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Scottish Seabird Centre

Scottish Seabird Centre by Barbara Ballard The Scottish Seabird Centre, with its copper roof designed to resemble a bird’s wing, is set in a stunning location overlooking the sea and sandy beaches of North Berwick. It was opened in May 2000 by Prince Charles. The Centre is a world leader in remote wildlife viewing and has earned 20 international awards. It uses state-of-the-art technology, opening up the experience of close quarter remote viewing of seabirds and marine wildlife to visitors without disturbing the animals or disrupting their natural behaviour. Visitors of all ages and abilities can thus experience the wildlife on giant screens regardless of the time of year and weather.

The harbour at the Seabird Centre by Barbara Ballard Visitors can, using remote controls (joy sticks), pan and zoom the cameras in for close-ups of Bass Rock gannets, puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes and newborn white seal pups (in the winter). The best thing is that the animals are not disturbed in any way. There are occasional sightings of bottlenose dolphins and whales from the Centre. A film theatre shows introductory films about seabirds and sea mammals, while interactive displays and games encourage children to get involved. There are small saltwater fish tanks containing native animals and plants. The Flyway takes visitors on the journeys animals make across the world, and the Environment Zone looks at the threats to the planet and its wildlife and the things we can do to help. There are also festivals, events and workshops.

Bass Rock by Barbara Ballard Two cameras positioned on Bass Rock give access to gannets that arrive early in the year, nest, rear the chicks and leave late in the autumn. A camera on the island of Fidra shows large seabird colonies: puffins in early summer and peregrine falcons year round. The Isle of May, where two cameras are located, is puffin territory in summer and in the autumn seal pups are born. In addition there’s an underwater camera near the Isle of May that shows off marine life.

On the sandy shores of North Berwick waders can be seen in large numbers in the autumn and winter. One, Turnstones, get their name from turning over stones to find food. Other waders in the area are purple sandpipers. All year the flyways in the area are busy with migrating birds—barnacle geese and pink-footed geese among them. More than 80,000 wildfowl and waders winter here. Summer sees up to 200,000 breeding seabirds. The Firth of Forth is home to so many seabirds as its estuary has such a large diversity of life with hundreds of species of bottom-dwelling invertebrates and at least 45 species of fish. 18 of Scotland’s 24 species of breeding seabirds are found in the Forth estuary.

The cameras are the size of a small football and can pan and tilt. They have no serviceable parts and there are no external cables. The external surfaces of the unit are curved which reduces the wind resistance and minimises wind vibration and allows the camera to blend into a natural environment. The all metal construction of the cameras makes them highly resistant to vandalism. One manufacturer claims that their cameras have resisted being fired at with a shot gun. Cost? From £3-5000 per camera.

Both pictures and sounds are accessible with the wireless microwave system being used—it’s similar to that of mobile phone technology. The microwave dishes are on the islands and the Centre’s roof. They are powered by solar panels. At first the salt spray and wild winds caused problems but the Centre overcame this by installing small, tough cameras complete with remote controlled washers and wipers, the same idea as those used on your car windshield.

Bass Rock and the Gannets

Gannets courtesy Scottish Seabird Centre 120 metre high Bass Rock is located 4km from the shoreline at the Centre. It’s actually the remains of what was once an active volcano and consists of solidified lava. The sheer sides make it hard to access, but nevertheless it served as the site of a 7th century Christian retreat, a 15th century chapel, a fortress and prison in Jacobite times, and the site of a lighthouse (now automated). It is thought the gannets have used the rock for nesting for thousands of years. They were once shot for their meat, eggs, oil, and feathers. Gannets have lots of advantages over other seabirds: they are able to forage over a wide area, eat a wide range of species, dive deep, and have excellent eyesight. Their bodies are specially adapted. They have sealed nostrils, protective membranes covering their eyes, and air cells cushioning their skull and body from the shock of the high-speed impact with the water when they dive.

This adaptability means they grow in numbers yearly. More than 120,000 are on the Bass in season. The gannets fight with their bills to protect their nesting territory which is the same from year to year. Both the male and female birds incubate the egg.

The Isle of May

The Isle of May, owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, is a nature reserve. The long, thin island is the largest in the Firth of Forth. Early summer is the best time to view the birds on the island. May and June sees white sea campion flowers blanket the island. This is puffin territory with 70,000 pairs nesting on the island each year. They arrive at the end of March circling in wheeling flocks before landing en masse. They’re a sociable bird and gather in gangs, knocking their bills together to greet each other. They use the same burrow each year and both incubate the egg. The only predator is the great black-backed gull. They fly underwater using their wings and gather sand eels.

Eider ducks share their territory. In addition three species of tern - arctic, common and sandwich - nest on the May. The west of the island, with its steep cliffs, is home to kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and fulmars. In all more than 250 different species of birds have visited the island. Migrating birds stop over. Grey seals, harbour porpoises, and minke walls like this area.

During the 7th century monks lived on the island but the Vikings attacked and murdered them. In the 15th century there was a battle between the Scottish and English navies nearby. Ships used to be wrecked on the reefs around the island. The former manned lighthouse is now automated.

Pilgrim’s Haven, Isle of May

Baby seal courtesy Scottish Seabird Centre Located south of the Isle of May this is the congregating place of grey seals who come ashore to breed. About 3000 of them get together. These world-wide rare species are protected by this specially designated area of conservation. Fluffy white seal pups and fighting males are on view through the Centre’s cameras. More than half do not survive the wild winters of the May.

Craigleith, the Lamb, and the Fidra--North Berwick Islands

The telescope deck at the Centre has panoramic views of the Firth of Forth with a view in the west of three small, rocky islands. The first, Craigleith, is just offshore and home to puffins, nesting gulls, guillemots, and kittiwakes. The eastern cliffs are covered with bright green tree mallow. The Lamb, the smallest of the three islands, has sheers cliffs giving nesting sites to guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars, and almost a hundred cormorants. Fidra is home to a lighthouse built by the grandfather of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. The island is supposed to be the setting for the book Treasure Island. On this island are nesting eiders, puffin burrows, and cliff ledged guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes. A pair on peregrine falcons lives here year round.

Scotland Seabird Calendar

Gannets in flight courtesy Scottish Seabird Centre January: Shags, eiders, gulls, cormorants and peregrines. Winter shorebirds, such as turnstones, knot and purple sandpipers. Fulmars and guillemots on nest sites if the weather is good. The first gannets arrive back at the end of the month.

February: Eiders, gulls, cormorants, and /inter shorebirds such as turnstones, knot and purple sandpipers. Gannets back on their Bass Rock nest sites by the end of month. Fulmars, razorbills and guillemots on nest sites if the weather is good. Shags and peregrines displaying and building.

March: Eiders, gulls, cormorants, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots more often on nest sites and displaying. Shags and cormorants start to lay eggs. Winter shorebirds such as turnstones, knot and purple sandpipers are still present. First gannet eggs laid on the Bass by the end of the month. Peregrines lay eggs and become much more secretive over the next few months.

April: Puffins return in large numbers and begin to nest. As the month progresses, gannets, razorbills, guillemots, eiders, shags, cormorants and gulls lay eggs. The first shag chicks by the end of the month. Some winter shorebirds are still around.

May: Nearly 400,000 seabirds now present on the Forth islands, including 45,000 pairs of gannets and 80,000 pairs of puffins. Kittiwakes and terns arrive back and begin nesting. Guillemots, razorbills, puffins, gannets, shags, cormorants, eiders, gulls and fulmars either on eggs or already have chicks. The last of the winter visitors depart northwards.

June: This is the best month to see seabirds - all are now feeding chicks.

July: The breeding season comes to a close for all species except gannets. Guillemots and razorbills have gone to sea by mid-July, puffins almost all gone by the end of the month. Gannet chicks are at the large, fluffy-white stage. Shag juveniles form groups with adults. Fulmar chicks appear. Gull and tern chicks start to fledge.

August: First winter visitors such as turnstones arrive back. Gannet chicks change from white to dark juvenile plumage. Kittiwake juveniles form flocks along with adults, heading out to sea by mid-month. Fulmar chicks fledge. Shags, eiders and gulls can still be seen.

September: Gannet chicks are fully fledged and start to leave for Africa. Winter visitor numbers increase. Eiders, shags, cormorants, gulls, and peregrines present.

October: gannets leave the Bass by the end of the month. Eiders, peregrines, shags, cormorants and gulls present. Winter visitors such as knot, purple sandpipers and turnstones increase in number. Grey seal numbers start to build on the May for the breeding season—pups are born most days from the second week.

November: Eiders, peregrines, shags, cormorants and gulls present. Winter visitors such as knot, purple sandpipers and turnstones reach peak numbers. Grey seal numbers on the May peak at about 3,000 for the breeding season — pups are born most days. Pups born in October, moult and are weaned.

December: Eiders, peregrines, shags, cormorants and gulls present as ever. Winter visitors such as knot, purple sandpipers and turnstones. First fulmars return after three months at sea. Grey seal numbers dwindle, but a few pups and adults are still around into late December.

The harbour at the Seabird Centre Scottish Seabird Centre
North Berwick, off A198, East Lothian, east of Edinburgh
Also by train from Edinburgh to North Berwick
Tel. 0 1620 890 202
Open: Discovery Centre, shop, and café open every day except Christmas, April-Oct, 10am-6pm; Nov-end Jan until 4pm weekdays and 5pm weekends; Feb-end March until 5pm weekdays and 5.30pm weekends.
Discovery Centre (paid admission area) with remote observation facilities, interactive displays, telescope viewing deck and 53 seater film theatre.
Shop stocked with gifts, books, optical equipment and educational toys (free public access).
Café/restaurant with outdoor deck area (free public access).
Education Centre (adjoining the office).
Handicapped accessible
Web: Scottish Seabird Centre

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