April in the Cairngorms: Day 3

With a forecast for sunny spells and gusty winds, we decided to head up to RSPB Troupe Head on the North Aberdeenshire coast.  This rocky coastline attracts a range of seabirds and there is a large gannetry. The gusty winds would mean that the gannets would be  flying high up along the cliffs and, hopefully , that would give us good opportunities for photography. At this time of the year, the Gannets are pairing up again and building their nests on the cliff edges.

It was a couple of hours drive from Inverness with a stop at Focabar’s Ice Cream Parlour on the way!

The site is off of the beaten track and involved a 20 minute walk from the small car park across farmland and gorse-clad hillside. As we got close, a waft of guano (gannet poo!) hinted of the spectacle that was to meet us. The dramatic coastline and scarily precarious drops were clad in gannets, clinging to the sheer cliff face whilst hundreds soared around on the strong winds.

Clambering up the hillside, we looked for areas best to photograph from. With such strong winds, the gannets ‘ride’ the gust with incredible skill and at times, they simply hung in the air in front of us, buffeted back and forth, yet in total control… it was incredible!

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Others were nesting on the cliffs just below us and I lay on the cliff edge, at a 40 degree angle, my feet above me and was able to look down on the nests below me.

Gannets are one of my favourite birds. Their almost sculptural appearance, majestic wing span  with black tipped wings and ability to dive makes them a superb subject for photography.

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The bitter winds continued and we positioned ourselves in various places along the cliff, especially where crags created gullies that the gannets liked to use to ride the wind. They seem to simply enjoy folding their wings and maneuvering so they could almost hang right in front of us!

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Other sped past us carrying nesting material back to tiny nests balanced on the smallest of outcrops.

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It is a wonderful, mesmerising sight and there is a constant flow of birds round and around the cliff edges. Photographing them in flight is not that easy though. It involves getting the birds constantly in the viewfinder, tracking them and getting them in focus as they move from side to side and change direction. Sometimes they fold their wings, then they stretch them out, so I got lots of shots where I had lost wing tips, just got a tail or missed the bird completely. As I got used to their movements, I began to improve, getting the camera to lock onto the bird and then to track it as it moved rapidly across the sky.

Using different positions on the cliffside, I started experimenting with shots. There is so much opportunity and so many birds, it is often hard to decide where to look and what to focus on.

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The wind was bitter and we were also battered by a hail storm, with hailstones stinging our faces and forcing us to retreat into  more sheltered spots. It made me appreciate the conditions that these bird endure on this unforgiving landscape.

It is not only Gannets on this cliffside. Fulmars and Kittiwakes, as well as Razorbills and Guillimots also nest here, but they were less easy to see and photograph, being on lower and further away cliff sides.

We spent about 5 hours at the site before the sun started to drop and we decided to try for some sunset shots. We were all pretty cold by now and the temperature was dropping rapidly. The sun began to sink and the cliff sides, with Gannets returning to roost for the night, created a spectacular scene….sadly, I could not seem to replicate it on my camera and played around with various settings, but never quite achieving the image I had in my head.

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At the last minute, clouds moved in and obscured the sun as it sunk to the horizon and we decided to call it a day and head back to the car to warm up.

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It had been a truly wonderful experience and my card was full of Gannets in just about every flight pose possible!It was certainly another memorable wildlife day up here in the Cairngorms which never ceases to amaze and inspire.