Ailsa Craig on the Firth of Clyde is the breeding ground for the
Gannets that we see flying and feeding around Bute. Thousands of them perch on“ ’this large hunk of solid rock more famous for the stone that it consists of for making curling stones. It is also a breeding place for many other species of seabirds, this island, and due south of Arran and due west of Girvan are affectionately known as "Paddy’s Milestone"“. ’It is an impressive island” ‘with a height of 340 meters (1,115ft) giving plenty of ledges for nesting birds.
The gannet which we can see occasionally during the winter months follow the mackerel and the herring, only returning to the Clyde in great numbers to breed. As they fly around Bute in their search for food this is when we can see this incredible bird at work. They can dive from a height of 30 metres (100 ft.), and hit the water at 100 kph (60 mph). An afternoon sitting at the beach on a windless day watching them diving and listening to the noise as they hit the water is worth waiting for, especially when a shoal of has been spotted. This creates a feeding frenzy, with a build-up of the number of birds sometimes in excess of 100. This feeding will go on until they have had their fill or the fish head for deeper waters. Sometimes they dive very close to the shore giving us a good view, but mostly we see them from afar.
They are magnificent birds with a wingspan of 100cms, (3ft3ins), narrow, which is ideal for gliding. My aim is to catch one on camera just as it is about to enter the water. Their body straight with wings well folded back, their body mass is so reduced that it is more of a loud plop as they hit the water. But at the moment I will just have to content myself with the one that you can see.
This one was on the shore at Ettrick Bay on March this year, sound asleep. Camera ready I approached and got to within a few feet of it without it wakening up. A soft whistle was all it took to bring it out of its slumber. With a squawk it retreated a few metres and stood looking at me, waiting until I had taken a few snaps “, ’then it flew away“,’ This amazed me as I was sure that it had been injured“ ’and needing attention and maybe even put out of its misery, but no it appears that it was just needing a good rest. It appeared to follow me all the way along the beach, flying very well with no appearance of injury then as it gained height it may have seen Ailsa Craig and headed south, soon disappearing out of sight“.
’It was very unusual coming across a live one as mostly the ones that I find are dead. Maybe a bad dive would cause an injury making them unable to dive and so starve to death, as their bones are hollow to give them lightness for flying, so are easily broken. This is just one of the possibilities of which there are many. On Ailsa Craig many gannets are ringed at their nest sites, so I look for rings on any birds that I find and send them on to the British Trust for Ornithology, who in turn send me back the info of where and when ringed and by whom, and distance travelled. All rings that I have found to date have all been from Ailsa Craig which is not very far, but who knows; maybe one day I will find one from one of the many other breeding grounds around Britain. An interesting fact is that they were once used for food, with the young unfledged ones in the nest being full of fat and protein. They were taken for food by sea-fowling communities along with other species. With the cessation of this practice their numbers have doubled a few times leading to new colonies appearing in many areas which gives us plenty of opportunities to observe and to admire them.
First Published in the Buteman 05-04-2002