St Abb’s Head reserve welcomes first gannet chick

A gannet chick at St Abb's.
A gannet chick at St Abb's.
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The St Abb’s Head national nature reserve isn’t being given the bird by northern gannets any more as a chick of the species has been sighted there for the first time.

Prior to spring last year, gannets had only been spotted settling down on the cliffs at the Berwickshire reserve three times in the last three decades.

The new arrival.

The new arrival.

And it was only last year that gannets were first recorded as having attempted to nest there.

In May last year, several gannets were seen investigating one of the large seabird stacks at the site, run by the National Trust for Scotland since 1980, and a few appeared to be settling and pairing up, indicating that they were getting ready to breed.

One pair even brought in nesting materials, but nothing came of it.

This year, though, prospecting gannets came earlier and in larger numbers, with around 70 gannets scouting out the same stack, and with many pairs settling on the stack and performing courtship displays.

However, like last year, after a short flurry of activity most of the birds flew away, leaving just three pairs of birds, and they have remained there ever since.

A gannet egg was sighted at the beginning of last month, a first in itself, and rangers then proceeded to keep an eye on it to see if anything would come of it.

Something did indeed come of it this time round, and a chick was first spotted by assistant ranger Zander Salmond.

He said: “I feel very privileged to be the first person ever to see a gannet chick at St Abb’s Head.

“It was such a momentous record that I called a colleague to verify my sighting.

“Gannet chicks are naked when they hatch, so the adults sit pretty tight on them to keep them warm until they develop insulating down, so it was a nail-biting hour and half, during which we were only getting the briefest of glimpses of something in the nest, before my colleague got a good enough view to confirm that it was definitely a chick and I wasn’t just seeing things.”

Senior ranger Liza Cole said: “With Bass Rock, the world’s largest breeding colony of gannets, just a few miles up the coast, full to capacity, I suspected it was only a matter of time before gannets started checking out the cliffs at St Abb’s Head for suitable nest sites.

“Gannets are stunning birds to behold, and there has been a palpable air of excitement surrounding their presence here at St Abb’s Head over the last couple of years.

“However, I do have slightly mixed feelings about them.

“Over the last 20 years, seabird numbers at St Abb’s Head have declined from 80,000 to just under 45,000, reflecting UK-wide declines.

“The only species that have maintained their numbers have been guillemots and razorbills.

“The stack on which the gannets have chosen to breed is a favoured breeding area for guillemots, so I fear that as gannet numbers increase, as they are bound to, the guillemots will be pushed out.

“This feels very much like a pivotal moment for the seabird colony at St Abb’s Head, and only time will tell what will happen in the years to come.”

Richard Luxmoore, a senior nature conservation adviser for the trust, said: “The trust has been monitoring the rise and fall of seabird numbers at St Abb’s Head for over 30 years, and this is the beginning of a new chapter in the story.

“Most seabird species are declining in number, but gannets are bucking that trend, with numbers increasing by over 30% in the last 10 years or so.

“Declines in other species of seabirds have been linked to lack of food, brought about by overfishing of sand eels and climate change.

“It is thought that because gannets can travel great distances, up to 500km, from their nest site to forage and because they are adaptable in what they eat, they rarely encounter food shortages.”

For further details about the reserve, visit www.nts.org.uk/Visit/St-Abbs-Head