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Rachel Bigsby's Seabird Summer of 2023

As the seabird summer of 2023 drawers to a close, I find comfort in reflecting on my experiences and encounters with a handful of the species that are most dear to my heart...



A Shag stands tall with wings outstretched, against a white sky. The image has been converted into black and white.
^ image photographed from the above video

I spent the summer in a smaller number of locations than usual with wild weather and concerns of avian influenza resurfacing heavily impacting my plans and projects, however, I did manage to visit two new seabird colonies to me, both of which I had dreamt of visiting for years. It was also the first seabird summer that I ran photography workshops, with four successful, sell out workshops and private boat charters in collaboration with Nikon School.


 

Lunga Island, Treshnish Isles, Scotland


Located 12 miles from Tiree in the wild and windy Treshnish Isles, Lunga is a designated site of special interest and a special protection area for the conservation of seabirds. It's a seabird colony that I had dreamed of visiting for years, and with the company of my friend and fellow Nikon Creator, Lara Jackson, I at last put my feet firmly on its soil. Lara captured plenty of candid moments of my experience and needless to say, I was in my element!




Lunga provided an unrivalled opportunity for intimate seabird encounters and rare opportunities to photograph seabirds such as Razorbills and Shags close up.




In true Scottish style, the heavens opened during our trip, but the perhaps unfavourable wet and overcast weather for some was my idea of high-key heaven! As the rain fell and droplets of water gathered and rolled down the faces of my beloved seabirds, I felt a new-found source of inspiration and I threw myself into almost an meditative state of focus to achieve the best images that I could under some testing time constraints.


A Razorbill stares down the lens, its face dappled with raindrops against a white sky.
'Rainfall'

It would be inaccurate to say that I always feel inspired when working at a seabird colony. In actual fact, I sometimes find the whole experience incredibly overwhelming as all of my senses are flooded and I feel lost as to where to start. Yet, it never ceases to amaze me how a subtle change of weather or behaviour can unearth an inspiration, as if from no where.



Troup Head, Aberdeen, Scotland



The high cliffs of Troup Head provide a spectacular setting for Scotland’s largest mainland gannet colony. There are also thousands of kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills here, along with several other species, including puffins. It was a colony I had wished to visit for several years, and although photographically I didn't leave with anything I'd hoped for, it was one of my favourite days of the year.


The weather was wild, dangerously so. The rain poured, the wind howled, the tall grasses were flattened in the gusts and seabirds were hanging almost still in the air as they battled through the breezes to return to their nests and ledges. I was the only person at the reserve, something that happens to me quite often, and I always think in those moments, "how am I the only person on the planet witnessing this".


Photographically, I found the location a compositional challenge, with just two angles that I favoured. Nevertheless, I gave it my best shot and sat hunkered down in gale force winds, fighting with each gust to hold a 600mm f/4 still, focussing on trying to photograph gannets as they flew above the monstrous waves below. What I had envisaged in my head versus what I was able to photograph were two entirely different things, and I'm not quite sure I like the results. However, I personally found the location exceeded my expectations and was a true representation of the resilience, devotion and power found in our seabirds.


Bass Rock, East Lothian, Scotland


Gannets fly over Bass Rock, a seabird island peppered with half a million birds. The image is in black and white, with a dramatic stormy sky and dark sea.

Rising 106 metres above sea level in the Firth of Forth is Bass Rock, an immense chunk of carboniferous rock that is home to 150,000 gannets in the peak breeding season, the biggest colony anywhere in the world. And, as spoken by Sir David Attenborough, one of the ‘wildlife wonders of the world’.


Though Bass Rock was one of the worst affected seabird colonies by Avian Influenza in 2022, it was still an immensely exhilarating place to be this summer. I've been privileged to land on the rock several times and each visit is unique, and although witnessing the aftershock of devastation caused by the disease was depressing, it was a powerful and symbolic reminder of how strong our seabirds can be, given some relief.


Upon landing, I didn't have a particular plan in mind, as I didn't know what to expect in comparison to what I had experienced in the past. I was simply taking it one step at a time, and allowing nature to inspire me. Peppered around the rock were signs of new life with eggs hatching and tiny, fluffy guga being nurtured by their devoted parents. Despite the cuteness, the colony did lack a creative element and it therefore wasn't my most inspiring visit to the rock. I think this was because the intense summer heat was exhausting the birds and their behaviour was subdued as a result. However, I of course loved every moment that I was surrounded by the birds, and what I did take from the landing was a reinforced respect for our seabirds that face crushing man-made pressures, yet still find resilience and hope.


Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire


The final and most visited colony on my list for 2023 is RSPB Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire. Here I spent countless hours throughout the summer not only photographing independently, but collaborating with Nikon School on sell out workshops and private boat charters.


Bempton Cliffs is home to one of the UK's top wildlife spectacles. Around half a million seabirds gather here between March and October to raise a family on towering chalk cliffs which overlook the North Sea.


Having spent so many years at Bempton Cliffs, finding inspiration for unique shots can be somewhat of a challenge. However, a mixture of weather and strong winds this summer worked in my favour with storm laden skies and powerful winds bringing the birds, particularly gannets, to eye-level up on the clifftops, allowing me to capture images that I haven't previously been able to.


A solo gannet flies against a dramatic sky of storm clouds, glowing golden in late summer evening light

A solo gannet flies against the sun, silhouetted. The image has been converted to black and white.

It was also an immense privilege to share my knowledge, passion and photography tips for seabirds at this reserve with a real mix of people over four action packed days at land and sea with Nikon School's Ricci Chera and Neil Freeman. I hope that some of my enthusiasm inspired a new wave of interest and respect for the birds and their lives in all who listened.


Wildlife photographers Rachel Bigsby, Ricci Chera and Neil Freeman smile at the camera from a boat.

Our collaborative workshops will be returning for 2024, with more details to come soon.


Next month:


August is a relatively quiet month in the field, but hectically busy at my desk as I begin to process hundreds of photographs taken since late March, and plan for the Autumn. I'm excited to bring you new collaborations, exclusive interviews and workshop news then!

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