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  • Writer's pictureToni Cross

Seabird Cities

As we move out of lockdown more people are headed for the coast, and scenes of crowded beaches are becoming common. Personally, I'd rather be on the crowded seabird cliffs at Bempton RSPB Reserve.

When I say crowded of course I mean with birds rather than people, although even spots like Bempton, normally the province of nature enthusiasts and dedicated birders, are busier than normal. This spectacular reserve just above Bridlington on the East Yorkshire coast is home to an estimated 412,000 seabirds who come here to breed each summer.

The most coveted bird sighting for many casual visitors (and for many hardened birders thought they are less likely to admit it) is the Puffin. These comical little birds are less common here than in larger colonies such as the Farne Islands, and can be a bit more of a challenge to spot. Especially since they tend to tuck themselves in with Razorbills and Guillemots, which have vaguely similar markings and are often mis-identified by newcomers. Keep an eye out for squatter bodies, and distinctive orange feet as well as the brightly coloured beak.

Puffins nest in fissures in the soft limestone cliff, or in burrows higher up, so this is the best place to spot them. Regular visitors are also used to being asked, 'have you seen a Puffin' so don't be afraid to ask for help, though unfortunately the practice of helpful birders and volunteers allowing visitors to look through their telescopes has been curtailed for the moment.

As spring gives way to summer thousands of wildflowers open along the cliffs and are also a spectacular sight. Seabirds in among the flowers make great photos, and, although perhaps less well known the smart Kittiwake is especially pretty with a flowery setting. I once got told off for telling students that they could identify Kittiwakes because they are easily the prettiest seabirds, but I still think it is a pretty good description! Kittiwakes also make a massive contribution to the cacophony of noise on the cliffs, their rousing cry of Kittiwake, Kittiwake can be heard above every other call.

Once you have taken a look at the diversity of the cliffs near the visitor center, and experienced both the sights and smells of the colony, take a walk north to the platform at Staple Newk for arguably the most spectacular sight. This is the stronghold of the Gannets, the UK's largest seabird. With a two metre wingspan the huge birds perform impressive aerial displays as they fly on and off the cliffs in search of food and nesting material.

Almost anything seems to be acceptable for Gannet nesting material, vegetation, straw, old bits of fishing net and plastic. Ocean pollution is a cause for concern as they can attempt to collect rubbish in which they, and their chicks, can become entangled.

At the moment they seem quite happy with the wealth of plants and vegetation along the cliffs, and can come really close to visitors to collect it.

There is quite a bit of competition for good nest sites, and although this far into the season you would think they would have settled most territory disputes, young birds such as the ones below are still quarrelsome. They won't be breeding yet but still seem to be honing their nest protection skills!

Bempton is certainly worth a trip if you are out and about exploring the UK coastline this summer, though please bear in mind the following:

The RSPB warned as reserves began to open that birds which had nested during lockdown had colonised areas that would usually be busy with visitors. Please take extra care and don't leave footpaths. The reserve is a breeding ground for Tree sparrows which seem to be using the footpath across the meadow to feed young so please tread carefully.

The reserve still has reduced capacity. Although toilets and footpaths are now open the visitor centre and shop is closed and the car parks have been very busy during the day. I normally aim to visit in the early morning anyway, when the light is better for photography and the reserve quieter. In 2020, with social distancing in place, it is worth aiming for quieter week days and avoiding peak times.

Find out more about visiting Bempton Cliffs here:

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