I am feeling quite excited as I have just embarked on a three-and-a-half-week holiday to a strange and foreign land! As I have been constrained within the UK’s boundaries I thought it was a good opportunity to go exploring Scotland before they rebuild Hadrian’s Wall!
It has been many years since I lived in Scotland and then it was only briefly. I was a horticultural student doing a work placement at Livingston Development Corporation when the new town was being built. I have many happy memories of that year and the welcome that I received from work colleagues and local people. I can distinctly remember how friendly people were to that young, lonely and naive student. Mind you with the all-knowing attitude of youth I probably wouldn’t have described myself like that at the time!
The first part of the current trip was to Northumberland to acclimatise before crossing the border into Scotland. It had been our plan to visit the Farne Isles in June last year, but we had to cancel due to the pandemic, so better late than never. Unfortunately, the National Trust seems to have fallen out with the local boat operators, so we were unable to land and had to observe the wildlife from a boat.
On arrival at Seahouses, our base on the Northumberland coast, the first stop was to a local fish and chip shop. What wonderful fish and chips! Our second stop was Bamburgh Castle and the surrounding coastline. The castle dominates the landscape and is quite stunning, but our walk along the shore was equally impressive; long sandy beaches with tall sand dunes, interspersed with occasional cliffs and areas of rocky shoreline, all framed by an enchanting turquoise-coloured sea.
I was delighted to see Eider Ducks (Somateria Molissima) resting on the rocks; the females a dull brown colour, but the males were looking superb in their showy black and white plumage and sage green head markings. They are quite different from the Ducks found in Murcia as they rely solely on the sea and are not found inland. Their favourite food is mussels which they dive down for and then swallow whole. They are also the largest European Duck and can weigh up to 3kg. Historically, the down from their used nests was collected by local people and used for filling eiderdowns; hence the name of these warm bed coverings.
Whilst exploring the rocky shoreline I was pleasantly surprised to see some unexpected Waders. At the beginning of June, they would normally be in their arctic breeding grounds, but these birds must have been stragglers. It didn’t surprise me to see Turnstones (Arenaria Interpres) as they are fairly common, but the big surprise was that they were accompanied by two very well camouflaged Purple Sandpipers (Calidris Maritima). These sombre-plumaged Waders blend in perfectly on the rocky shorelines they favour. They will slowly investigate all the nooks and crannies of the rocks looking for the small insects and molluscs that they feed upon. Turnstones are fairly common in both the UK and Murcia, but the first record of a Purple Sandpiper for the region was recorded two years ago by a local birder in the area of Cabo Cope, near to Aguilas. This single bird has returned to overwinter in the same place during the last couple of winters and has become a bit of a celebrity for local birders.
The following day my wife and I embarked on our long-awaited boat trip to the famous seabird city that is the Farne Isles. The four-and-a-half-hour trip seemed to pass so quickly as we sailed close to the cliffs with overcrowded nesting ledges full of noisy seabirds gossiping and arguing with their overclose neighbours. There are 100,000 pairs of seabirds, more or less. The most numerous are the Auk family with nearly 50,000 pairs of Puffins (Alca Arctica), 40,000 Guillemots (Uria Aalge) and about 5,000 pairs of Razorbills (Alca Arctica). The cliff ledges were mainly populated with Guillemots and Razorbills, interspersed with other species.
There were notable numbers of nesting Shags, a close and smaller cousin of their more common cousin, the Cormorant. They are smaller and neater in appearance with a similar looking profile, except for a small crest on their forehead. Although they often appear black in colour, they are in fact a dark bottle green, but you have to see them with good light to notice this more subtle colouring. They are present in small numbers on the rocky parts of our coastline in Murcia and a visit to Cabo de Palos will give you a good chance of seeing one.
The majority of our travelling companions on the boat were there for one overriding reason which was to see the stars of the Farne Islands; Puffins. These smallish and stocky Auks are 33cms tall and are superbly adapted to their marine environment where they dive from the surface to feed on small fish and zooplankton. However, on land they appear almost comical with their stocky bodies and short legs and the extravagantly-coloured beaks that give them a clown-like appearance. They reinforce that impression with incredibly clumsy landings, so I hope they don’t bruise easily!
All three species of Auk: Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin, are occasionally seen in Murcia outside of the breeding season (and mostly in winter plumage) flying offshore and Cabo de Palos is an excellent spot for sea-watching.
Kittiwakes (Rissa Tridactyla) were noisily drawing attention to themselves by shrieking out their calls “kitt-i-waake”, which is very noticeably a drawn-out repetition of their own name (in English). They are smallish Seagulls that spend all their lives, except for breeding time, out at sea. Unfortunately, they are quite a rarity in the Mediterranean so I wouldn’t waste much time looking for them off our Murcian coastline.
I started to scan the cliffs every time there was a group of Kittiwakes as I was looking for a bird that was subtly different in appearance. I had noticed on the trip across to the islands some birds flying that superficially appear Gull-like, but they were gliding effortlessly on stiffly held straight wings that made them look like mini Albatrosses. I was searching for Fulmars (Fulmaris Glacialis) that are indeed closely related to Albatrosses and like their relatives are truly pelagic, spending most of their lives out in the oceans where they feed on small fish, shrimps, squid and crustaceans. They have peculiar looking beaks which are described as tubenoses, an adaptation to desalinate their bodies due to the high levels of salt that they swallow in their marine environments.
After a bit of time looking amongst the Kittiwakes I started to see odd Fulmars dotted about, incubating their single egg laid on a ledge or a simple nest. As they only lay one egg per year it is a good job that they are long-lived birds with a lifespan of up to forty years. Generally speaking birds with low reproduction are longer-lived and conversely smaller shorter-lived birds have larger brood sizes and/or more breeding attempts in a season. Unfortunately, Fulmars are not seen in the Mediterranean.
After the Farnes, we moved north to stay with friends at St Andrews, a town which is handily placed for a visit to another seabird city, the Isle of May. Many of the seabird species were similar to those in the Farnes, but being allowed to land and explore made a pleasant change. It was enjoyable to walk amongst the birds that by and large, ignored our presence as long as we didn’t cross an invisible boundary that they imposed. It meant that at times we were wandering a few metres past nesting Herring (Larus Argententatus) and Lesser Black-Backed Gulls (Larus Fuscus) who pretended they were having a siesta.
The experience that impressed me most was the route from the landing jetty to the Visitor Centre which involved a walk through a nesting colony of Arctic Terns (Sterna Paradisaea). These beautiful, elegant and delicate birds belie their appearance as they attack you with complete disregard for their own safety. I can assure you that nobody on our boat hung around for photos as they rushed through with screaming Terns just above their heads. On my return to the boat I was pecked on the head three times for the impertinence of trying to take a photo. Besides being beautiful and brave they are also extremely hardy. Recent ringing studies in The Netherlands show that they have the longest migration route of any animal species, as they travel between the northern and southern hemispheres; a total of 90,000kms. Yes, it is ninety thousand and not a typing error!
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