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Nature photography by John Langley ARPS & Tracy Langley ARPS

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Bass Rock - Trip report September 2007



Some ‘twitchers’ and photographers have been known to travel large distances to “tick” or record a rare species.  But how many of them are prepared to put in the same amount of effort for a species which visits Britain in tens of thousands ?  The gannet is a beautiful bird and its pelagic nature means that it can be spotted flying offshore almost anywhere in Britain. However, as they breed on inaccessible rocky islands in the North Atlantic they can only be seen on land in a handful of spots.  Afterwards, many remain in the breeding area whilst some reach West Africa or the Western Mediterranean.   


Several years ago I was spending a few days photographing puffins on the Farne Islands and other wildlife around Northumberland. I decided to visit Bass Rock on a day trip as it was only 60 miles away.  The boat set sail but, due to choppy seas, was not able to land on the rock. I managed to see and photograph gannets as they flew round the boat, but missed the experience of seeing them at their nesting ground.


This first trip was taken before the advent of digital photography.  Shooting flying birds hand-held from a moving boat with ISO 100 slide film gave a low success rate, but I was pleased with a few of the results. I vowed to return to attempt a landing, but didn’t have the opportunity to do so until a couple of years later.


To protect the nesting gannets, landings on Bass rock are strictly controlled, with exclusive landing rights managed by the Scottish seabird centre at North Berwick. One of the main difficulties with trying to get to Bass Rock is the weather. Because the landing zone is very steep and rocky, landings can only be attempted in moderately calm weather. Having already had the disappointment of not being able to land on my first trip, I tried to plan my next trip for calmer weather. I kept an eye on the Scottish Seabird Centre’s website and checked the weather forecast a few days before each available boat trip. Unfortunately, none of the dates I could travel coincided with good weather. However, luck was on my side – the centre had had so much demand for trips that they put on a couple of extra ones at the end of September. So it was that I found myself driving the 300 miles from my home in Chester to spend the night just outside Dunbar, ready for the early morning boat trip the next day.


Getting up at 5am it was still too dark to tell the weather conditions, but on the drive to Dunbar Harbour the first glimmers of light were enough to put my mind at rest – it was a clear and calm start to the day. On reaching Dunbar I easily located the suggested free car parking area at the local sports centre and walked downhill to the harbour. The early promise of a good day was continuing and an array of purples and reds marked the sunrise. The following blue sky was a joy to behold. I found a few other photographers waiting on the quay and we were soon joined by Maggie, our guide for the day. Prior to boarding the boat, we had to sign a waiver of liability form. It led to some conjecture about the forthcoming hazards – were there man-eating tigers on the island ?  Fer-de-lance vipers ?  Cannibals ?  In reality, the main dangers were slippery steps and the dagger-like beaks of the gannets themselves if you encroached on their space.


The boat trip itself is on a working fishing boat and lasts about 30minutes. On approaching the 120metre high basalt rock, anyone with experience of a seabird colony would imagine that the white cliffs are that colour due to guano (the birds’ droppings). However, once the boat draws nearer it becomes clear that the imagined white rock is actually the birds themselves, tightly packed together. The sight of so many birds is very powerful, but even more overwhelming is the heady odour of ‘eau de gannet’. Once the boat is moored, we disembarked up slippery steps to a large open part of rock, then made our way up the winding path to the ruined St.Baldred’s chapel. This is as far as you can go and here you are surrounded by gannets with huge swathes of nesting pairs bordered by groups of non-breeding singles. At first, it’s quite overwhelming and difficult to know where to point your lens. Some of the photographers employed a “shoot everything” strategy and dashed around to try to capture all the action. Although I took plenty of shots on the way up the rock, it was probably in the area of the chapel that I took the most. This is a good place to get a wide variety of images, including flying gannets. Some flew past the rock virtually at eye-level whilst those with nests nearby could be photographed as they came in to land. I noticed that movement seemed to unsettle the birds but they soon calmed down if you stayed still, so after an initial shooting frenzy I tried a different strategy – I sat down near the edge of the nesting colony and concentrated on a few of the birds nearby. In front of me was a pair of gannets with an older chick. Taking the time to watch the interactions was hugely satisfying and led to some interesting shots of the birds’ behaviour.


I had heard about “sky-pointing” behaviour and was fascinated to watch it first-hand. Birds about to take-off signalled their impending departure by raising their head and neck and pointing their beak in the air, whilst staring downwards and forwards with swivelling eyes. The webbed feet are then lifted up and down slowly as if treading in treacle. This remarkable behaviour is thought to aid the synchronisation of managing the nest, ensuring that both birds don’t take off together so that the egg or young is never left unattended.  The bonding behaviour between pairs was another highlight. Whenever one bird joined its partner at the nest site, they would fence with their bills, knocking them together loudly. This was followed by bowing, loud calls and mutual preening.


I had taken 3 auto-focus lenses with me for the trip – a 17-55mm, a 70-200mm, and a 300mm. At the time I was using a Nikon D2X digital body which had a DX sensor, meaning an effective magnification of 1.5 times. I was able to get much nearer to the gannets than I had expected, even the flying ones passed by fairly close, therefore I hardly used the 300mm lens. I used the 70-200mm lens most of the time as it enabled me to take close-up head shots or plumage details one moment then zoom out for full bird portraits the next. The wider angle 17-55mm lens was good for taking pictures of the spectacle en-masse, and also proved effective to take wide angle shots showing the birds in their habitat.


An awful lot of my wildlife photography is done on hands and knees or even lying prone on the ground, and bass rock was no exception. Apart from the flight shots, most of my images were taken using a sturdy tripod with ball head, often used at its minimum height with the legs spread out to enable a low vantage point. This helps to gives the viewer a feeling of intimacy with the subject. I shot most of the images using my usual combination of aperture priority, matrix metering and a compensation of -1 for the exposure (to avoid burning out highlights). The histogram was generally fine, peaking just left of centre without clipping. Occasionally I used spot metering, particularly if the sun was shining on the birds’ white plumage. On a few shots I adjusted the exposure compensation to obtain my preferred histogram. For the static portraits I used single focus mode and for any action shots or flight shots I used continuous focus mode.   

 

Soon after we had boarded the boat for the return journey to Dunbar we were followed by many gulls and gannets, obviously anticipating a free meal. “Chumming” is the process usually performed by fishing boats returning from a day’s haul – the day’s unwanted catch is thrown over the side of the boat back into the sea. This is the reason why crowds of sea birds are often seen gathered around fishing boats – the birds have grown accustomed to this practice. The gannets at Bass Rock are no exception – they begin their spectacular plunge-diving as soon as the chumming starts. The birds fold their wings back and plummet diagonally into the sea. This feeding frenzy lasts only as long as the skipper’s box of fish, so there’s little time to change batteries, lenses or even memory cards – make sure you’re ready before the action starts to make the most of the brief spectacle.


Expecting to have a wealth of subjects to shoot, I had prepared by borrowing my husband’s memory cards to add to mine so that I could continue shooting without missing any of the action. Having plenty of memory cards enables you to make the most of rare opportunities and ensures that brief moments are not missed by taking your eye off the subjects to look at the camera’s LCD to edit. However there is a price to pay for this freedom – lots of computer editing back at home. I took just under 2000 images, which filled almost 40GB of memory cards. I later calculated that, given just 3 hours on the rock, I had taken a staggering average of 1 photo every 10 seconds – many rattled off at the flying gannets. I had also taken a spare camera battery, which meant that I could make the most of the camera’s continuous auto-focusing for flight shots and not have to worry about running out of juice.


The whole experience was phenomenal and it was only on landing back at Dunbar harbour that my thoughts turned to other mundane things, such as food. As I’m not a very good boat traveller, I’d taken the precaution of skipping breakfast before setting sail that morning – now it was past 1pm and I was ravenous. The long drive home didn’t seem half as arduous as the drive up the day before and the sounds (and smells) of the gannets were still filling my senses. Thank goodness I’d been able to land on the rock this time, I’m sure the journey would have seemed a lot longer if bad weather had scuppered the landing again. On reaching home I took a long hot soak in the bath to ease muscles aching from the crouching photographic poses and the hours of driving. I down-loaded all the images onto my PC but was too exhausted to do much more than check that I did have at least a few decent images before falling into bed. Happy with the day’s work, I vowed to set about the difficult task of image editing the next morning.


Over the next few days I whittled the initial 2000 images down to about 300 “keepers”. I was pleased that I had been able to capture quite a variety of images : crowd scenes, individual birds, on the sea, on the land, in the air, static portraits, flight shots, interactions between birds. I was especially pleased to see that I had some images of the gannet chicks as I wasn’t sure if I might have been too late in the season for youngsters. However, I’m sure there are many more images to be had of this beautiful bird and next time I would like to visit earlier in the breeding season to see more of their courtship displays and their fluffy white chicks.  


Island sites to see gannets

Bass rock (off North Berwick, Scotland) : 75,000 pairs of gannets, largest single island gannet colony in the world

St Kilda (western isles of Scotland) : 60,000 pairs of gannets

The Northern Isles (Orkney, Shetland)

Grassholm, Pembrokeshire, Wales : owned by the RSPB, 34,000 pairs

 

Mainland sites to see gannets

Bempton cliffs : owned by the RSPB, the largest mainland colony

Troup Head, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland : owned by the RSPB

 

Scottish seabird centre (www.seabird.org)

Twice weekly trips organised for photographers from March until September

In poor weather conditions, if the boat can go out but not land, it will sail around the Rock and put fish out for the gannets. A 50% refund will be given.

Boat trips depart Dunbar Harbour at 7am, returning around 1pm.


Gannet highlights

March/April : territorial fights, nest making

April/May : eggs laid

June : chicks start to hatch (brooded on parents webbed feet for first 14 days)

July : chicks covered with white down gather together

August : older chicks are dark with white spots at the tips of their feathers giving a mottled appearance

September : chicks fledge in around 90 days then are independent


Tips

Wear stout footwear as the ground is rocky and can be slippery if wet

Wear waterproof trousers for protection -  you’ll get grubby knees if you want eye-level shots. Also take a waterproof jacket as the rock is very exposed and you’ll get soaked if it rains.

Take tons of memory cards – you can fill them amazingly fast

Take spare batteries – flight shots using continuous focusing drain a lot of power

Before the “chumming” session, decide which lens you want to use as there won’t be much  time to change lenses in the frenzy

Take a plastic bag to cover your gear from sea spray on the boat

Take care about ‘calls of nature’ on the rock – there are live webcams dotted around beaming images all over the world

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