Tag Archives: gannet

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!

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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.

The Farne Isles

An absolute must for me when I go to the northeast of England is a boat trip to the Farne Islands. The Farnes are a group of small low islands lying a couple of miles off the coast between Bamburgh and Seahouses.

The Farne Islands from the Northumberland coast

The islands were immortalised in 1838 by the heroic actions of Grace Darling, the 23 year old daughter of the Longstone lighthouse keeper. When a shipwreck was spotted during a North Sea storm on Big Harcar, a small rocky island nearby, Grace and her father crewed a 21 foot rowing boat to rescue the stranded passengers from the SS Forfarshire. Grace was 23 at the time of the rescue, which she survived only to be carried off by tuberculosis 3 years later. Which seems downright unfair to me.


The Longstone lighthouse from where the Darlings’ rescue mission was launched

The islands are currently owned by the National Trust and they are famous for enormous numbers of seabirds including guillemots (Uria aalge, Dansk: lomvie), razorbills (Alca torda, Dansk: alk), kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla, Dansk: ride), puffins (Fratercula arctica, Dansk: lunde), terns, cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv), shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis, Dansk: topskarv) and assorted gulls. During the breeding season there are many tens of thousands of numerous species nesting there.


The shags on the Farnes were very relaxed and this one let me approach within 15 feet or so and didn’t seem remotely perturbed. Its yellow mandible and green eye are very distinctive. A few metres along the cliff top were this pair of downy youngsters :

…busy preening out the down and nurturing the nascent flight feathers. It’s remarkable how in such a short space of time nature provides these young fishermen with a full set of plumage capable of withstanding the rigours of these semi-aquatic hunters underwater feeding technique.

There were one or two turnstone patrolling the rocky shorelines of the islands but the vast majority of the seabirds were completely absent. However, one which did make numerous welcome appearances throughout the course of our trip was the gannet (Morus bassanus, Dansk: sule). They are our largest seabird and can be spotted from afar due to the titanium whiteness of their plumage and their black wingtips. They seemed to be simply passing through that day, all heading north, and none of them paused to dive for fish, which was a pity because it’s spectacular to watch. They were predominantly in family groups of 3-6 birds with adults and patchy darker coloured youngsters.


An adult gannet resplendent in its brilliant white plumage and pale yellow head


…and a family group of three being led by a dark coloured juvenile

The other creature for which the Farne Islands is renowned is the seal. Specifically the  Atlantic grey seal. All the islands I saw had large groups of them consisting of territory conscious bulls and numerous smaller females and calves. The bulls were highly vocal, rearing up into threatening postures to intimidate any others that unwisely ventured too close. No more physical aggression was required but from the face of the male below they are quite capable of a proper fight resulting in scar tissue. Although I imagine that is most likely to happen during the more serious business of a competition for the attentions of the ladies.


A big bull Atlantic grey seal basking in calm waters
The seal on the right is a female minding her calf on the left
And another female launching herself into the sea from the rocks
Several members of a bigger group basking in the sunshine

The rocks and the water was full of seals, most were simply basking in the sunshine, the females were minding the youngsters and the males were being generally grumpy. They would hang in the water peering at our boat and some of them were asleep in that position, standing on their tails with their heads poking out of the water. The waters looked crystal clear and it gave me a hankering to explore the islands in kayak and do some snorkelling. But that will have to wait until the next trip.