A centre in North Berwick harnessing the latest remote-control camera technology brings wildlife closer to home. Douglas Blane reports
Even on a windy day in December, with heavy rain dappling the dark sea, great white breakers all along the bay, and the offshore islands half-hidden in the mist, there is something immensely appealing about the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick.
"There is a lovely atmosphere about the place, with an awful lot to see and do - and think about," says first-time visitor and mother-of-two Sarah McKee. "The staff are friendly and very knowledgeable, and the activities have been designed to please the kids as well as the adults. I was impressed by the talk we were given about birds and seals on the islands.
The speaker had a way of using his arms and body to illustrate the words which helped the kids see exactly what he was talking about."
The speaker in question is Bernie Ryan, an interpretation officer who has just begun explaining to another collection of mums, dads and youngsters that childhood is often short but eventful for wildlife in these parts.
"When grey seals are born they look like little concertinas," he says, pointing to the white pup with big brown eyes on the screen behind him.
"They have great rolls of skin, without which their skin growth couldn't keep up with their fat growth and they'd just go Bang! in their second week."
Grey seals, he explains, are one of the most rapidly developing of all mammals: "After just four weeks they are on their own. But when they swim away they carry help from their mothers with them, in the form of the rich milk they've fed on for the first two weeks of their lives."
The seals that breed on the islands off North Berwick - and the dolphins and whales that are sighted increasingly often - gain more attention at this time of year because many of the seabirds that give the centre its name have not yet returned from winter habitats.
The puffins, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots are still out at sea. The kittiwakes are flying back from as far away as Greenland. And the gannets that turn the Bass Rock into a seething mass of seabirds are en route from warmer waters around Africa.
As January draws to a close, these magnificent seabirds with their six-foot wingspans begin to alight on the volcanic outcrop that gives the gannet its scientific name, Morus bassana.
Somehow 100,000 gannets find their way to the same spot they left in autumn, where they are re-united with lifelong mates whom they greet with a display of rubbing beaks, heads and necks. It looks very like human affection.
When Mr Ryan has finished his talk and fielded questions, he explains what the centre offers to school parties: "Children and teachers are taken first to the Education Centre where they get a mix of formal learning and craft activities. Then they enter the Discovery Centre for a short film on wildlife, followed by all the interactive activities and educational games around us: computer touch-screens, video microscopes, fish tanks, rock pools, puffin-painting. The highlight, of course, is the live images beamed in from the cameras on the islands.
"These remotely-controlled cameras are amazing. The children can pan, rotate and zoom in on seabirds or other wildlife, while my colleagues and I explain to them what's going on. There can be dozens of people watching a screen with something happening live, and you can talk to them and they can talk to each other. It makes watching wildlife so much more exciting, interesting and educational - for us as well as the kids."
The remote cameras, connected by wireless microwave to the Seabird Centre, are installed on three islands: The Bass Rock, described by David Attenborough as "one of the 12 wildlife wonders of the world", the island of Fidra, which inspired the novel Treasure Island, and the Isle of May, which possesses a rich variety of seabirds and wildlife including a large grey seal breeding colony.
Having proved the technology and witnessed its popularity with visitors, the Seabird Centre - together with Scottish Natural Heritage and the National Trust for Scotland - is now devising plans for a more ambitious project: If all goes well, remote-controlled cameras will soon beam live images from Europe's largest seabird colony, the islands of St Kilda in the North Atlantic.
Situated at the edge of the known world for much of recorded history, this windswept archipelago was abandoned to wildlife when the last islanders left in 1930 - driven out by the remoteness and the weather. But so important is the site scientifically, that each year it attracts around 2,000 visitors.
From this summer, these hardy souls will be joined on St Kilda by those of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Seabird Centre.
* The cost of a school visit to the centre which also covers a familiarisation trip for teachers is pound;2.40 per child for a half-day from May to July, and pound;2.20 per child from August to April.
Curriculum-linked photocopiable resources are available containing lesson plans and suggestions for pre and post-visit activities. Tel: 01620 email@example.com, www.seabird.org