It is a bank holiday Saturday and I am at a seabird reserve run by the RSPB at Bempton in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It is early morning, cool with an eerie sea mist coming in from the North Sea making the outline of this distinctive coastline appear and disappear. I put on my walking boots and pick up my cameras excited by what I know I am about to see. There are 250,000 nesting seabirds on, in and around the cliffs.
As I walk closer to the coastline, the first thing that strikes me is the blanket of Red Campion. Great swathes of it extend as far as the eye can see reflecting a pink hue against the misty greyness.
The pungent smell of guano (ammonia) and the unique wild soundscape of ocean birds adds to the excitement and anticipation of the drama on the cliff edge. Life at the edges is always remarkable and full of surprises; a place where one thing ends and another begins. Here life and death are precariously balanced on the exposed precipices of the cliff face. Partnering, bonding, nest making, egg laying, nurturing, birth and fledging are acted out each year as these pelagic birds come home from the ocean to raise the next generation.
The British Isles is one of the richest areas in the world for seabird colonies and they are an experience not to be missed; the more you see of them the more of them you want to see. My favourite iconic places to choose from include the Treshnish Isles in Scotland, the Farne Islands of Northumberland, the Isles of May and Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and here at Bempton Cliffs, but there are many more to choose from and they are all on my hit list.
By now I am nestled in and balanced on the edge of the cliff face where I watch and wait with my camera as courting, bonding and ‘perch-wars’ take place on the ledges beside and beneath me. The birds are so immersed in their activities that they hardly notice me or the click click of my camera. I watch and ponder; glad that the hunting of the birds and the collection of their eggs is a thing of the past as these have had terrible consequences on seabird populations around the world.
Although everyone loves puffins, my real favourites are the pretty little kittiwakes with their black eyes and legs, and superwhite flumage. I also love the northern fulmars who are related to the albatross. These are grey backed birds with smudgey eyeliner and long strong thin wings that glide effortlessly over the ocean. Fulmars get their name from the foul smelling oily spit that they expel if you come too close. And then there is the perfectly painted black and white lines of razorbills and guillemots. The female razorbill lays just one egg that is one seventh of her body weight and the markings of guillemot eggs have a different signature to help the birds recognise their own nests. Eggs usually have a flat side to stop them rolling off the cliff; an ingenious invention given the huge drop.
Seabirds can live for over twenty years and cover incredible distances during their lives out on the ocean waves only coming back to shore to nest. The last national seabird census in 2000 counted just under 8 million seabirds from 25 species that breed in Britain and Ireland, including 90% of the world’s Manx Shearwaters, 68% of Northern Gannets and 60% of Great Skuas. Unfortunately since then, the populations of black-legged Kittiwake, Puffin and Fulmar have been in decline due to rising sea temperatures and deterioration in food abundance particularly sand eels which are a common food source.
If you ever visit RSPB Bempton it is important that you take time to look on shore as well as off. Today I see two pairs of reed buntings protecting their nests, swallows, linnets, meadow pipits, whitethroat, stonechats and skylarks. As I walk back to my car I notice the tree sparrows that are in the hedgerows with their distinct pretty brown heads and black beards displaying typical sparrow society chattering. They are extremely charming as we rarely have them in Dorset.
Sad that it is over for today, I slip off my boots and put down my camera. I have had a wonderful day here and time to just unwind and enjoy this marvellous spectacle.
The RSPB have some fantastic reserves around the country; each with their own atmosphere and biodiversity. They are always a good place to head for when on the road as you know there will be strategically placed hides and platforms for viewing as well as a place to get a nice hot cup of tea.