Tuesday, 28 June 2022

21st June - RSPB Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire

The last time we were in this area was 1989, we had stayed in a cottage not far from Flamborough Head.  The attraction then was the possibility of sea birds from some of the highest cliffs in the country.  I had read of tales of mammoth sea watches with birders wrapped in sleeping bags staring out to the North Sea and recording some remarkable sightings.  I never experienced that in my visit but it was sufficient just to see the place and be able to understand the geography that produced the attraction.

I have not returned and much, no doubt has changed.  Flamborough remains the same attraction and its position as it juts out into the north sea means that it continues to record both seabird and land rarities.  However it was the attraction of the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs that was the reason we decided to visit today.  The facilities there have improved significantly, with the ability to observe the amazing spectacle of the sea bird colonies, this is the only main land breeding Gannet colony in England and it is a rare chance to get close to these wonderful birds.  However a further attraction has been the presence both last summer and this year of a Black-browed Albatross that has taken a liking to the Gannet colony and can be seen from the cliffs.

The Albatross has a habit of spending time on the cliffs and then disappearing for some time, probably to feed, but returning always to the same spot.  Over the week before we came up to Yorkshire it had been missing, so I was hoping it would return.  On Monday evening it was reported once again so we decided to take the drive south in the hope of seeing it.

The journey took us just under an hour and as we pulled into the car park it was quite busy, clearly the return of the Albatross was having an influence on the visitor numbers.  Just outside the visitor centre there were some feeders and these provided me with my first sighting of a Tree Sparrow for some time.

The Tree Sparrow is a scarce bird of farmland, hedgerows and woodland edges, and is not associated with man in the way that the House Sparrow is in the UK. Tree Sparrows mate for life; they nest in holes in trees and here at Bempton they can be seen using the gaps and holes in the cliffs

The UK tree sparrow population has suffered a severe decline, estimated at 93 per cent between 1970 and 2008. However, recent Breeding Bird Survey data is encouraging, suggesting that numbers may have started to increase, albeit from a very low point.

In parts of Asia, tree sparrows are widespread in towns and cities, rather than being birds of rural countryside.

Coming through the Visitor Centre building there was a swallow's nest above the door.  The Swallows had taken advantage of a nest box and there were five healthy looking juveniles peering out, they did not look like they were going to be there much longer.

We had been advised that the Black-browed Albatross was on the cliffs at Staple Newk but was currently out of sight from the viewpoint.  So we set off along the footpath to the cliffs then turned right to head south east.  You could hear the sea birds before you could se them, although the odd Gannet would appear above the cliff.  After a short distance there was a viewpoint where we had our first glimpse of the cliffs.

Now there was not only the sights and sounds but also the smell too.  I zoomed in on the rock known as Scale Nab on the OS map, which is below the viewpoint known as Staple Newk (the most easterly viewpoint, which is pronounced ‘Stapple Nuck’ and means ‘pillar corner’).  As you can see teeming with Gannets both on the rock and in the air.

Walking on there were various viewpoints and gaps where you could see Gannets on the cliff top and ledges, where you couldn't see the cliffs there was interest on the cliff top path.  Many Tree Sparrows would fly from the long grass to the cliffs where you had to assume they had nest holes.  There was also several butterflies, Meadow Brown, Red Admiral and several Small Tortoiseshell were seen.  In amongst the grass there were Common Spotted Orchids, the deep purple variant being of interest.

On arriving at the Staple Newk viewpoint there was a lot of activity and pointing, we were informed that the albatross had left the cliff ledge where it had been sitting and had flown out to sea.  There then became speculation that it was sitting on the sea and various instructions were given as to how to find it, apparently you look up from the blue buoy and there it was sitting with Gannets.  Well the first challenge was to find the blue buoy, which turned out to be a blue container, then after that it was anyone's guess.  I only had binoculars and scanning with them could only produce various ages of Gannet on the water.  Others with scopes had the same results.  However there was insistence that it was there from one person in particular.  Various claims of finding it were made but were eventually considered to be immature Gannets.  In the end the excitement just fizzled out and those who claimed it moved away and we were left to stand and wait and hope that it would appear.  

Still there was always the seabird colony to keep us amused and it did.  Gannets were not too far from us on the cliffs and they were constantly passing by us as they circled around.

Mutual preening

Four adult birds and a fourth year immature.

A splendid adult Gannet

In addition to the wheeling Gannets in front of us were the owners of the most distinctive call coming from the cliffs, the Kittiwake.

And Fulmars flying around in the manner in which we had hoped to see the albatross do.

Guillemots and Razorbills would flash by and I chose to ignore them for now, but this is one of the best places to see a Puffin on the mainland in England, although they are declining and are harder to get close to, but a Puffin carrying fish?  Come on!

But due to their sheer numbers and the fact that they would cruise past you at head height it was difficult to ignore the Gannets.  There was a mixture of age groups, one or two almost all dark second year birds, an increased amount of white to a mix 50-50 of the third year birds, the almost all white on the wings except for the "piano key" effect on the secondaries of the fourth year birds and the brilliant white of the breeding adults.  They are all amazing flyers and at the distance and views we had it was possible to marvel at the way they use the wings, tail and feet to maneuver around the other Gannets to look for possible landing sites on the rock ledges.

The Gannets can arrive in late winter but most start to appear from March onwards.  Compared to the auks, Fulmar and Kittiwakes they breed late and can still be seen feeding young in August and September when the others have left.  Those on the Scale nab rock appeared to be sitting on nests, prime real estate and probably adults that have been around a while.

A closer view of the birds and they can be seen to be sitting on a nest.

But those on the ledges were yet to complete nests and in many cases were fourth year birds "practicing" for adult hood.

Gannet pairs are monogamous and may remain together over several seasons, if not for all of their lives. The pairs separate when their chicks leave the nest but they bond again the following year.  They maintain the bond through the breeding season through rituals such as preening and the tapping of bills.  They will also display to the partner before leaving, this involves sky pointing and calling as seen here.

Leaning out over the cliff face.

Then in take off, arching the body while point the bill up.

Then curving the tail under the body.

Whether this is a display or an assist in buoyancy I am not sure, but it is very graceful.  As you can see its mate is calling as it leaves.

With no sign of the Albatross returning we decided to head back to the visitor centre for a coffee, sitting outside we were watched very carefully by one of the resident Jackdaws who had its eye on the crumbs from the carrot cake.

There were also plenty of Tree Sparrows about in the bushes.

It was now nearing midday and in sheltered spots warm with the clear skies and bright sunshine.  We decided to walk to the north east side of the cliffs to see what else was about and to appreciate further this wonderful site.

The view looking towards the north

Here it was more about the birds on the rock ledges and the chance for some nice portraits.

Kittiwake, almost dove like in appearance.

Some more Gannets

A Guillemot.

Cliff real estate is well worth fighting over.

A little further along the path at the next viewpoint the cliff's aspect was such that a dark shadow was cast over the sea and this would provide a lovely background for the birds flying past.  

Adult Gannets

And the beautiful Kittiwake, with "black ink" dipped wing tips

As we made our way back to Staple Newk it is probably a good time to reflect on the geography and history of Bempton.

The hard chalk cliffs at Bempton rise are relatively resistant to erosion and offer many sheltered headlands and crevices for nesting birds. The cliffs run about 6 miles from Flamborough Head north towards Filey and are over 330 feet high at points.  The cliffs at Bempton are some of the highest chalk cliffs in England, Beachy Head in East Sussex being the highest at 530 feet.

While seabirds have been nesting on these cliffs for countless generations, the reception they receive from human visitors has changed greatly from the past.  Pleasure cruises along the base of the towering cliffs are as much loved today as they were in the Victorian era, there is one very important difference.

While those heading out to sea in the summer months now seek the thrill of seeing puffins, gannets and guillemots close at hand, many of their counterparts in the 19th century had an entirely contrasting objective: to kill as many seabirds as possible.  

People were going out on boats to shoot the birds  It was for a combination of things, for sport, but also seabirds’ wings and feathers were collected and used for hats. Lots of people used to come out from Bridlington, it was a communal activity.  The cliffs between Bempton and Flamborough became a particular hot-spot for such activity. The mass destruction was graphically described by Yorkshire conservationist Charles Waterton in 1838 as he lamented “parties of sportsmen from all quarters of the kingdom” who “spread sad devastation all around them”

“No profit attends the carnage; the poor unfortunate birds serve merely as marks to aim at, and they are generally left where they fall,” he wrote. “Did these heartless gunmen reflect, but for one moment, how many innocent birds their shot destroys; how many fall disabled on the wave, there to linger for hours, perhaps for days, in torture and in anguish; did they but consider how many helpless young ones will never see again their parents coming to the rock with food; they would, methinks, adopt some other plan to try their skill, or cheat the lingering hour.”

After public condemnation of the residents of Bridlington in 1868 following a speech by Professor Alfred Newton about what was happening in the area, the Rev Henry Frederick Barnes-Lawrence of Bridlington Priory formed the Association for the Protection of Sea-Birds and a year later his group’s activities resulting in the passing of the Sea Birds Preservation Act 1869. This  was the birthplace of seabird conservation.

However, the collection of seabird eggs was not banned until almost a century later through the Protection of Birds Act 1954. It meant that for decades there was the continuation of a long-standing practice where ‘climmers’ would descend the cliffs tied to ropes that could be hundreds of feet long to take eggs from nests that would be sold on.

By the end of the 19th century, around 80,000 eggs per year were being taken from the area. When the practice was outlawed in the 1950s, fewer than 10,000 eggs could be found on the cliffs. Today, the situation is much different, with the focus on conservation rather than exploitation. The RSPB became involved with Bempton Cliffs back in 1969 and over the years have gradually made the site more visitor-friendly.

Back at Staple Newk it was pretty much as we had left it, plenty of Gannets but no albatross.  There appeared to be many more Gannets off shore though than when we left.

There was the opportunity for some interesting portraits, this Gannet on the cliff top.

While with many birds in the air and passing quite close in at head height it provided the opportunity for some different views and portraits.  But being this close allows the opportunity to see and understand what makes the Gannet so successful

Gannets hunt fish by diving into the sea from a height and pursuing their prey underwater, and have a number of adaptations:

- They have no external nostrils; they are located inside the mouth, instead.

- They have air sacs in the face and chest under the skin, which act like bubble wrap, cushioning the impact with the water.

And as can be seen from this image face on, the eyes are constructed like goggles with a reinforcement ring around the edge. They are positioned forward enough for binocular vision (rather like and owl) to aid the accurate judgement of distances and angles when diving.

Unfortunately should a Gannet lose the sight in one eye then it is likely to starve and die.

For some reason all the Gannets from the cliff ledges to our left started to call and then all leave, heading out to join the swirling mass of Gannets taking place bellow us.

After awhile the Gannets started to return, the adult birds claiming their spots first but soon after the fourth year birds would make fly pasts, holding in the uplift looking for a suitable spot that they could claim.  Once again this showed the remarkable way the wings feathers, feet and tail all come into play to allow the bird to hover and brake.

A pose also used to hunt for fish below.

I heard this pose described as looking like a wasp, which is probably a good analogy.  This pose is adopted as the bird decides to move off from the hover position, very similar to the pose adopted as they drop from the cliff face.

Wile all this was going on there was no sign of the albatross.  There had been a report from the "Yorkshire Belle" the boat that provides trips to the base of the cliffs.  It sails from Bridlington and reported having seen the albatross on the sea just off North Landing at Flamborough Head.  The general view now was that there was hope it would return to the cliffs, but when?

I moved on from the Gannets and turned my attention to the Razorbills that were constantly flying to and fro and coming up to the ledges that were out of sight below us.

The exposure was difficult against the dark sea below, but I was pleased with the outcome.

The Fulmars also continued to put on a display of uplift flying, reminding you of what a full size albatross would be doing, if it were here of course.

Two adult Gannets then tumbled off the cliff and one appeared to be holding the others neck in its beak.  Both birds were falling, but controlled by the wings and tails.

Eventually the aggressed Gannet broke free.

But then the aggressed turned aggressor, lunging out and catching the others bill.

Finally they both broke away and there was a small chase before they went their own ways and joined the merry-go-round of gannets over the sea.

Early afternoon still no sign, lots of people staring out to sea, checking immature Gannets in hope.  So we decided to head back to the cafe for some refreshments with a view to returning for one more session.  The intention was to leave around 17:00, unfortunately we couldn't stay beyond that time.

After the break we returned to the main path and headed back to the viewpoint.  Along the way I noticed a Puffin standing on one of the ledges.  I had been looking for them in the grassy top of the cliffs which is where I am used to seeing them, but so far today I had only seen them flying around or a distant speck on the sea, so this was new.

Through asking a few questions I learnt that the Puffins at Bempton Cliffs tend to nest in rock crevices, instead of the burrows that are used at most UK sites. The sites I have visited are all island sites, where the risk of predation only comes from the air.  Nesting at the top of the cliffs in burrows would leave the Puffins vulnerable to predation by Weasels and Stoats, the Puffins are safer on the cliff faces.   Although there are estimated to be around 958 birds (450 breeding pairs), it is because of this different breeding behaviour it is relatively difficult to get a close view of them.  

The main views were of them flying up from the sea to their nesting holes.

The Puffins along the Yorkshire coast are now endangered.  The Bempton puffins mostly fly 25 miles (40 km) east to the Dogger Bank to feed. Their numbers may however be adversely affected by a reduction in local sand eel numbers caused by global warming, in turn caused by plankton being driven north by the 2 degree rise in local sea temperatures.

Back at the viewpoint there was still no sign.  We passed the time it had been seen on the previous day and the enthusiasm to continue watch the sea was waning.  I occupied the time trying to get the ideal photograph of the two commoner auks, Razorbill and Guillemot as they flew up to the cliffs.

Here you can see the difference between the two species, the Black plumage of the Razorbill against the chocolate brown of the Guillemot, and the bill shape flat in the Razorbill and pointed in the Guillemot

One more Guillemot

It was now a case of watching the groups of Gannet coming around the cliffs in the direction of Flamborough, hoping that maybe one would look slightly bigger in wing span, but they were all Gannets.

And so it was time to call it a day.  The cliffs were looking splendid in the early evening sunshine.  This is a truly lovely place, sea bird colonies always are with the sights sounds and smell, so it would be wrong to be disappointed with the day.  The RSPB have done a wonderful job of providing facilities that allow you access to be able to watch the goings on.  I had hoped I would see the albatross so there was a little bit of disappointment hanging around as we walked back to the car park.

Stop Press:  The Black-browed Albatross returned to its cliff ledge at 20:00......