Private lives of birds

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Live pictures from the nesting sites of wild seabirds make an arresting sight. Julie Morrice zooms in for a close-up.

On one screen a solitary puffin is seen sitting on its nest in the billowing sea-grass. It stares straight at a camera, positioned among the birds, like a silent-film comic waiting for a cue.

On the next screen, a package-tour of gannets takes up every inch of the rocky beach, squabbling with their neighbours over elbow room, jostling and fussing like a class of eight-year-olds.

Another screen gives a more distant view of the terrain.

This is the centrepiece of the new Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick. Three screens show live pictures from Bass Rock and Fidra, two of the rocky islets off the East Lothian coast, allowing visitors to enjoy a privileged close-up of the rich birdlife which flocks to these barren cliffs to breed and fish.

A bus load of P5s and P6s has arrived from Priorsford Primary school in Peebles.

Bernie Ryan, an ornithologist, introduces some of the sights and sounds they will encounter during their visit.

"Gannets move in different ways to speak to each other," says Ryan. Arms by his sides, he bows stiffly up and down, shaking his head vigorously from side to side. The class dissolves in laughter. "What do you think they're saying when they do that?" he asks.

"I'm an idiot?" suggests the class wise-guy. "Go away," suggests somebody else.

"Yes, exactly right," says Ryan. "Gannets are the grumpiest neighbours in the whole world, and they're all packed together like you are just now."

He then reproduces the sound of a gannet nesting site in full voice. Invite everyone in your class to say "gawk-gawk-gawk" and you'll get the idea.

An excellent short film on the local sea birds and their characteristics is then shown. Kittiwakes, puffins, razorbills, fulmars and guillemots are seen diving and soaring across the screen. Then the class piles out into the exhibition proper.

Housed in a striking copper-roofed building perched on the harbour-side, the Seabird Centre has a relaxing exhibition space with plenty of hands-on exhibits. One group of children homes in on boxes of bones and weighing scales, comparing the density of animal and bird skeletons. "Look at this one, Miss," says one, "it's full of chocolate."

I leave theclass teacher struggling to explain the structure of bone marrow and find a girl staring, fascinated, into an enchanting mock-up of a rock pool. The real thing is nearby: a small aquarium scuttling with hermit crabs and prawns. "Don't miss the spectacular feeding of the hermit crabs at 12 noon and 3pm," advises a small notice.

Kay Miller, the Priorsford pupils' class teacher, says the visit has given her plenty of ideas for follow-up work which can be done in class when they return. There are displays focusing on the food chain, the way birds feed and seashore pollution. There is a fascinating series of video clips comparing the flying, diving and swimming techniques of birds, animals and machines.

Live pictures from the nesting sites are the highlight of the visit. The children queue up patiently for their turn to manipulate the camera. One boy tries endlessly to focus in on a nestful of kittiwake chicks. "Just a little to the left ... no a little," says his endlessly-patient teacher as, yet again, he swings the camera around towards the Forth bridges. In more practised hands, the camera can be used to capture birds diving for sand eels and fish. It can spy a solitary razorbill huddled against the cliff. It can even home in on gannets doing their sky-pointing act to let their mates know they are planning to leave the nest in search of a spot of mackerel.

The gannets are the real stars of the show. With their custard-yellow heads and swimming-goggle eyes they are endlessly fascinating to watch.

Exhibition manager Hayley Duffin briefly explains their breeding cycle. The parents arrive on the rock in February to lay their eggs. The chicks leave the nest in August, flopping down into the sea and gradually learning to fend for themselves. They fly off to West Africa and will not return to Scotland for two or three years. Their parents will remain on the islets until October.

During the winter, when Bass Rock is gannetless, the centre hopes to use a remote camera on the Falklands to provide live pictures of albatrosses.

Scottish Seabird Centre, The Harbour, North Berwick EH39 4SS. Tel: 01620 890202. email: Open daily 10am-6pm April-October; 10am-4pm October-April.

School parties pound;1.90 each, every 11th person free. Advance booking essential.

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