Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Seabirds are true free spirits

June 9th, 2018

May through to August are the best months to see a number of our larger seabirds when they come ashore to nest.  The rest of the year they are roaming the seas and hardly come near land.  So I take a drive at this time to see the seabird colonies at the RSPB reserve at Fowlsheugh – appropriately, bird cliff – between Stonehaven and Catterline.

As I parked my car I got a cheery hello from a Dutch family who had been camping overnight in their red converted fire truck. They were Barry and Natasha Blommestein and their daughters Fiona and Anouschka from near Utrecht.  They have taken the girls out of mainstream schooling and are educating them in the classroom of the world.

They were at the start of a two year expedition which started here in Scotland in January and which will take them through Scandinavia, Finland, Russia and Kazakhstan, intending to end at the Great Wall of China in two years time.

They have explored parts of Scotland they would not normally have visited on a regular holiday, done volunteering in exchange for food and shelter, met the locals and introduced the girls to a different way of life.  They were making their way to Dundee and eventually to Dover, but everything was delightfully flexible and uncertain.

It takes free spirits to undertake an adventure like this and I truly wished them well as I set off to look at seabirds.

Crowded out

Follow your nose for you can’t miss the powerful, fishy smell of generations of seabird guano coating the high cliffs where the birds nest.  The sharp cries of kittiwakes greet you as you walk up the short climb onto the clifftop, then you hear the guttural grunts and hoots of guillemots and razorbills.  They crowd onto the cliffs, shoulder to shoulder on the narrow sills, uttering growling cries, warning their neighbours to give them more room as they jostle for a toehold to lay just a single egg in the case of the guillemots and razorbills.

It’s a spectacular sight – sea cliffs up to 200 feet high, alive with razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars.  Puffins used to be plentiful but because of the decline in their basic food source of sand eels there is hardly one of these entertaining birds to be seen now.

I don’t know the proper geological name but the cliffs are what I know as plum pudding rock – the same rock as Dunnottar Castle stands on – sculpted by the weather over millennia into the ledges and crevices crowded now with nests.

It’s an opportunity to see the seabirds close to for some nest just below the lip of the cliffs. There’s a well defined track along the clifftop which makes for easy walking.  A pair of binoculars is fairly essential but there are several places where you can observe the nesting birds at closer quarters.  Don’t get overenthusiastic and stray too near the cliff edge.  It’s a long drop but it’s easy to disturb a sitting bird and cause her to desert her nest.

Chicks are beginning to hatch.  Several empty razorbill eggs – green with brown mottling, about the size of a hen’s egg – and an empty kittiwake’s blue and mottled egg lay in the grass.  A guillemot’s newly-hatched white and mottled egg, with the albumen still drying out, had been deposited at the side of the track.

Memories revisited

I took the narrow coast road back to the old fishing village of Catterline and drove down the steep road to the small harbour built in 1730. The sun beat down on the arc of shingle beach, lazy waves soughing in and out with ceaseless, metronomic regularity.  There’s something comforting in knowing that however troubled the rest of the world is, the tides are an enduring constant.

As I’d just finished reading Bella Bathurst’s book The Lighthouse Stevensons it seemed a good thing to drive down to Tod Head Lighthouse erected in 1897, and pay my respects.  An inscription on the door lintel tells you that the consulting engineer was David A Stevenson, uncle of one of Scotland’s literary heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson.  The light served its purpose for more than a century but it was permanently discontinued in 2007.

I carried on homewards, passing the road end to euphonic Whistleberry Farm.  There’s little trace of sixteenth century Whistleberry Castle – its stones and masonry were long carted off and can probably now be seen built into the walls of neighbouring agricultural buildings.

I stopped off at Johnshaven and bought a choc ice which I ate by the side of the harbour, indulging in one of my favourite pastimes of just looking at boats.  It was time to get home and walk Inka.  There are ground nesting herring gulls at Fowlesheugh as well as small song birds, so, until the nesting has finished – best no dogs.

All in all it had been a most satisfactory morning and the world felt a good place to be.

Written on Saturday, June 9th, 2018 at 6:00 pm for Weekly.