The walk down the signposted path from the visitor centre towards the North Sea is at first quite unassuming. The path runs through scrubby grassland, with skylarks trilling high in the sky, tree sparrows fluttering from hedgerows and meadow pipits flitting between fence posts; while delightful, nothing at first seems particularly out of the ordinary.
Walking eastwards, above the lip of grass in the distance is a slice of the surprisingly blue North Sea. If you didn’t know any better you might think you were just heading towards a little beach, as if you was in any old coastal nature reserve, but your senses begin to betray that you are in fact in quite a special place. Gulls are clearly visible skirting the edge of the land that appears to give way immediately to the sea, but as you edge closer it’s the sound and smell of the place that might finally give away what you are about to come across. The smell will sometimes hit you first, a smell I can’t quite describe, but which is ultimately of layers of bird poo (more gracefully known as guano). The sound of nasal mews coupled with a cacophony of goofy trumpeting, squawks and gurgling gradually begins to increase in volume as you edge closer to what is now quite obviously a sea cliff; and a pretty big one at that.
This is of course no ordinary nature reserve, this is the RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs; located on 6 miles of white chalk cliffs standing up to 100 metres tall on the stunning Yorkshire coast. Thousands of bird watchers, photographers and tourists flock every spring and summer to this corner of the north for one of the worlds greatest wildlife spectacles- the breeding season of thousands upon thousands of seabirds.
The UK is comparatively rich in sea bird colonies, two thirds of the world’s population of gannets nest in the UK. However most sea bird colonies are isolated off the coast of Scotland, making them relatively difficult to get to. Several sea bird colonies lie off the Welsh coast, and the Farne islands off Northumberland is also a well celebrated and hotly visited sea bird colony. But what sets Bempton Cliffs apart is its shear accessibility; there simply aren’t very many sea bird colonies that you don’t have to get on a boat to get to! It is almost certainly the best place in England to get easy views of such a spectacle, and it’s my favourite RSPB reserve! I have been lucky enough to visit a few times, but just last week was the first time I got to visit while having a DSLR in tow, so I made sure to make the most of it!
Breeding on the Edge
Cliffs like these aren’t particularly common, meaning space is at a premium and seabirds of all kinds have to squash onto these ledges at high density. Cliffs are safe from terrestrial predators and have very easy access to the birds true home, the sea. While some “seabirds”, such as many species of gull, have invaded the land including our own cities, many of the birds here are true oceanic specialists. They live so inextricably linked to the marine lifestyle that they have to nest bang slap next to it, as if they are allergic to coming inland any closer than a few metres. The birds here are so highly adapted to their life at sea they seem to struggle a little with a terrestrial mode of life. A gannet’s attempt to land will often end in a slip and a tumble, it’s a wonder how these birds manage to hold on to the sheer cliff face when the North Sea has a wobbly and throws a storm their way!
Seabird colonies are often compared to cities due to their density, diversity and verticality, imitating tower blocks of squabbling locals. Different species are split off into their own niches, making the distribution of birds stratified by important factors such as space, height and structure. Some of the birds opt for a cosier life style, such as guillemots which have one of the smallest know territories of any bird species, and can pack themselves in at huge densities, while others opt for a more spacious life. The tube nosed fulmars, for example, appear to own a detached 4 bedroom house with an ample back garden for the kids to play in, compared to the densely packed terraces owned by the guillemots.
To look over the viewing platform down at the thousands of birds below, at first, can be a bit bewildering. After taking some time to process the vast number of feathers that are whizzing around below your feet you can begin to spot the finer details. Different species become apparent as well as those at different stages of the breeding cycle; depending on the time of year you could see everything from nest building to juveniles who still seem to be hanging around the cliffs. As with any human city, there are a whole host of colourful characters here, all fantastic to see and photograph. But there are 5 stars that really stick out at Bempton Cliffs in particular.
The cute seagull
Gulls don’t have a great reputation, they’re noisy, garish, serial chip thieves, and are often the perpetrators of some of the chick predation on these cliffs. But one species remains pretty innocent compared to its bigger cousins- the kittiwake. These dumpy but delicate gulls nest on the steepest areas of the cliffs, squeezing into any little ledges, giving the impression that they are stacked on top of one another! They are one of the more obvious characters on the cliffs, nesting relatively high up and making quite a lot of noise. Its name is of onomatopoeic origin, though I think you have to listen pretty hard to decipher “kit-ee-wake” from its call!
(Click on the images to see them larger in lightbox!)
Three members of the auk family also breed at Bempton, those densely nesting guillemots, the more dapper looking razorbill, and the family favourite, the puffin. Auks are arguably the most marine of the birds on the cliffs, in fact they might be the most marine of any other bird on the planet, except from penguins of course. They dive for their food and are supremely adapted to do it; their bodies are compact but very hydro/aerodynamic having what’s known as a fusiform shape (also shared by fish, dolphins, and virtually anything else that wants to swim at speed- convergent evolution at work!) and have pretty stubby wings, also helping to minimise drag. Unlike many other seabirds, but just like penguins, auks use their powerful little wings to literally fly underwater, which in the case of the guillemot, can be used to propel its dive down 150+ metres!
The guillemots often nest lower down in the cliff tower block than their other auk counterparts and the kittiwakes, often gathering on ledges together where they lay their almost conical shaped egg on bare rock, which have evolved such a shape to avoid the danger of rolling off!
In the image below you can see a little guillemot chick stood on a cliff ledge with two adults (and a sleepy razorbill in the background). You might think that this chick has a while before he has to worry about leaving the safety of its cliff top ledge, but in the case of this fluffy little guillemot and also razorbill chicks, they fledge before they can even fly! Jumping off a ledge without fully formed flight feathers sounds like suicide, but the little bouncy chicks are very resilient and can at least glide down to the sea. 20 day old chicks jump off the cliffs at ceremonial drop off points and are then chaperoned by their father, and their father alone, out to sea where they are still fed for 60 more days. Virtually all the bird species on the cliffs are socially monogamous and both parents raise their young because the energy costs are so high, it’s certainly not an easy life being a parent on these cliffs. It is thought that this early fledging in guillemots and razorbills is caused by the high strain on space in these tightly packed breeding species, and they can make a huge saving in energy by not having to ferry food back and forth to the cliffs. Exactly why it is the male who cares for the chick is debated, perhaps by this point the female is too weary from having to bear the burden of carrying and laying the egg, and evidence has shown that the males are morphologically and behaviourally more capable of protecting the chick. While the parent might not have to fly as far, finding your own chick after fishing must be a lot harder in the ocean then at a static cliff nest, so razorbills dads have evolved to be able to identify their chicks by their call (and vice versa), whereas razorbill mums are pretty useless at knowing what their own child sounds like. You have to admire razorbill and guillemot dads for their extra effort and special bond with their chicks, they’re no seahorse, but it’s still a damn good attempt for the father of the year award!
Razorbills are mostly found further up the cliff face than the guillemots and appear to have blacker feathers and a larger blunt ended bill. At one particular view point razorbills kept repeatedly coming into their nests directly below the viewing platform, creating some great photo opportunities! However as you will discover if you see these birds, they fly like speeding bullets. All the auks are quite dinky birds and are vulnerable to predation and thievery, so they literally race towards their nests as fast as they can in a mad panic to make themselves as harder target as possible, for predators and photographers! My 70-300mm VR was no competition for the thousands of pounds worth of lenses that surrounded me, but I did manage a few in flight shots of the razorbills coming into their nests, but there was a fair few big black unfocused blobs as well!
One of the hardest to spot, but most charismatic characters that nests on the cliff goes by the nick names of “sea parrot” and “clown of the sea”, but is more regularly known as, the puffin. The puffins at Bempton are quite unusual in that they nest on the cliffs in nooks and crannies with the other seabirds, whereas usually they nest in burrows within the grassy cliff tops. Despite their comical looks, you shouldn’t let their image fool you into thinking they are blundering jesters; despite being the smallest auk on the cliffs they are one of the biggest travellers. Puffin parents can fly up to 600km a day to provide their chicks with fish, and can hold up to 60 fish their mouth at once; they certainly shouldn’t be scoffed at!
The Grace of a Gannet
Although many may think of the puffins as the stars of Bempton cliffs, for me, the trophy would go to the gannet. If the auks are bullets through the air then these are flying scythes, whose sharp curved wings glide and swoop around the cliffs. They are big white birds with 6 ft wingspans tipped with black at either end, their yellow heads are bedazzled with a piercing eye and electric-blue eyelid and comes to an end in a long sharp beak.
Bempton Cliffs is the only English mainland colony of gannets and they can be found in more spacious areas of the cliff from all the way at the top to the huge groups on larger flatter rock faces near the bottom.
Gannets are known for their plunge diving hunting technique, where they speed at up to 110kph into the ocean head first in order to dive down to 23m to catch fish. Adaptions to such an extreme hunting method include their lack of nostrils and binocular vision, enabling depth perception. Also due to their aquatic lifestyle, they lack a brooding patch (a bare patch of skin used to transfer the parents body heat to the eggs) and use their highly vascularised web feet to brood their eggs instead! Although you can’t see them hunting from the cliffs, a wide variety of other behaviours can be seen in full view, from their multiple display dances to mating!
Gannets take 5 years to mature into their truly magnificent adult form, when they first fledge they are mostly grey, but gradually every year become more and more white.
I have to admit, the main reason the gannets are my favourite birds here is because they are one of the best to photograph! Their size and slower predictable flight makes them fantastic subjects for in flight photography, and they sometimes come very close! Bempton cliffs is a real haven for wildlife photography, great photos are possible with any camera!
Birds of all kinds
Fulmars, a type of tube-nose related to the albatross, also breed here in their strictly monogamous pairs. These birds are pretty cool for their disgusting defence mechanism of vomiting over their enemies!
Many other sea birds are also here, from herring gulls that patrol the cliff tops to the ever illusive shags that breed all the way at the bottom of the cliffs in the sea caves. But the cliffs are home to some more familiar species as well, such as jackdaws that bounce in the wind picking up scraps from crumb dropping birders.
Birds so reliant on the oceans are now also at the mercy of the oceans biggest exploiter, humans. Seabirds are heavily impacted by fishing, still so intensive in the North Sea, and are very sensitive to climate change that causes fish distributions to shift. For the moment the birds at Bempton don’t seem to be doing too badly compared to their Scottish counterparts, but the seabird city’s foundations are weakening, and its future is uncertain. This is yet another reason you should go check out these seabird colonies for yourself, since by going and paying the small £5 parking fee, you are helping the RSPB to conserve these birds! The Seabird City is a feast for the eyes, ears and nose (well, maybe not a good feast for the nose!), and is a must visit place for any budding naturalist and photographer this summer!