Troup Head – Scotland’s only mainland gannet colony: a pungent aroma of guano fills the air as I walk closer to life on the edges and ledges amid the gentle songs of skylarks. If eulogies are a celebration tribute, then there is no better bird to sing them. Rising higher and higher into a racing sky of bruised clouds, a duet carries over dancing barley fields. Salt-crisped flowers and feathery grasses sway to the music. Skylark song is joyous yet mournful, and like the gannet at the opposite end of the avian spectrum, this tiny bird is vulnerable. And in decline.
Over the summit of a gorse-fringed path where yellowhammers join the choir, the raucous sound of gannets suddenly takes over – engulfs, enchants, and intoxicates me; gannets are brilliant – brilliant black and white, brilliant flyers and divers, simply brilliant birds. When you are privileged to spend time in their company, that radiant brilliance enters your soul. It’s not only the wind that makes my eyes water.
The gannetry seems strong this year, but gauging numbers is complex: the devastation of 2023, when 40% of the adult birds and 90% of their chicks died of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPA), says it all. Much of the activity occurs far below the sheer, giddying precipices where birds squabble and jostle for space, holding onto their tiny patch, constantly alert to intruders. A harsh stab is the price for venturing too close. I wonder if the unseen pairs in the lower reaches, strongly bonded for life, are safely raising their single down-clad gugas. What new perils do they face? Do skylarks sing of past and continuing losses and the threats that beset every living thing, as well as to impress mates and the sheer joy of living?
Last year, bodies resembling sodden grey dishcloths littered beaches their dagger-like bills wedged in sand or between stones, like abandoned blunt knives in the bottom of a crumby cutlery drawer. Once sapphire eyes glazed over, shut or had long gone from their sockets, pecked out by voracious gulls, only to lead them to a similar demise. Death was everywhere. Strictly advised not to pick up the deceased, there was no helping those clinging to a thread thinner than a cobweb. Close contact risks further spread; it could jump the divide into the human population.
Gannets make poor patients – they are feisty, fearless, defensive, and ungrateful – almost arrogant, but that arrogance is what makes them, in my book, the most awe-inspiring of birds. In nearly 40 years of wildlife rehabilitation, I have disentangled them from ropes, ghost fishing gear, and plastic drink can holders and seen them plastered in oil. I bow to their tenacity and resolve to strike out and fight on as I have helped to take them through an intense washing process. HPA hit this, our largest and most dramatic seabird, hard and took every drop of fight right out of it. Gannets gave in; they succumbed. A year ago, I looked at the Bass Rock through binoculars – the magnificent basalt plug, usually seen as a great wedding cake generously dolloped with icing of white, had changed. The gannets had gone – my circular vignette was a funereal brown.
This year has been my Solan goose summer. It’s a vernacular name that suits the gannet well. I have spent time at Troup Head and Shetland, the islands of eternal summer daylight. In Shetland, Simmer Dim and unprecedented heat brought perfect opportunities to spend time among gannets at our most northern nature reserve, Hermaness, and in a boat beneath the great sea-girt bastions of Noss. Seeing gannets on this scale transported me back to my first life-changing sighting of the massive sea stacks – Stac Lee and Stac an Armin, St Kilda’s extraordinary gannetries. Then from the bow of a tall ship, my son and I watched thousands of gannets through rainbows of sun-lit squalls shining, plunging, drifting on the water, and filling the sky with racket and aroma. Being close to Gannets floors me. When my son was little, there was a glorious visit to Bass Rock. Gannets left their brilliance on him too. His pencil drawings with notes are on my study wall – ‘Gannites are like masked bandits compared to other birds’.
On Shetland, swathes of swirling maritime fog mingled with gannets’ clamouring cacophony. Plunging with lethal precision, they erupted with fish through fizzing foam and froth – the collective noun for gannets is apt, ‘a plunging’. We cruised close to vertiginous cliffs layered with birds at all levels, apricot tinging their heads, and lines on their webbed feet, acid yellow or turquoise, as they watched us throughmesmerising iceberg blue eyes. A sinister strand to the story is that those birds that have survived HPA may now have dark irises. No one fully understands the physiological changes that are taking place, nor whether they will retain their sight.
Two-thirds of the world’s northern gannets breed in the UK. Juvenile gannets have stippled black in their plumage and outstretched wings resembling piano keys. They don’t usually breed until their fifth year. Forming Club sites on the cliffs, they spar and jostle like teenagers on a street corner, eyeing-up the talent posing and showing off. As they reach breeding maturity at four or five years old, they whiten and lose their pied plumage. Gannet greetings are loud, flamboyant, and demonstrative. They sky point, shake their heads and fence their bills amid tender preening to strengthen pair bonds. There is much priming as they condition feathers with oil from their preen glands. The peace turns to wrathful defence when an interloper oversteps the liminal space limit.
Gannets are ambassadors for the plight of seabirds. Ongoing climate change is forcing them to travel further and further in search of prey, forcing them to leave their nests for extended periods. On average, birds may be travelling over 300 km, and there are numerous records of them travelling even greater distances. Bonds to their single chicks and mates are so strong that they fly faster to return to avert disaster. But how can a gannet continue to increase its speed and supplement the extra energy required in fish fuel if there are few fish? How can global fish stocks recover if we continue to sit back and do nothing to halt climate change and overfishing? If that single egg or chick fails because the sitter is late back, no more will be forthcoming until the following year. Far below, a bird returns to a small white guga. The hungry chick puts its bill straight into its parent’s throat feeding voraciously on regurgitated fish. How far did the adult travel to secure this sustenance? Gugas need a dense layer of fat before their parents abandon them and leave the colony, enabling them to survive until they have mastered their fishing skills.
Being largely pelagic, many of a gannet’s struggles occur far from human eyes. It can seem that all is well. The marine environment is becoming more treacherous, and our sea life is vulnerable to a frightening list of pollutants, disturbance, and habitat loss – entirely caused by humans. Tempestuous storms are increasingly frequent, and temperature extremes fluctuate dangerously within hours. Wildlife cannot adapt. A gannet passes me carrying a piece of vibrant polypropylene in its bill, nest material to impress its mate. Many seabirds are using human detritus to their detriment. The outcome is seldom good.
Strident calls reach a crescendo as the strength of the salt breeze triggers a spectacular flypast. Hundreds of gannets play in the air currents – subtle movements of perfectly preened feathers guide massive wings as they cruise the thermals – oh so close to me! A bird stares straight at me through one blue and one black eye. These eyes tell a story; it has survived HPA, but what will its fate be if we cannot conquer our warming climate: nature can live without us, but we cannot live without nature. We can continue to tell ourselves there is still time, but that time has already run dry. The skylark’s eulogies will become swansongs. And then they will cease.