If you have read my last blog, you will have seen that June and July were very busy months for me. The next place I introduce you to, also took me into an August visit, totalling three visits in the space of six weeks to the same part of the UK… The place is RSPB Bempton in East Yorkshire.
In between, there was a visit to Suffolk and I will go into this very brief trip in due course, but East Yorkshire warranted a total of over 24 hours worth of hard driving. The drive from Hertfordshire to Bempton is approximately 4 hours each way and as you can imagine, if you want to do a day trip that is worthwhile, then you need to be up super early to make it in good time… 3 am wake up and driving from 4 am, very large coffees where required.
My first visit to Bempton was for Gannets at the end of June and had followed much discussion with a friend who has been there multiple times. At the crack of dawn I departed one mildly muggy morning and I didn’t really know what to expect but was aware that Bempton holds one of the largest colonies of gannets in the UK. It had been over two decades since I had been to Yorkshire. The last time I had explored Yorkshire was at the start of my teens on a school trip and it was to the Western parts of Yorkshire with a very brief trip to Whitby. So here I was 4am and heading up the M1.
As I had made a few stops, I arrived just before 10am and the weather was glorious. You could hear the sound of the seabirds but for me this was the first time I would get to put my new lens through its paces.
Just to digress a bit, following my trip to Wales for Wally the Walrus in May which had warranted me borrowing a 200-600mm Canon lens off a fellow photographer, it had taken over 2 months for me to locate availability and purchase a Sigma 150-600mm contemporary lens. These lenses sell out fast and despite ordering one around the start of June, this order had fallen through and I had started to lose hope in being able to obtain one. Fortunately by sheer luck I managed to get the last one available with a 1.4x teleconverter, taking the overall range to 840mm. I was now at an advantage to what I wished to achieve with wildlife photography, having spent years harnessing stalking skills, which would now not be possible on a very steep cliffs. To give you an idea before I continue taking you on this trip, I have popped on images of my actual kit, minus tripod. The weight in total I carry on these trips is 10 kg including tripod with at least two large bottles of water to stay hydrated. In warm weather carrying this weight despite being fit, gets pretty sweaty.
After a brief chat with the staff at RSPB Bempton, I was advised to take a nature walk first to get the full experience. Bempton is a vast site that stretches in either direction. Walk right along the cliffs you will easily reach Flamborough Headland, walk left and you can reach Haven Reighton Sands and beyond. There are several things you will notice along these cliffs. The first is the amazing vista, the second is the sound of gabbling gannets and other seabirds, though the gannets do seem to dominate the gabble due to the numbers and, the third is the smell. The smell is literally from the exceptionally large colony of birds and their daily catch.
Walking through the vast meadows that lead down to the cliffs, you are on a constant lookout for wildlife. Bempton has this in abundance and you are never quite sure what you will see. I was already aware there are numerous bird species here and as you amble down to the cliffs, the birders and the twitchers cannot be missed.
There is a big difference between birders and twitchers which I have learned over the past few weeks and no they don’t all dress up in camouflage and jump out of hides and bushes as some believe. Birders have a passive interest in birdwatching and will generally take their time observing. Twitchers actively go looking for a specific species and whilst I am generally not the former or the latter, these past few weeks I have been the latter and for very good reasons.
My first visit was specifically Gannets but in the space of a day I went from twitcher to birder and here is why. As I am walking towards Haven Reighton Sands, I stop at the first viewing platform and I can see a huge colony of Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills nesting. I move on to the next view point known as Jubilee and here I see puffins. I was fully aware there were puffins here but generally if you want to get excellent close up shots of puffins, Skomer Island off the Pembrokeshire coast is the place to go. Here I am though and I have my new lens and I proceed to capture as best I can the puffins. There is one small challenge though, there is a strong wind coming off the sea which is making the ability to focus and stabilise my rather large and heavy lens a little tough. However, I am generally up for a challenge and I was going to get those shots.
As my readers know my blogs wouldn’t be complete without some fun facts. So before we continue with my photography of the seabirds of Bempton, I am going to cover a little history about Bempton Cliffs. This place is where seabird conservation began. Bempton was once a place known for climbers. Bempton climbers as they were known, were local men who would precariously abseil down the side of the cliffs with baskets stealing the eggs of the seabirds to either sell or harvest. The eggs had other uses besides being consumed or sold as souvenirs. They were also used in refining sugar and manufacturing of patent leather. Looking into this use I came across a passage from Feasting, Fowling and Feathers: A History of the Exploitation of Wild Birds by Michael Shrubb which covers the uses.
As you will note, this was a ludicrous business but thankfully acts started to pass in parliament to protect these birds and eventually put a stop to the process. The first act to pass was The Seabird Preservation Act 1869. This act was to put a stop to the slaughter of the seabirds. Victorian shooting parties sailing out from Scarborough and Bridlington would pass under the cliffs killing thousands of birds just for fun as referenced on the RSPB website (https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/our-work/rspb-news/news/details.aspx?view=print&id=tcm:9-228954).
This took a huge toll on the numbers as you can imagine. This act paved the way for further acts to protect the sea birds and the community that relied upon a yearly harvest as you will read on the link provided and thank goodness these act were passed as visitors today to Bempton would not be able to experience what is now thriving colonies. Bempton, though isn’t all a bloody and gruesome history, there is more to Bempton and some of it is under water.
Between Spurn Point and Whitby there is approximately 50,000 shipwrecks. Some of you may know that the North coast was once a thriving seaport and there are parts that still are today. The seaports of this region were not just for fishing but also for transporting industrial materials like coal. You will note from my footage and photography that there is a rough sea below the cliffs and as with any cliff there is always weather erosion. This means that below the azure surface you will find jagged rocks and mussel beds. Between Bempton and Haven Reighton Sand, lays The Laura, which sank just below Speeton Cliffs in 1897. History of this specific shipwreck suggests that due to the decimation of the bird population, the calls of the birds along the cliffs had acted as a “natural” fog horn, warning passing ships of the dangers. However because of the decimation of the population, the cries could no longer be heard as they had before and this increased the danger of ships running aground on the treacherous waters. It probably didn’t help that many of these ships very heavily overloaded and today they sit on the bottom of the sea bed, acting as habitats for marine life and for many a ambitious diver to explore.
Speaking of the marine life, as I am exploring the cliffs, I got chatting to one visitor who turned out to be a National Trust employee and who informed me that on occasion when looking out across the sea from the cliffs, you can get views of minke whales or pods of dolphins. I did my best to keep an eye out but to date I have not been fortunate to witness this. Moving on with my seabird exploration I spent a fair bit of time at each view point and as mentioned above, my first shots were of the Kittiwakes. At first glance, if you are not versed on bird species and I am not well versed on all, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s just a seagull and you wouldn’t be far off. They are a member of the gull family, however there are many different species of gull and the ones I was photographing were black-legged kittiwakes and if you were really lucky, you would get a glimpse of the chicks as it was chick season.
Over the past six weeks I have had the privilege of seeing the chicks grow up and from speaking with the RSPB volunteers, this year has been a real success for kittiwakes as they have been on a rapid decline. Kittiwakes are the only species of gull who are exclusively cliff nesting. At the end of 2017 they joined the red list of endangered species whereby it was noted, there had been a 50% decline in the species since 1960’s. In parts of Scotland the decline in the species hits as high as 96%. In 2019 it was reported that following years of extensive research since the 1990’s where this decline was first noted, the food supply for not just Kittiwakes but other seabird colonies being sandeels and other small fish stocks were also in decline. There were two main factors identified: warmer sea-surface temperatures brought on by climate change, and the overfishing by the fishing industry. Researchers have also suggested that the decline could also be down to the changes in feeding and whether they have a good year or not. That said they have pointed to human exploitation and the way sandeels were fished previously and for food to feed the fisheries industry which has over the years seen many areas shutdown and coinciding with the decline with other small fish species and changes to the bird feeding habits. This research continues but the conservation work done so far up at Bempton has seen a mild improvement in numbers this year and let’s hope it continues to improve.
Moving to the Grandstand viewpoint and as mentioned before Jubilee viewpoint, things were certainly more challenging due to the winds on my first visit to Bempton. Fortunately the second and third visit was less challenging wind wise but it was certainly hot and I have returned from each trip more shades of brown, that I could almost pass myself off as a chameleon. Here I was able to get some shots of the nesting puffins and it’s a good job I did as little was I to know, my future trip to Wales would end up being cancelled due to Storm Evert. I have to say this was quite possibly one of the most challenging of photography to date with the aid of the wind, it made flying birds quicker.
Hidden amongst the mass of gannets, guillemots and razorbills as I looked down the drop of the cliff face were puffins. Notoriously known for their sad clown like features but they are super cute. Atlantic puffins are the smallest species of puffin and I have a few fun facts about this tuxedoed clown.
Atlantic Puffins are endangered and marked on the ICUN red list as vulnerable. They are affected by adverse environmental changes with concentrations of Puffins only breeding on select sites. They generally mate for life and will spend at least two thirds of their life at sea, but will return year after year to the same burrow and generally to the same mate. as with any species, there is always some who don’t but the majority are monogamous partners. They migrate to parts of the UK around April having spent the winter at sea and then migrate back to the colder climates of the North Atlantic towards the end of July to mid-August. During the winter months, their colourful beaks are seasonal, meaning they shed their colourful beaks as well as the black markings around their eyes. The colouring of the bill reemerges in spring time for breeding season and it is thought it helps them to assess a potential mate. This change in colouration also occurs on their feet. The chicks do not have the colourful markings when born and will be the colour of the seasonal winter colouring of the adults. They love sandeels and with this they are excellent divers. Puffins can fly and they are super quick, flapping their wings at around 400 beats per minute. They live for approximately 20 years.
Following these fun facts, here are some shots I captured of this petit beauty of the sea. I was fortunate to capture them in flight, with one having a mid air collision with a razorbill and one with its chick peeking out of its burrow.
The main attraction at Bempton at that point in June was the gannets, this however, changed in the space of a week and would warrant two further visits from me with my final visit having a truly in awe experience. The gannets are in their own right impressive with their size and colouring. When you are at the viewpoints, they are everywhere and flying just inches above your head. As I was trying to capture shots now at Jubilee viewpoint I missed a shot of a herring gull flying past with a blue egg in its beak. The gannets are gathering grass for their nests and you notice that some are black and white or speckled, whilst others are white. The ones settling on the clifftop give you a clear view of their piercing blue eyes, enhanced by the yellow head plumage merging into the white.
As you can imagine I have some fun facts about gannets too…
The gannets at Bempton are Northern Gannets. They can be found at Bempton, Scotland and Greenholm Island off the Pembrokeshire coast. Bempton and Bass Rock have the highest colony concentration. They lay one blue egg (clearly one was unlucky as I’d seen one blue egg fly past in the mouth of a Herring gull). They are southern migrating birds and begin migration South between August and October, returning between January and February. They have been known to migrate as far out as Ecuador. The chicks are featherless when they hatch and can appear blue or black. As the chicks get older they aren’t the best looking of chicks unfortunately and often look a bit floppy or dead in their cliff nests. As the chicks grown up they initially cannot dive, due to being too fat and buoyant, it takes a few weeks for them to slim down. Gannets are expert divers and hit the water at speeds of up to 62 mph and from up to 30 metres high. They have tiny airbags under their skin that they use to help them return to the surface after a dive. They will swim down around 15 metres. The variation in feather colours determines the age of the bird. The less black plumage, the older the bird. Gannets are also monogamous and will mate for life, living up to 35 years. Northern gannets are the largest of the gannet family.
As I walked along the coast line the birds kept coming and these came in the form of birds of prey. One specific bird of prey that I found myself in a very fortunate position of capturing and I never thought this would happen, was pointed out to me initially hiding amongst the grasses on the cliffs. I present to you the world’s fastest bird… The Peregrine Falcon.
The Peregrine is a true predator and whilst the one I photographed is a juvenile, they are just as lethal as the adults. In flight they home in like a heat seeking missile, reaching speeds of up to 242 mph! often found along coastline cliffs, they are also found in city centres high up. They have been seen in action, diving to catch their prey and when teaching their young, they perform mid-air exchanges of their catches. They were once pushes to almost extinction in the first half of the twentieth century by gamekeepers and also the use of agricultural pesticides including organochloride chemicals such as DDT which has now been largely banned. but since then they have increased in numbers and are of least concern. Peregrines are navy blue and live approximately 19 years. These remarkable birds are also used as deterrents to other birds by humans with the most famous use of them at Wimbledon by falconer Wayne Davis.
The following week Bempton’s latest attraction arrived and it warranted a returned to Bempton a couple of weeks later.
However, before get to Bempton’s star attraction in recent weeks, I had a close encounter with another bird of prey on my second visit. Stood at New Roll Up looking out for the star attraction or at least attempting to, I clocked in coming at speed, what I initially thought was a young peregrine. It was in fact a young kestrel and in its talons was a rather hapless vole. Landing on the rock face opposite, it made sure to devour it’s rodent snack before flying just underneath where I was standing, and allowing everyone to get a rare close up. You will note that there is blood from the hapless rodent still on the kestrels bill and RSPB volunteers were quick to inform us it was another juvenile. It really was baby boom at Bempton!
Kestrels have been in decline unfortunately since the late twentieth century and this attributed to loss of habitat, decline in prey and agricultural chemical use. It is hard to pinpoint the exact reason. Growing upwe all used to see these lining the edges of motorways hovering for prey. You would also commonly see them in most fields. As I drive around the UK exploring various places, I feel lucky if I even see one now. The decline is stark by contrast to the late 80’s and early 90’s. Of the birds of prey, Kestrels have excellent eyesight, spotting prey as small as beetle from 50 metres away and they are able to see UV light.we all once used to see lining the edges of motorways hovering for prey they only live for around 4 years.
In between my visits to Bempton, another species of bird found itself blow on course. After checking in with some twitchers on social media and passed some dodgy coordinates and directions, I found myself one Sunday taking an hours drive to Suffolk. Here I found the side of the road lined with a mass of telescopes and cameras. You’d think there was a celebrity running around this field naked, but it wasn’t. High on a wire and looking nothing more than a black spec was one European Roller. A what?! I can imagine many of you questioning. the bird is called a European Roller and there are some fun facts about this bird. It’s bright blue and when it flies, you cannot miss it. Also arrived in the UK at the start of July was Bee-eaters which are also not native to the UK, however, I would not be able to get a shot of the latter as hey had moved on. So here I am at the side of the road twitching with hardcore twitchers and I am wondering how the hell I will get a good shot of this bird, given it is sitting high up in the middle of the field on the pylons. This is what 840mm can do with the assistance of photoshop cropping later.
European Rollers are not native to the UK. Whilst they breed in Europe, they are generally found in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Morocco. They migrate to Africa for the winter months covering over 10,000 km when migrating from Europe and Asia to sub-Saharan Africa. They are a solitary birds, which would explain why there was one randomly sat in the middle of the Suffolk countryside. They are swift and agile, known to be quite the aero-acrobat catching its prey in flight a lot of the time. It has been known to capture small lizards or mice, beating them to death against the ground.As you can see they are incredibly striking in colour and not something you would easily miss.
Twitching in Suffolk over, it would be a return to Bempton for a third time a few weeks later. The next species is from the family of the worlds largest seabird… The Albatross! Yes arriving in Bempton four year ago a very blown off course, Black-Browed Albatross arrived and he had returned the week after my first visit.I won’t lie my second visit did not go to plan when trying to see this stunning arrival. Whilst I did get to see him through monoscopes and I achieved a very distant shot of “Albert” the albatross using both iPhone down a monoscope and my camera, it would be my third visit whereby I would achieve the clean shots. So sparing you the dodgy grainy distant shots, I bring to you the latest shots whereby I got to experience close flybys and an incredible 7-8 foot wingspan (2.5 metres).
Black Browed Albatrosses are also known as Black Browed Mollyhawks. Native to the Southern Hemisphere, they are on the Near Threatened status of the The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are opportunistic feeders and will pretty much eat anything they can grab. They live for over 70 years and are monogamous for life. Unfortunately for “Albert” he is the only Albatross in the UK. These magnificent seabirds create oil in their stomachs which they either spit out at attackers or they use it as a source of nutrients during long flights. 75% of the population of the Black Browed albatross is found in the Falklands or in The South Georgia Islands. Their heart rate remains the same as if they are on land when flying and they can reach speeds of up to 68 mph depending on the wind’s currents, their wingspan makes them master gliders.
Unfortunately Albert who is believed to be only 4 years old has been floating between the UK and Germany looking for a mate which he is destined not to find due to him being so off course to where he is native to. Needless to say he is finding companionship with the gannets and other sea birds at Bempton and is the centre of attention to those visiting the cliffs.
My visit to Bempton was concluded and whilst I went and enjoyed and afternoon in York, my next blog will cover a place I have been to twice in the last twelve months for more marine life fun.