Wonders of sea bird city

NORTH OF Bridlington and stretching from Flamborough Head to Speeton are spectacular chalk cliffs rising to 445 feet. Bempton Cliffs form one of the RSPB’s most celebrated reserves, having the largest breeding colony of sea birds in England.

During spring and summertime, when red campion is in full bloom along with the yellow-orange bird’s foot trefoil adding colour to the clifftop, it’s a great time to take a bird’s eye view of the breath-taking spectacle below.

Eight species of sea bird breed here, with the commonest being the kittiwake. Fulmars are very obvious, gliding on updraughts at the top of the cliffs, and the raucous calls of herring gulls make them equally noticeable.

It’s a life or death struggle for thousands of pairs of guillemots to nest and raise their young on the narrow and eroded cliff ledges. They’re joined by smaller numbers of razorbills. Crevices in the chalk are nest sites for thousands of comical puffins, while a small population of shags nest at the foot of the cliffs. The most famous of Bempton’s sea birds is the gannet, nesting in large noisy colonies preferably on exposed cliffs or slopes.

The reserve is open throughout the year at all times. The Visitor Centre itself is open from March to October daily from 10am to 5pm. That’s the best time to go to view breeding birds, have a picnic or sample the food and drinks at Ethical Catering Outdoors.

In the colder months remember the gannets will have departed to warmer climates after October, but you can blow away the cobwebs on the cliff-top; watch the moods of the sea; look out for hares, stoats and weasels and have a warm-up in the Visitor Centre which closes an hour earlier, at 4pm.

They say the best things in life are free – and they often are. Certainly the cliff-top path and access to any of the five view points are free, and you can get even closer to seeing all the bird activities now, thanks to the wonders of the newly-installed CCTV, which brings you all the drama and entertainment from gannet nests and guillemot ledges. However, non-members of the RSPB pay £3.50 per car to park nearby. The good news is, if you pick up an RSPB leaflet, ‘Experience Life on the Edge’ from your local Information Centre, there’s a free parking voucher inside which you should present at the Visitor Centre for a free car park ticket. Alternatively, if you’ve got the Visitor Guide for 2011, you’ll find a free voucher on page 65.

Staff and volunteers are always pleased to help with identification, or to answer your questions, and you may like to join one of their puffin patrols.

Puffins appear to be the ‘clowns’ of the cliffs with their bright blue, yellow and orange bill often giving it the nickname of ‘sea parrot’. It’s only a small sea bird standing at 26 to 29 cm tall, but very smart. Its breeding plumage of black upper parts, white face and underparts remind one of a waiter! Surprisingly the colourful outer layers of its bill is moulted in the winter. The wings are adapted for ‘flying’ underwater seeking food such as sand eels, herring and sprat. They can carry five to 10 fish, depending on size, in their large bill. Nesting in rabbit burrows and cracks and crevices in rocks they can be difficult to spot.

Two auks which people often confuse are the guillemot and razorbill. Robust birds of similar size, both have uniform dark black (in razorbill) and dark brown (in guillemot) upper parts, head and throat. The underparts and under wing are white. A guillemot has a slender neck and narrow head with a long, unmarked and tapering bill. A razorbill has a larger, almost rectangular and deeper head and bill and a thicker neck. The bill has a narrow white line which extends forward from the eye to the top of the bill. Also another prominent vertical white line across the bill. Both species are clumsy on land. They don’t ‘stand-up’ or walk like a puffin. They squat with legs resting along the ground and shuffle along. Guillemots have an upright position on land whereas the razorbill is more horizontal.

Neither species builds a nest. They lay a single, conical-shaped egg on bare earth or rock. The shape of the egg reduces the risk of its rolling off the ledge.

Gannets come to land only to nest in colonies on the steep cliffs. Its torpedo-shaped body can reach one metre in length, and the long wings are designed for sustained flight and soaring over the waves.

An adult gannet is white, with black wing-tips and peach-yellow head. They’re heavy for their size and an adult weights about 3kg.

Feeding on fish such as herring, mackerel, sprat and sand eel caught either by surface feeding or by a spectacular plunge, it’s a fabulous sight. Gannets are famous for the plunge. Wings are extended backwards before the bird penetrates the water like an arrowhead at speeds of up to 60mph.

A gannet is both greedy and aggressive. Nesting within a beak’s distance of each other there’s jabbing and threatening behaviour to any passing bird. Nevertheless, they’re fantastic fliers and amazing to watch.

You could spend a full day at Bempton Cliffs nature reserve with a pair of binoculars and a picnic. Browse the shop with its gifts, books, cards, toys and even bird food. Try refreshment from Ethical Catering Outdoors, and maybe take a longer walk to see the farmland birds. See, hear and even smell England’s finest sea bird colonies.

Access by car along the B1229 from Flamborough to Filey, turning off at Bemptons’ White Horse Inn, up the Cliff Road to the RSPB car park.

The nearest railway station and bus stop are in Bempton village, just over a mile from the reserve. Walkers will know a longer route from Buckton pond up Hoddycows Lane to the cliff top etc.