Article | Scotland

Gracing the Windy Light: The Seabirds of Scotland

A long-time admirer of seabirds, Dennis Minty takes us on a deep dive into the lives of gannets and puffins during their nesting seasons in the North Atlantic. From the towering granite of St. Kilda to the grassy hills of Fair Isle, seabird colonies abound in Scotland’s islands.
Gannet in flight above rocky coast

© Dennis Minty

For the Love of Seabirds

Sometime in my twenties, I visited my first seabird colony: Cape St. Mary’s in Newfoundland. I realized I was bearing witness to one of the earth’s most incredible natural phenomena, on par with the migrations of the wildebeest of the Serengeti and the monarch butterflies of Mexico.

Cape st marys seabird colony

© Dennis Minty

It was the annual return of the birds, tens of thousands of them, from the sea to the land. For most of the year, they have no need of the land since they are totally at home in the air or on the sea. However, when springtime comes, they require terra firma to lay an egg and raise a chick.

Gannet seabirds with chick

© Dennis Minty

A few years after my first visit to Cape St. Mary’s, while working with the provincial wildlife service, I was given the job of managing the seabird colonies of Newfoundland and Labrador. Ever since, seabirds have been a fascination and a love-affair of mine.

Puffins pair

© Dennis Minty

I read a wonderful book in the last year called The Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson. Adam’s father purchased the Shiant Isles, a small, seabird-packed cluster among the outer Hebrides, so Adam grew up bound with seabirds. For anyone interested in birds and Scotland, it is a must-read.

“The Atlantic seabirds come to breed in a place of unremitting hardness. Much of the coastline is a sort of quarry, brutal and intractable, but above it the birds float like beings from the otherworld. They are gravity-free creatures in a place where gravity seems to rule.” — Adam Nicolson, The Seabird’s Cry

St. Kilda’s Gannets

When I first learned that Adventure Canada’s Scotland Slowly expedition visits St. Kilda, a far western offshoot of Scotland’s Hebrides archipelago, I felt like a child anticipating Christmas. Because, you see, Scotland has some of the largest, most magnificent seabird colonies in the world, and St. Kilda is just one of them. The seabirds of St. Kilda are entwined in an intriguing chapter of human history. Until the 1930s, people lived on the now-uninhabited St. Kilda and relied on seabirds as their primary food.

St kilda scotland

© Dennis Minty

St. Kilda is not a single island, but rather, an archipelago. The main island, where its people once lived, is Hirta, but to reach it, the Ocean Endeavour passes by Stac Lee and Stac an Armin.

Stac lee st kilda scotland

© Dennis Minty

There’s a pungent, fertile, fishy smell on the air that grows stronger as the ship nears these towering, granite citadels cloaked in white specks. Each one is a gannet nest, about 120,000 of them in all. If you concentrate you can see a pattern to the nests, each a neck-stretch from its neighbour, as though a mathematician with a giant protractor marked out the precise location of each one. Gannets are highly territorial around their nests and will viciously attack any intruder with their strong, pointy beaks. (I learned early on in those days with the provincial wildlife service that if you pick up an injured gannet, you must first control the beak with a firm, gloved hand or you risk losing an eye.)

Gannet nest pattern

© Dennis Minty

On straight, stiff, two-metre wings, the gannets glide and wheel overhead. Just don’t look up with your mouth open! Gannets are like sailplanes that can soar long distances with hardly a wing-flap. They love and need the wind to carry them hundreds of kilometres to hunt the schools of fish on which they prey.

Soaring gannet

© Dennis Minty

Once a gannet spies the fish, it plummets from thirty or forty metres, but just a split second before entering the water it stretches its wings all the way back and transform its body into a spearhead. It plunges through the surface at speed, grabbing herring, mackerel, sand eels, or any other fish that schools near the surface, even squid. Its impetus is so great that it leaves a vapour trail of tiny bubbles in its wake.

Plunging gannets into sea

© Dennis Minty

Flying high above the curvature of the earth, other gannets can spot, with their electric blue eyes, the plunging white bodies of their mates as far away as thirty kilometres, and know where to find precious food for themselves and their chicks.

Soaring gannet 2

© Dennis Minty

But the gannet is not restricted to the plunge dive to catch its prey. It is also a competent swimmer using its wings, feet, and tail, and can pursue fish to a depth of thirty metres or so. The inner workings of a gannet’s eyes adapt instantaneously from seeing in air to seeing in water. Since their eyes face forward on their heads, gannets have excellent binocular vision.

Gannet portrait head shot

© Dennis Minty

Studies have shown that each separate gannet colony has its own swath of sea that it hunts regularly, and there is little overlap in territories even when two colonies are close together. So, the young birds must learn from watching older, successful gannets which stretch of sea is their hunting ground and how it might change with time. They do this by soaring over the colony and watching the coming and going of other birds. The sea and the air around a colony create a space of important information exchange.

“[T]he effect is for each colony to develop a set of habits, a fishing pattern, a way of doing things that is unique to that colony, passed down across generations, creating what is in effect a culture, a pattern of understanding and a way of life…” — Adam Nicolson, The Seabird’s Cry
Stac lee st kilda scotland 2

© Dennis Minty

My musical friend and long-time Adventure Canada staff member, Ian Tamblyn, wrote this wonderful song that describes the overhead scene at a seabird colony.

Fair Isle’s Puffins

Fair Isle, among the Shetland Islands, is the place to see puffins. A ten-minute walk from the landing site takes you to their grassy world where the sod is so riddled with puffin borrows that you must carefully watch your step. Within each burrow a downy chick awaits the return of its parent with a beak full of fish. On wing beats as fast as six flaps per second, the parents “buzz” about the colony either returning with food or going out for more.

Puffins and burrows

© Dennis Minty

When most folks first see puffins, they are surprised that they are not larger. They stand only about 18 centimetres (10 inches) tall and weigh about the same as a can of soda pop. But bundled in this little body is a whole lot of competence. They can fly at over eighty kilometres per hour, dive to over sixty metres, swim fast enough to catch speeding fish, thrive through a winter on the North Atlantic, find their home nest through dense fog, lay an egg that is twenty percent of its body size, and all the while look as jaunty as a Christmas elf. My friend John Piatt, a seabird biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, calls puffins “the beer-bellied, bad-ass bikers of the seabird world”.

Puffin standing fair isle

© Dennis Minty

I just love Nicolson’s description of what he calls the “blue-collar” puffin: “The job is to live a long time, get yourself in good condition to raise a chick, find a good place to raise it, stick with the partner, don’t start a family until you are old enough to be a good fish-hunter, and then every year make the most of your one nest-egg investment.” Studies have shown that puffins spend on average seven hours per day underwater and another ninety minutes in flight. These are powerful little engines! Next time you see a puffin, think less of its cuteness and more of its work ethic.

In winter, you would hardly recognize an Atlantic puffin if you found one on your doorstep: dull, dark grey and white, dull grey cheeks, just a hint of orange in the beak. They transform into fashionistas each spring in preparation to mate. Their bodies become billboards promoting their good health as their bills turn vibrant orange and gold; their eyes become ringed by orange set off by a deeper, bluish-grey mascara; and their feet and legs turn from a muddy, pale orange to a brilliant mandarin. Puffins love orange. The stronger and brighter the colour the more attractive they are to a potential mate. Orange announces, “I am successful, a good fisher, a strong parent, and I’m very, very sexy.”

Puffin open beak fair isle

© Dennis Minty

But the beak is not all show. It is also a highly effective tool for catching fish. You may have seen pictures of a puffin with many fish in its mouth. That presents a puzzle at first glance: since it can’t get all of these fish with one snatch, after it catches the first fish, how does it open its mouth for the second, third, and more without losing the previous catch? The answer lies in its highly adapted mouth parts. It uses its coarse tongue to push the slippery fish back into the mouth and “hook” it on spines projecting down from the upper palette. The world record for the number of fish in a puffin’s mouth at one time is sixty-one. (They were small fish, okay!?)

Puffin flying with fish

© Dennis Minty

Let’s consider one last thing about puffins: their winter life at sea away from the busy, highly social colony. Their two seasonal lives couldn’t be more different. Our view into a puffin’s winter life is thanks to a team from Oxford University lead by Tim Guilford. They used trackers on the birds from the Pembrokeshire coast and gathered information spanning forty-nine bird-years. The conclusion was that each puffin follows its path alone, not as part of a gang, and that each bird takes roughly the same path year after year. Some go far to the north, others to the south and into the Mediterranean. Some go out into the North Atlantic but stay around the same latitude as the colony—each bird finding what it needs to survive and return to the colony again in the spring. If it fares well through winter, it will return brightly coloured and breed. If not, it will return a little less orange and fail to breed or, in the worst case, die at sea.

Puffin flying at sea surface

© Dennis Minty

The Future of Seabirds

Seabirds have been on this earth eons longer than humankind and they have evolved a complex yet well-tuned relationship with their salty environment. But we latecomers are causing changes in their world that present new, massive challenges.

Climate change is bringing about shifts in the distribution of the fish on which these birds rely. Ocean pollution—plastics, toxins, and oils--kills tens of thousands of seabirds annually. Ocean acidification is on the rise. Overfishing is reducing the food supply of seabirds. There are massive kills by fishing gear. Almost all the havoc that people cause on land reaches the sea through the downward flow of water.

According to Nicolson, the world population of seabirds has dropped by more than sixty percent in the last sixty years, while a third of all species are threatened with extinction. Despite the pressure, some birds like gannets are doing well, in most years at least. But Atlantic puffins around the British Isles are steadily dropping so that by 2050 they are predicted to be down by eighty percent.

Three puffins

So, when you join Adventure Canada on one of our expeditions in the Scottish isles, and find yourself gazing aloft at a sky full of gannets “gracing the windy light”, or perhaps sitting quietly on a grassy slope watching the to and fro of little puffins—just ponder the impressive feats of these bundles of birdy energy, and what you might do to reduce the challenges they face.

Man sitting watching puffins

© Dennis Minty

The phrase "the windy light" in this article is borrowed from "Squarings" in Seamus Heaney's poetry collection Seeing Things.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. His latest book, Labrador: The Big Land was published in 2016 and a sister volume, Newfoundland: An Island Apart, came out a year earlier.

To see more of Dennis' photography, visit his website.

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