Friday, 27 June 2014

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

Every year, or at least most years, I try to get a fix of puffin watching with my friends Mark and Giles. Normally we go to Skomer in Wales but recently they've made this hard. Boats are easily cancelled because of bad weather and now you can buy tickets in advance, but only in person at 6am from the harbour. This means it's a lottery whether you get on a boat so we've abandoned that for the time being.
Enough of the moaning. As the weather looked nice we decided sort of last minute to go north, to Bempton cliffs RSPB in Yorkshire. Giles sadly couldn't join, so it was just the two of us. This is just north of Flamborough Head and holds the largest mainland gannet colony in England. I've been a few times before, but not since 1985 when I was coming back from my honeymoon!!!
As it's almost 4 hours it meant an overnight in Bridlington. We got there about 8.30pm due to a complicated series of occurences  centring around rivets falling off a plane Mark was on, thus delaying his flight by almost 3 hours. A word of caution. Bridlington closes early. In a very Fawlty Towers moment we checked in and asked "can we get food" at the hotel. "oh no" said the slightly orange lady on check in, "i think the chef has finished for the night". A short walk into town though and we found a  totally empty steak house that served beer!! On the way back we stopped for pint at the only pub open in Bridlington, and walked in on grab-a-granny night. A bloke on a guitar was playing 2-4-6-8 motorway and the residents of next doors retirement home were shaking their replacement hips to the beat. Very bizarre….
Anyway, the next morning we set off not too early and got to Bempton about 8.30. Beautiful day, blue sky, hardly a breath of breeze and we were virtually the only car there.
The car park had a bird feeder with sparrows on it. Amazingly not just house sparrows but tree sparrows, their much rarer cousins. There were loads all over the reserve. I have no idea on numbers but it must be well over 50 and probably much more. Really nice to see as there is only one colony in Hertfordshire now I think.

We walked the few hundred yards to the cliffs. You could immediately see the size of the colony. Gannets were everywhere, passing by at eye level, on the sea, on the cliffs. None were feeding so the shoals of fish must be further off.

\Of course, the thing with colonies like this is not just the sight but the sound and the smell as well. You got both before you could see over the cliff, but it was only when you looked down you got the full scale.
As per any seabird colony the cliffs were packed with nesting birds - fulmar, kittiwake, razorbill and guillemot as well as the gannets. Many had chicks or visible eggs.

What weren't in view though were puffins. You could see a few flying around but any actually on the cliffs were difficult to see. I think over about 3 hours we were there we only saw 4 or 5 and then all at some distance. I know the north sea colonies have been hit hard recently with warming waters moving their favourite food sand eels much further north. The fields behind the cliffs had more sparrows as well as skylarks, linnets and meadow pipits and swallows and swifts were hawking for food.
The main attraction though was the gannets. We both spent quite a time trying to capture them on film (what is the digital equivalent, capture on card doesn't sound right??). With very little wind they weren't messing about stalling near the cliff edges or hovering so it was a case of trying to grab shots of them passing overhead. Since I was last there they have put up a lot more fences so you can't get close to the edge so it was grabbing shots as they passed. I got a few which pass muster though.

We finished the day off with a nice fish and chip lunch at Flamborough head, where you could see the ling lines of gannets and auks heading off south presumably to the fishing grounds. Overall a really pleasant day out, not great for puffins but really good to see the rest of the colony thriving.