Digital Birdwatching

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.

Robert Louis Stevenson penned that lined back in 1881 (Virginibus Puerisque) and as I drive east on Scotland’s A1—in the hopeful direction of the Scottish author’s boyhood vacation home—I am following his wise counsel.

I never actually arrive at his home—the one rented in summertime by his uncle, the place the young Stevenson boy would come to for July days of clean sea air. I imagine that like most boys, he spent his days combing the beach, picking up twigs and rocks and shells and bits of seaweed, pretending it was all more colorful and exotic than it is.

Though the city of Edinburgh is grand, all the rain-stained spires and age-worn chimneys disappear in minutes. Driving east takes me along the shores of the Firth of Forth—silvery blue and cold on this day-after-New-Years-Day. The water opens wider than the fields, splitting Scotland in half, it seems.

All around me lie intense green wheat fields and to the north sit rows of rounded mountains, dusted with light snow like powdered sugar. The road is narrow and curvy, often walled in by piles of stone laid centuries ago. The trees are dead and bristly but offer a woody frame to the immense clear winter sky—the palest wooly blue with faint streaks of halfhearted clouds.

The beauty of East Lothian makes me stop the car again and again. I jump out, shut the door, then stand on the banks of the Forth, listening to the gulls cry out, watching the slow tankers as they slide across the horizon. I pass old manor homes and walled estates, old forests alive with pheasants, and the cemeteries of Scottish men lost in foreign battle.

My hopeful travel takes me through a vein of Scottish history (and natural history), leading me to the concave shoreline of North Berwick, littered with piles of dead brown kelp. No matter the winter, the boats in dry dock and the joyless beach—boys and girls bundled in coats and scarves explore this bit of wilderness with terrific energy, gathering shells and urchins and scaring up birds. Stevenson would approve, I thought.

Once upon a time, the man who wrote Treasure Island once explored the same beach and stared out at the same mountainous lump that is Bass Rock. The huge boulder of an island raised out of the Forth like a monster rising from the sea. Though forlorn and severe, Bass Rock glistens with a white lighthouse built by Stevenson’s own brother, David.

In summertime, I am told, the island is snowy with some 150,000 northern gannets–the largest single island gannet colony in the world. Just like Scottish people, the birds move easily from place to place and right now, in the dead of winter, there are so few around. Most are at sea, or in Africa (from whence I came).

In summer, one may take a boat ride out to the island and watch the flurry of bird excitement up close, but now, in winter, I can still spy on the birds.

In North Berwick, right off the beach, the  Scottish Seabird Centre offers birdwatchers the view (and operation) of twelve different live cameras, all set up on the various remote bird islands in the Firth of Forth.

Toying with a tiny joystick, I can swirl the camera around and zoom in to focus on the various bits of the Bass Rock. Though I am miles away, I catch a seal sliding into the water and then a fulmar hopping by the front of my lens. The remote cameras are linked to these giant screens, and stopping by each one, I am able to “visit” the isles of Craigleith and May and the Bass Rock itself.

There are so few birds right now, given the time of year, but I still see black shags, herring gulls, and eider ducks—and from miles away, I can explore the open tunnels of puffin burrows.

Indeed, Scotland’s puffins live close to the capital, breeding upon these islands. In summer, the Seabird Centre even offers a live puffin cam, poised inside one of the burrows—so that hopefully one may see the baby puffin hatched and growing up inside.

45% of Europe’s seabirds live in and around Scotland, though mostly in places that are less accessible. I am glad to find a place where anyone can come and watch the birds up close—in a way, this kind of digital birdwatching feels like playing a video game, except all these birds are real and I am, in fact, controlling the camera on these faraway islands.

I imagine there are some purists in the birdwatching cult who would take issue with this digital approach to their sport. “It doesn’t count!” I can hear them protest, but I would disagree. All of these islands are protected habitats—vital summer homes for breeding and migrating seabirds. Letting the world watch from afar is a good thing.

Only a thousand visitors may land upon Bass Rock per year, while thousands and thousands can “visit” the rock through these cameras and the boat trips offered from the Seabird Centre. The Isle of May is equally inaccessible, miles off the coast–and yet, though I may never physically arrive at any of these places, my day of birdwatching is a kind of hopeful travel in which I find success as I spot the birds from afar.

Indeed, I spend so much time looking at birds through cameras, I never make it to Robert Louis Stevenson’s summer home.

No matter—I think he would approve.


  1. Lisa Boice (a.k.a. @MsBoice)
    Salt Lake City, Utah
    January 6, 2013, 1:56 pm

    It DOES count! You observed birds in their habitat in real time. It’s as if you just had a really long lens or super awesome binoculars. I met my husband in Scotland and he’s the one who introduced me to birding (or the more familiar, “bird watching.”) My first birding experience was in Scotland, though we didn’t visit the Scottish Seabird Centre. Your posts from Scotland and reports on the birds have made me swoon all over again.
    PS: Interesting that Robert Louis Stevenson’s brother built the lighthouse at Bass Rock. Building lighthouses must be in the family, as their grandfather build the lighthouse at Dunnet Head at Easter Head, which is the northen-most point of Great Britain.

  2. Albert Fisher
    January 26, 2013, 9:09 pm

    I lovebirds so much. Even since i am a kid i really like them. It likes having a dream to fly. For you to observe them as your life must be great. How aboutobsercing some asian birds.