A visit to St. Abbs Head, led by Graham Bell

A small but enthusiastic group of us met at the National Trust car park, near to St. Abbs Head. The sea fret that had been lingering along the coast on the drive up had cleared and it was a glorious sunny day with a light wind. We were delighted to be lead by Graham Bell who is a renowned ornithologist and we soon realised a good all round naturalist. Whilst in the car park a circling buzzard was spotted and a wren was singing in the overhanging trees. On the short walk to the headland we all admired the wild flowers, with pink campion among the stars.

As usual the first view of the steep rust red cliffs and bays was stunning. Hundreds of guillemots and razor bills were sitting on the sea below, Graham helped us distinguish between them even at a distance. He explained that while one bird is brooding the eggs the other often rests on the sea if they are not feeding.

As we walked along the cliff path various butterflies were noticed flitting rapidly around, including common blue, wall brown and large white. Later on a hillside, covered in pink thrift, thyme and brilliant yellow rock roses, we were excited to find the northern brown argus a scarce butterfly confined to North East England and parts of Scotland. Following the cliff path northwards we had closer views of the sea birds nesting on the cliffs, as Graham pointed out the guillemots like to nest in tightly packed rows whereas the razor bills were spread out in separate pairs. Squadrons of gannets in purposeful lines flew past the headlands. As on the Farne Islands the lateness of the nesting season was noted.

One surprise on the walk was the number of dead birds encountered on the cliff top mainly herring and black-backed gulls all of them decapitated. Graham wondered if they may have been killed by a peregrine falcon as they commonly behead their prey. He also showed us various feathers and pointed out that the tips of gulls wings are often black because this colour contains more melanin which makes them tougher and more able to withstand the wear and tear of flying.

As well as the auks, the familiar call of kittiwakes alerted us to their nest sites with quieter fulmars also in evidence. Meadow pipits were dotted along the fence post wires and their song flight also observed, sand martins made aerial swoops whilst calling to each other. Rooks, jackdaws and carrion crows loitered around in small groups waiting for the opportunity to take eggs and fledglings. Later we came across the broken remains of a guillemot’s egg with its distinctive turquoise shell covered in black scribble like markings.

We stopped for lunch on a grass covered rocky headland, and discussed the origins of many bird names, Graham told us the name Peregrine comes from the Latin for peregrination or travelling. On cue he spotted a perched Peregrine halfway down a rocky cliff which we all had good views of.

After lunch most of us decided to stay on and explore further along the cliffs, we had close views of a pair of linnets feeding in the grass, the male looked resplendent with his rosy pink chest and forehead set off by a grey head and chestnut back.

All in all a great day out with excellent birds, flowers, butterflies and scenery with good company to enjoy it.

Dr Barbara Riddick