• Ben


Updated: Apr 24, 2018


It's pretty rare that I get a week off work without loads of things that need to be done. I'd been really looking forward to the Isle of May, because, I mean, who doesn't like puffins. While the trip absolutely brilliant, and one of the best places I've ever been photographing, the lack of puffins slightly dented the overall enjoyment of things.

Sunday morning, before returning to work on Monday, I visited Montrose Basin for a walk, and witnessed all sorts of brilliant wildlife, much of it returning for the summer months. Common Sandpipers, Goldeneye, Linnets collecting nesting materials, the regular blue flash of a Kingfisher fly-by that can never be caught on camera, and then an Osprey, floating down the River South Esk, hovering for a bit and then diving with a huge splash and taking a fish, whilst being watched closely by a Kestrel overhead. Sadly the light didn't offer great photos, but sometimes you just go out and it all happens. I was only there for about 45 minutes too.

A small fish, but breakfast nonetheless
Mrs Linnet collecting nest materials

A pretty good way to end the holidays.

As the day wore on though, the weather improved, and I decided that there was a chance of one last walk before I had to face work again in the morning. With the lack of Puffins on the Isle of May, I thought I'd try Fowlsheugh again.

I'd been on Friday morning, and the cliffs were remarkably empty for the second half of April. The cold and stormy March had apparently really taken it's toll on the seabird colonies, and with such a fragile population in the UK, I wondered how many we'd see this year. What a difference two days makes!!

I'd go as far as to say that there were more birds than there were at any time I visited last year. There was little space to spare on some of the cliffs. The RSPB count a couple of years ago was about 126,000 birds on this coastline - it is genuinely one of the most spectacular things any bird watcher can see. A nice westerly breeze also ensures it can be seen without retching at the smell!

It all looks so friendly, but there are regularly pretty vicious scraps over the best ledges
The coastline is like this for around 2.5 miles

I don't think I've ever bumped into anyone here who isn't utterly gobsmacked by the place. I love visiting new places, the Isle of May was amazing, and Troup Head is just spectacular, but nowhere yet tops this.

I've been about six or seven times this year already, as early as January, when there were Guillemots by the thousand sheltering from a storm, and a couple of weeks ago when there were almost no birds at all.

So why is it so special? Several reasons - and several species.

The walk in usually offers some farmland birds - Linnet, Wren, Wagtails, Stonechats, Yellowhammer, Meadow and Rock Pipits, and the always entertaining Jackdaws. The bay at Crawton itself is usually busy with Herring Gulls and Fulmars. The spectacular waterfall looks great from the south, but the small pool at the top of the falls is also great, with Herring Gulls bathing in it, and Kittiwakes collecting nest materials and mud.

Crawton Waterfall

Views South towards Catterline and Tod Head Lighthouse are also pretty spectacular.

In late summer, the first bit of the walk is also good for butterflies and wildflowers, so it's an excuse to make the camera bag even heavier by putting in macro gear.

But the cliffs are very much the highlight, with five main species of bird to watch. Kittiwakes and Razorbills occupy the first 15 to 20 feet of the cliffs from the top, and are probably the easiest to photograph as a result. Many places allow you to see them quite close without risking certain death, but bravery can be rewarded as they are quite tolerant of cameras peering over the edge at them. There are around 7,500 Razorbills and up to 20,000 Kittiwakes at Fowlsheugh, although the latter has dropped from almost four times that in the 1990s.


Fulmars are also present in the top few feet of the cliff. Fulmars are a relation of the Albatross, and have terrific characters. They are very entertaining to watch, and as pairs mate for life and return to the same nest sites year on year, you feel you get to know their personalities. They can nest well into their 50s as well, so there are many years to observe their behaviour. They always seem like such close couples.

Happy couple taken a couple of weeks ago
Same nest last year - the adult looks a little less impressed with a youngster to look after

From about 20 feet down from the top of the cliffs to the sea below is the Guillemot zone. Upwards of 60,000 of them! It's great to watch them huddled together, and later in the season, protecting eggs and chicks precariously positioned on tiny ledges. Their eggs are pointed so that they roll around in small circles, but there is barely room for this on many of the ledges. The cliffs are made up of puddingstone, with boulders and round stones suspended in a sandstone cement. Constant erosion often leaves hollows which are quickly claimed as penthouse suites - normally by Kittiwakes - you can just make out the tails of two opportunists in the image below.

Some groups obviously claim the best ledges and guard them

The star of the show will always be the Puffin though. I never tire of seeing people's faces when they see them for the first time here. I guess mine was exactly the same 13 months ago when it was me seeing my first Puffin.

Almost everyone's first comment is 'they are soooo small!'

Puffins are so photogenic, and most photos are of them alone, or in groups of Puffins, and not in any context to show their size. Beaks full of sandeels don't really help because sandeels are tiny too.

Puffins are much smaller than people often expect. This one spent ages trying to balance on the rock, with feet designed 90% for swimming and 10% for digging, and clearly 0% for balancing on pointy rocks. It looked so incredibly pleased with itself when it found the balance point though
After everyone had gone home for the evening last night, this one bird sat close to the top of the cliffs

The last day of my Spring holiday was the best day I've had with a camera in 2018, and it just underlined to me that Fowlsheugh is pretty hard to beat for nesting seabirds - sometimes the grass isn't greener on the other side and we've got the best of the best right in front of us.

That was after experiencing a small snippet of what Montrose Basin offers in the morning.

What was landscape photography again? I've forgotten all about that for now...

I might be going to Troup Head at the weekend though, ha ha!

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