Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Gannets and The Climmers

In my last gannet post the bird I showed was quite far off so here’s another one which alighted on the cliff just 10m or so from where I stood.

Sizing me up to decide whether I posed any threat

And it quickly reached the conclusion that this shivering piece of humanity obviously would pose no threat whatsoever and landed close by on the cliff:

I think this is a particularly elegant touch down for such a big bird, avoiding injury whilst landing on a tiny piece of cliff in very strong winds.

It wasn’t at all bothered by my presence or the whirring of the shutter, and in the absence of any other predators up on the cliffs, now that the ‘climmers‘ are no more, this chap didn’t see me as a potential danger.

Climmers were men who’s job was to harvest seabird eggs from the cliffs by abseiling over the edge. I found this remarkable piece of film at the Yorkshire Film Archive of climmers doing their work. It’s absolutely not for the feint hearted!

As well as the climmers the Victorian passion for shooting anything and everything wild was shockingly indulged on the 18 miles of cliffs between Bempton and Scarborough. Boat loads of day trippers would set sail and shoot hundreds of birds every day, and in a book of 1838 entitled ‘Essays on Natural History’ by one Charles Waterton he estimated that between April and August 108,000 birds were shot. I don’t know if the shot birds were eaten, but the slaughter was primarily for ‘sport’ (!), and the feathers were also used in huge numbers in the millinery trade.

As a result the ‘Association for the Protection of Sea-Birds’ (APSB) was founded in 1868 in Bridlington by local naturalists including the vicar of Bridlington in an attempt to prevent the annual carnage taking place just a few miles away on their local cliffs.

Then in June 1869 protection of the birds was enshrined in law with the passing of the ‘Sea Birds Preservation Act’. This provided protection for 35 species by introducing a closed season between April 1st and August 1st, and apparently the first successful prosecution under the Act took place in Bridlington on 10 July 1869 after a Mr Tasker, of Sheffield, had shot 28 birds. He was fined a total of £3 19s!

And the result of the dedication of those Victorian naturalists, pioneers at a time when animal welfare was very low on the political agenda, is the multitudes of birdlife to be seen on the cliffs today. Hats off to those splendid folk!

Fulmarus glacialis

A couple of weeks ago I posted about my trip to Bempton Cliffs and I showed you the gannets. There were four species of seabird in residence including the gannet, the other three being fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis, Dansk: mallemuk), guillemot (Uria aalge, Dansk: lomvie) and razorbill (Alca torda, Dansk: alk). By the time I got there the only other one on the cliffs was the fulmar, the other two had disappeared out to sea to hunt fish.

The fulmar in flight at Bempton Cliffs

Fulmars are the closest we get in this part of the world to an albatross. They both belong to the ‘tubenoses’, the taxonomic order ‘Procellariiformes‘ and the albatrosses are the family Diomedeidae and the fulmars are the Procellariidae, along with the shearwaters and petrels. The tubenoses have nostrils which also function to excrete salt which is ingested from sea water.

I think these two had the best spot on the cliffs, in their own little cave – as sheltered as it gets up there!

The cliffs are a huge place and there were probably hundreds of fulmars spread out over them and they were constantly taking to the air, looping round and returning, like this one who kept getting a somewhat frosty reception every time it tried to land in this spot:

Fulmars are apparently less than competent on the ground, unlike their cousins the albatrosses (apart from the landings of course), but similarly to the albatrosses they are consummate aeronauts. The winds were ferocious when I was up at Bempton but the birds glided along with little or no effort and never seemed to make a bad landing on the cliffs.

They are particularly long lived birds, the older ones reaching 40 years and beyond. They attain sexual maturity at 9 and they pair for life, breeding in nests on sea cliffs and rocky islands.

This is the northern fulmar and it frequents the extreme latitudes of the northern hemisphere. It’s one of two species, the other being the southern fulmar, Fulmarus glacialoides, which is found in the corresponding extremities of the southern hemisphere and fortunately neither of these species is endangered.

Whilst reading about the taxonomy of the fulmar I got distracted by the albatross which is a bird that has always fascinated me. The facts and figures around albatrosses are mind boggling and the one that made my jaw drop was the wingspan of the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) which can reach up to 3.5m, which is a shade longer than 11 feet! They must be an unforgettable sight.

An unusual but entertaining day at work

Earlier this week I was learning about a technique called ‘dynamic light scattering’ (DLS) which is used to determine the size of very small particles, even those as small as protein molecules. My teacher was a scientist called Ken who designs and builds DLS machines. It came up in conversation that he lives close to the southern end of the M40 corridor where I’ve seen lots of red kites and read stories of them stealing food from people, so I asked if he sees them in his neighbourhood.

Red kite (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente), this one was at Hamerton in Cambridgeshire

Red kites are big, distinctive, birds of prey and they’re a conservation success story in the UK, having been almost driven to extinction but then reintroduced in the 1990’s since when their numbers have rocketed. And as it happens they are very common indeed in that part of the world and Ken kindly agreed to upload this video clip to You Tube so I could post a link to it here. This all happened in Ken’s garden and I think it’s highly entertaining stuff,  I think I’d struggle every morning to get out the front door to go to work if I had this kind of show going on in my garden!

Later on, at the end of the same day, a big flock of a few thousand starlings were murmurating over the Cambridge Science Park as I left work to come home. I was keeping one eye on the starlings and one eye on the road when I stopped at a red traffic light on the edge of the Science Park and the starlings were swirling and wheeling around the sky just in front of me. Then a sparrowhawk drifted by but the starlings carried on murmurating until the hawk suddenly accelerated up towards them. Then all of the flocks shrunk down into very tight groups and focussed on taking evasive action. It was a piece of natural theatre going on in the sky which was spectacular to watch. Then the traffic lights went green and I had to move on so I didn’t get to see the culmination of the chase, but it was a captivating end to the day.

Snug as a bug

About this time last year I published a post about the battling blackbirds in my back garden. The weather last February was mild and vry pleasant and I think the breeding season really got going then. As you can see, full on combat ensued. This year has seen none of the aggression of past year, at least not in my garden, but whilst watching the other birds I noticed this female blackbird making repeated trips to collect moss from my lawn. I’ve never understood why us Brits in particular want our garden lawns to look like the centre court at Wimbledon (before the All England Championships), I’d much rather see sights like this:

Behind the magnificent mossy muzzy is a female blackbird

She has been toing and froing for at least three days now collecting these huge beakfuls of moss and I reckon her chicks are going to be as snug as a bug in the nest she is busy constructing.

The male has also been very busy in the garden but his activities are rather less altruistic…

Seed or fruit, which is it to be?

There might even be a worm under there…

Result! That bloke in there has left me an apple core

All his visits seem to be focussed solely on replenishing his energy supply, but the reason I’ve seen no battles this year is because he’s dealt with the opposition, so I guess he needs to concentrate on feeding himself up again.

The blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort) and the fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger), both members of the thrush family, like fruit and any old grapes, apple cores or pears get thrown out for them.

The gannet – the ultimate fisherman

One of natures most splendid sights is the gannet in flight. It is a diving seabird and I believe it’s one of the worlds biggest divers. They are 94cm long with a wingspan of 174cm and they dive for fish from an average height of around 25m at speeds of up to 100km/hr (60miles/hr)! They fold their wings back just before they enter the water and watching it from above the surface is  absolutely breathtaking.

This particular gannet (Morus bassanus, Dansk: sule) landed on a ledge a couple of hundred feet up the cliff face at Bempton in East Yorkshire. The top of the cliffs is an RSPB reserve and it’s one of my favourite places to be. On the particular day I was there – February 13th – it was ferociously cold. I was well wrapped up, the air temperature was about 1 degree C, but the killer was a fierce offshore wind howling across and causing a lot of windchill. The birds didn’t seem to mind it though.

This gannet seemed to be just relaxing on its ledge until another flew past close by and then it took off:

I really like this sequence of events and the rocky ledge so high off the water was the perfect place to capture it!

There’ll be more from Bempton and that part of the world in the near future.