Clellie Lynch: Fliers on the Forth


EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> Danny and I pull our damp hoodies over our heads as we scurry down the street looking for a taxi. Occasionally the sun peeks through the dark, gray clouds rolling across the sky like waves on an upside down, angry ocean. The on again, off again drizzle makes the cobblestones glisten.

A taxi finally splashes to a halt in front of us. The driver makes not a comment as we ask him to take us to the pier. We are booked for a three-hour, evening Royal Society for Bird Preservation (RSBP) birding tour of the Firth of Forth here in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The taxi comes to a halt under the impressive, cantilevered Firth of Forth railroad bridge, featured in the Hitchcock film, "The 39 Steps." The rain has stopped and, as we emerge from the taxi, we hear a blast of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" as if we were in an outdoor rock club. A handful of behatted and anorak-ed people mill about staring up. Climbers on ropes, 150 feet in the air, dangle from under the bridge. A rock band is playing!

Another wet, bundled-up couple with binoculars ignores the music and tells us our boat will leave in 45 minutes. There will be at least four soggy birders venturing onto the Forth! By the time we return, though, the boat has filled up. Birders are certainly a determined (and maybe a little demented) lot, Danny and I among them. The rain has stopped. After stepping aboard, we head to the upper deck, dry off our glasses, wipe down two seats and get comfortable.

Calls, cries resound

A black-headed gull is meandering up and down, pecking now and again at some unseen morsel on the outer pier. He totally ignores the lazy, brown eider plunked down on the very end seemingly just staring out to sea. A grey heron, a little taller than our great blue, steps over, on and between rocks along the nearby shore.

Familiar herring and black-blacked gulls fly about shrieking kyow, kyow, owk, kyow, owk. A straight-winged, gull-like bird swoops by: a fulmar. The bird circles the base of the bridge and then heads back towards the boat. How different from the gull the fulmar flies: a glider like its cousin, the albatross.

Chug, chug, chug and out we head towards a series of very green, treeless islands rising up in this broad estuary of the Forth that flows into the North Sea. These islets may lack much vegetation, but each has crumbling remains of now silent, gun emplacements established ages ago to defend the harbor. The area resounds only with the calls and cries of gulls and terns, cormorants and shags and other nesting birds.

Birds wing back and forth in front of us at the stern of the boat. The larger terns are sandwich terns; the smaller either arctic or common difficult to tell apart, especially in this gloaming as we cautiously motor through the water. The heads of a pair of grey seals follow the boat as we pass by. We sail pass a larger island, Inchcolm, site of an old Augustinian Abbey.

Each uninhabited island is dotted with white birds on verdant hillsides. The lesser black-backed gull nests are complete with fat fledglings now sitting and scurrying: gray, puffy, feather balls. Harder to see in this light are the cormorants that nest in and among the crumbling concrete structures. On one island, every blank window is home to a stickbuilt nest, a beady-eyed cormorant standing alert as if he were the guardian of the apartment block.

All of a sudden there is flurry of activity as a large bluegray bird swoops low over the hillside. A peregrine falcon! He makes another pass over the islet before soaring, no chick dangling from its talons, past us on the boat looking for easier pickings elsewhere.

After an hour or so, the boat slows again as we near Inchmickery, this island rising higher than the others, providing areas for cliff dwellers as well as ground breeders. Some birds fly by as if shot from a cannon. I watch one black and white projectile with tiny fluttering wings until it lands. A puffin! What a strange, toylike creature, with its oversized red and yellow bill!

We learn that the bill is oversized only in breeding season to accommodate the barbed tongue's ability to gather many small fish at once. Another bird alights near the bird I am watching: a razorbill so close I can see the vertical white line near the tip of the chunky, square bill.

The boat is nearly at a standstill rocking gently in the waves. The whole area is a mishmash of birds flying-soaring-swooping hither and thither. The lumpy cliffs are a haven of nests some exposed and balanced on rocky outcropping, others in tidy holes underneath the overhangs.

The waters are alive with black-and white swimmers occasionally disturbed by a diving tern. A guillemot lands close enough to observe carefully. The sharp beak is quite visible and completely different from the razorbill's. Once you review information about this bird, the guillemot, Uria aalge, we will discover that on our side of the Atlantic it is known as the common murre. In fact, these alcids are the same species found along our coasts.

The most difficult bird to pick out is the gull-like kittiwake until we find one standing near a nest. Those black legs stand out. Slowly the mist turns to drizzle, the drizzle to rain. After wiping the drops off the binoculars a fifth time, Danny and I pack it in and head down to the lower deck, warmth and coffee.

Worth the dampness

Our seat in the front gives up a great view for the trip back, albeit through raindrops coalescing and streaking down the window. As we approach the bridge again the boat slows near Inchgarvie. The rain has stopped. A pair of oystercatchers stand on the mossy rocks near a dilapidated building. The shags in the windows have obvious turquoise birdbands though it is too far to read the tag. An ID of brilliant black and white eiders floats among the rocks.

Soon we are stepping off the boat and standing in the lingering sunlight at 9:45, tired and still a little damp as we wait for the returning taxi. Maybe no lifers for the list today, but the wonderful, close-up views of seabirds is worth being just a little damp.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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