IIt’s the change of season, and everything is changing, including us. Lured by reports of large shearwater migrations and sightings of storm petrels, we took the CalMac ferry across the Minch and back the same day, just for the possibilities.
The journey – from Ullapool on the Scottish mainland to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides – starts off quietly for the birds, but the views of the great mountains of Assynt and the Summer Isles do not disappoint. As the ferry heads into more open waters, seagulls swirl north and penguins, now in their winter plumage, dot the water.
We also see our first gannets. I have never been so relieved to see their distinctive shape flying low over the water. I always took for granted that they would be part of trips like this. Scotland holds over 50% of the world’s gannets, and there are colonies scattered along our coastline, but these have been decimated by bird flu in the last year, as well as bonxies – large skuas – and other bird species.
We watch an occasional gannet hover then twist and dash through the water before rising and resting for a few seconds, then taking off again. On the way back, a flurry of activity north reveals a darker, heavier bird hunting more gulls – a bonxie. Manx Shearwaters glide between the waves and a lone Sooty Shearwater appears briefly before disappearing into the swell.
One, then two, three, six gannets fly alongside the ferry, seeming to hover just above us, their 2-meter wingspan keeping them steady. They escort us for 10, 15 minutes, almost until we reach the calmer waters and shelter of the Summer Isles again.
One of them falls back and flies parallel to where I’m standing on the bridge. I can see its eggshell blue eye, the black outline around its beak and eye, and the yellow of its head. They seem so mighty, riding the wind and draught of the ferry with supreme certainty. But I wonder how many there would normally be and how much we still have to lose.