Category Archives: Bempton

The day after the day before

It’s been far too long since my last post, life has been frenetic resulting in little or no time for WP’ing. But I’m back now and after I’ve completed this post I shall be taking a grand tour of all your blogs that I’ve been  neglecting recently!

In my last post I mentioned the frigid weather conditions prevailing on top of the cliffs at Bempton back at the end of February. But the day after that clifftop adventure was bright, sunny and warm, and we were up on top of Flamborough Head, just a few miles south of Bempton, running around in shirt sleeves. What a difference a day makes.

Looking north along the cliffs from Flamborough lighthouse in lovely warm sunshine!

On a sunny day the coast in that part of the world is a wonderful place to be, and there’s wildlife in abundance:

North Atlantic grey seal enjoying breakfast in relaxed fashion

And while the seals were taking life easy in the sea the shoreline was patrolled by various seabirds including this oystercatcher who was picking over the recently exposed seaweed looking for crustaceans.

Not the best picture of an oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade) I’ve ever taken but I like the rock and the surf! After the clifftop we headed down to the harbour at Bridlington where the tide was out and lots of seabirds were picking over the detritus you might expect to find around a working harbour.

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima, Dansk: sortgrå ryle)

The purple sandpiper breeds in the Arctic, very rarely in the UK, but overwinters on the coast here where it can be found in large flocks, often alongside turnstone.

A lone purple sandpiper accompanied by a pair of turnstone

Even though the tons of litter that lined the beaches offended me, the birds didn’t seem to mind, they were racing along the tide lines picking over all the debris, human and natural.

The turnstone (Arenaria interpres, Dansk: stenvender) is also a winter visitor to the UK, very rarely breeding here. It feeds mainly on insects during the summer but according to the British Trust for Ornithology they also feed on birds eggs, chips and even corpses. It suggests the corpses are human but I wonder where they would find one of those, I’ve never encountered one on my seaside meanderings!

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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.

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.