing tours. Open daily from April to August, 10am-6pm; From November to January until 4 pm; And at 5 p.m. February, March, September and October. Admission is about $15 for ages 16 and up; 3 to 15 years old about $10; Under 3 years old free of charge. Bass Rock Landing Experience about $169 per person; From the age of 16 and above only.

Coastal Communities Museum

School Road, North Berwick

This volunteer-run museum covers the geological, environmental, cultural, and social history of North Berwick. Exhibits highlight Bass Rock, Coventry, and the 16th century witch trials. Open Wednesday through Saturday, 11am-4pm Admission is free but donations are appreciated.

Prospective travelers should take local and national public health guidance regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Health Travel Notice information can be found on the CDC’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s Travel Health Notice web page.

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