Saturday, 17 October 2015

RSPB Bempton Cliffs

Another belated catch-up post, this time from a visit in mid-August to the spectacular Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve in the East Riding of Yorkshire. During the summer months the vast chalk cliffs are home to some quarter of a million seabirds. Best known for their large Northern Gannet colonies, the cliffs are one of only 2 mainland sites where these birds breed in the UK, (most breeding sites are on islands such as St Kilda and Bass Rock where the adults and their chicks are safe from most predators). Other seabirds such as some species of auk (which includes Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills) also nest on these cliffs, but their breeding season finishes earlier in the year, so by the time of my visit it was no surprise to not see any of them this time.

Despite a perfect forecast and my best planning efforts, clouds quickly moved in from the sea and refused to move on, leaving a situation of grey which typified my experience of August entirely! Regardless, the cliffs provide a spectacular setting and the Gannets with their 2 metre wingspan cannot fail to impress. They effortlessly navigate the wind and the waves, and thrive in their North Sea home. The birds nest in large colonies but manage to keep a sufficient distance from their neighbours so as to largely avoid skirmishes. (That said, I watched as two neighbouring adults from different nests snapped beaks at one another, though avoided any serious altercation.)

Adult Northern Gannet - showing off that 2 metre wingspan

By this stage in the season, many of the young birds had fledged and could be seen on the wing and floating in groups in the sea. Once they leave the 'nest' (which is little more than a space on the cliff ledge) there is no going back and juveniles then tend to group together in the sea below. Many others youngsters that remained were very close to fledging. Juveniles exercised their wings in readiness for that first, most critical flight. Gannets lay just one egg and I watched as parents stood by patiently as their single youngster practiced, long young wings flapping exceedingly closely to patient adult faces. Other youngsters wore the slightly comical attire of part dark juvenile feathers, part fluffy white down.

Practicing in readiness for that first critical flight from the cliff face

Part of a pair's courtship ritual
They always strike me as very affectionate birds, with the adults spending much time preening each other and their offspring, as well as renewing and reaffirming their close bonds with their partner (with whom they pair for life) with their elaborate courtship displays. Am I guilty of anthropomorphism? Perhaps... though I have no doubt that we have far more in common with our fellow species than is perhaps comfortable, or even convenient to admit, given how our species is capable of treating others. 

Gannets have several behaviours which I find fascinating to watch, one of which is 'sky pointing'. A bird which is about to depart from its nest, points deliberately skyward for several seconds before stepping slightly away from the nest, stretching out its vast wings, and then leaving the cliff face. It looks a little dramatic, (reminding me slightly of a person about to perform a swan dive) but with their 2 metre wingspan and nesting in densely packed colonies, you can see why this advance visual warning of their departure is beneficial to them as well as the surrounding birds!

'Sky pointing' and just about to depart

Mutual preening
A behaviour I hadn't seen previously here, was a male (I presume), trying to gift his partner a small stone. It had to be said though that despite his best efforts she looked decidedly unimpressed with his offering!

Gannet with what he thought would make a lovely gift - the recipient however was less impressed!

Other birds still present at the cliff face were the distinctive looking Fulmars with their stiff-winged flight and tube noses, and pretty Kittiwake gulls, though both of these in far smaller numbers than the resident Gannets. 

Closer to the visitor centre it was lovely to see a flock of Tree Sparrows in the vicinity of some bird feeders. Tree Sparrows are yet another bird which has suffered a severe decline in numbers and as such is currently a red-listed species.  Closer to home it's very rarely that I have seen them, though it is their chirruping call that often signals their presence prior to seeing them, the sound being similar to a House Sparrow yet sufficiently different to easily tell them apart.

Tree Sparrow

It has to be said that on this occasion I was paying more attention to the birds than the wildflowers or insects (though the latter seemed pretty thin on the ground, not surprising on this cool grey day!) however one tall and pretty wildflower I noticed standing out in the grassland I later identified as Chicory, (not one I've noticed on my more local wanderings). I'm sure the sun does sometimes shine at Bempton, but I think I will just have to keep returning to see sunlit Gannets for myself! :)

Wild Chicory


  1. wow - fabulous photos Jan, that not a place I've visited - looks fantastic

    1. Thanks Phil, that's very kind. :) I've only been over to Bempton twice (and not had much luck with the weather either time!) but it's an astonishing place to visit - really worth making the trip over there.

  2. Wonderful images and very interesting observations Jan. When I was a teenager (many years ago) I worked for a short time on a fishing trawler and well I remember these amazing birds diving into the net just prior to it being lifted from the water and 'stealing' some fish. An amazing sight I'm sure you'll agree.

    1. Thanks very much Dougie. :) Wow, I bet that was tough working on a trawler!!! I can imagine that was a spectacular sight, smart of them too!!! At Bempton/Flamborough Head there are boat trips out to see the Gannets diving at fairly close range which is something I'd love to see! :)