Divebombing Gannets

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Subject: Divebombing Gannets
From: knightl <>
Date: Sat, 11 Jan 2003 18:28:10 +1000
Mind your heads now ...

Gannet dive-bombers threaten visitors to Bass Rock sanctuary

By Paul Kelbie, Scotland Correspondent
28 December 2002

For centuries, battle has raged over Bass Rock, a tiny volcanic island guarding the entrance to the Firth of Forth on Scotland's east coast, with rival armies fighting to hold the fortress. Now the 350ft-high island, with sheer cliffs on three sides, is the site of yet another struggle, this time between man and gannet.

Bass Rock, among the world's most famous seabird sanctuaries, has become a danger to the ornithologists who have been visiting it since the 19th century. The man whose family has owned the island for almost 300 years says visitors are increasingly in danger of attack from seabirds.

About 80,000 gannets, 10 per cent of the world's population, have set up home on the island, which lies just two miles east of north Berwick and one mile from Tantallon Castle, on the mainland. The fiercely territorial birds, whose scientific name, Sula bassana, incorporates the name of the rock, are attacking human visitors who stray from the paths.

The birds, which have a wingspan of more than six feet and a heavy dagger-like beak, are designed for high-speed impact. Travelling at up to 90 mph when they hit the water, they dive to depths of 30 metres in search of the herring, mackerel and sand eels. The birds have a skull like a crash helmet and a natural air-bag (its throat-pouches swell with air just as it hits the sea) making the outcome of any collision with a human a potential disaster.

Each January, the gannets, Britain's largest seabird, arrive back from winter in Morocco, in North Africa, to re-establish their nesting territories on the cliffs and grassy slopes of the island. Returning each year to the same nest-site enables them to meet their mate of the previous year. They stay until late autumn because their eggs take 40 days to incubate, and the young take a further 90 days to fledge. But in the past 20 years the population has exploded and the flat top of the island is packed with a three nests per square metre of land.

"They are taking over the Bass Rock," says Sir Hew Dalrymple whose family bought the former garrison and prison island in 1706. "It is a dangerous place. Visitors must stick to the paths and not leave them on any account.

In a BBC radio interview to be broadcast on 3 January, he says: "The problem is that gannets have started invading the path and nesting on it. The Victorians used to shoot gannets on the Bass but that practice ceased around 1900, and since the lighthouse keepers left 20 years ago the population has increased enormously".

Freddie Marr, 78, who has taken tourist parties to the rock for the past 57 years, said: "There are way over 80,000 gannets on the Bass now. The top of the rock is covered with nesting gannets, and they have just about reached saturation point."

Bass Rock has changed hands many times over the centuries. It was fought over and laid siege to repeatedly until the late 1800s when it became an important source of food for Victorian gourmets. The flesh of young gannets was considered excellent, if skinned and cooked like a beef-steak, and the eggs were a delicacy which often graced Queen Victoria's breakfast table.

But after the practice of hunting the birds died, they have had no predators and little contact with humans. Since the nearby Scottish Seabird Centre opened in May 2000, the number of people visiting the island has fallen because the centre has a high-tech video link connected to the Bass for remote viewing.

"Most people use the camera technology to see the birds at close quarters," Greg Corbett, manager of the SSC, says. "This was one of the first microwave link cameras to be installed in Scotland. We show them how to film the gannets and capture wildlife images."
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