Wildlife at the Bullers - Seabirds
The Bullers provides an ideal nesting site in spring for many varieties of seabirds, including Kittiwakes, Puffins, Fulmars, Shags, Razorbills and Guillemots along with the more usual Herring Gulls and Greater Black Backed Gulls. Eider ducks may also be seen here, feeding from the rocks at the waters edge, and Gannets are frequently seen passing en route to their colonies north at Troup Head and South at Bass Rock. Oystercatchers and Purple Sandpiper feed along the shoreline in the bay. Grey seals may be seen in the bay, and dolphins are often seen passing by offshore.
The main species of birds to be seen are described below.
The Puffin, always the most popular bird for tourists, lays its eggs in burrows along the steep grassy banks of the cliffs, particularly on either side of the promontory known as the Camels Back. They return to the same area each spring, find their mate and stay until about August, when the fledglings emerge (usually at night) and make their way to the sea, where the parents will continue to feed them.
Puffin numbers at the Bullers have shown an increase in recent years. The best time to see them is in the early evening, especially if it's sunny, when they seem to enjoy sitting outside their burrows and just watching whatever is going on. Walk south along the cliffs towards Cruden Bay for closer views, but take care at the edge.
Shags are large birds, similar to Cormorants, but preferring the sea coast to inland waters.They may be found on the cliffs all year, but take on special plumage in Spring, when they display themselves in glossy green feathers and develop a fine crest. Their nests, usually towards the base of the cliffs on the wider ledges, are large and ramshackle and often decorated with various pieces of flotsam such as plastic bottles and fishing nets, and sometimes flowers from the clifftops!
They like to congregate in groups on outlying rocks and skerries, often standing with their wings outspread to dry. It seems strange that a water bird should not have waterproof feathers, but apparently this is because they can swim faster underwater and go deeper without air trapped in feathers... there's always a reason for these things!
The most common bird on the cliffs in Spring is the Kittiwake. If you
wonder why it's called a Kittiwake, just listen to its call... a continuous
"kitti-waak, kitti-waak" sound which permeates the cliffs.
This is a seafaring Gull, and the only Gull to construct a proper nest. They congregate in colonies in favoured areas, sometimes in huge numbers (see Fowlsheugh Cliffs south of Stonehaven). Kittiwakes spend most of the year at sea, but return to the same site each spring to construct their nests from mud and grass, attached to the narrowest ledges of the cliff or any small projection. Here they will lay 2 or 3 eggs and incubate them, sitting tightly for protection from predatory gulls and the occasional stoat (I have seen a stoat climbing the cliffs at the Bullers looking for eggs in the nests). When the chicks are hatched, the parents feed them by catching small fish and regurgitating the resultant semi-digested material into the chicks beak. Yum.
They suffer a good deal of predation from the Herring Gulls and Great Black-Backed Gulls who also nest on the cliff ledges, these much larger gulls frequently snatching eggs and small chicks from the nest and carrying them off. This is a brutal thing to see, but don't judge them too harshly; they are only animals and they have to feed their young too.
The Kittiwake chicks (those that survive) fledge about the end of July and both fledglings and parents leave the cliffs to return to the sea, although young Kittiwakes can often be seen along the coast at any time of year.
Kittiwake numbers at the Bullers are monitored and have been falling in recent years from a high during the 1970s, but so far at least there is no shortage and this is likely just a normal cycle. Their success rate at raising chicks has improved over the last few years, which is a good sign. There are more Kittiwake colonies on the cliffs to the north of the Bullers, in the Longhaven Wildlife Reserve.
Another common bird along the cliffs at any time of the year is the
Fulmars are not prolific breeders (another indication of a long life
span) - they lay only one egg, usually just on a grassy ledge of the
cliff, and some years they don't even bother with this. The female incubates
the egg for about 3 weeks while being fed by the male, after which they
take it in turns; and it always seems to me that they must sit on their
chick until it is quite large, for you will rarely see a very small
one. When you do see them, they are large and fluffy, and often left
to fend for themselves it seems. And they can; the Fulmar is especially
noted for its method of defence, which consists of spitting sticky,
foul-smelling oil at any intruder foolish enough to approach too close,
and they develop this noxious facility from quite an early age. Although
most birds have no sense of smell, this technique effectively protects
them from predatory gulls because getting your feathers covered in sticky
gunge could be potentially fatal, and I've never seen a gull tackle
them on land. (I did once see a particularly malicious Herring Gull
dive on a Fulmar in flight and peck its back, for no obvious reason
other than sheer badness - although of course one should never anthropomorphise
about animal behaviour...).
Guillemots are a member of the Auk family, like Puffins, but instead
of nesting in burrows they gather together in large numbers along ledges
and the lower slopes of the cliffs, looking very much like miniature
Although clumsy when landing and waddling on the ledges, guillemots are excellent swimmers and have been seen on cameras at oil rigs fishing at depths of up to 300ft. They are not great at flying though; at the Bullers, guillemots frequently come in too high and miss the cliff completely, crashing in the fields and amongst the cottages. Generally they don't come to any harm - they just have to struggle back down the slope to the sea, because they can't easily take off without having a ledge to jump from or a very long runway.
If you have binoculars and look carefully, you may see that some guillemots have white borders around their eyes - this is a variation called a "bridled guillemot". There tend to be more of these the further north you travel, and there are quite a few at the Bullers.
Another member of the auk family, Razorbills are similar in appearance to Guillemots, but have a sideways flattened bill with white flashes, and are a deeper black colour on top where Guillemots are dark brown.
They tend to nest higher up the cliff, in hollows or on small ledges, and in separate pairs rather than all together as the Guillemots do. They seem to be better fliers too - perhaps because of the greater accuracy needed to find their nest site - I've never seen a Razorbill crash on the cliff top.
Similar in habits too, Razorbills may be seen on the cliffs from about
March through July, after which they return to the sea. Razorbill numbers
also seem to have increased in recent years at the Bullers.
All pictures on this page were taken by myself, mostly at the Bullers or other sites on the North East coast.