Sunday, 16 July 2017

Bempton Cliffs

It would have been something close to sacrilegious to make a return visit to Yorkshire after so many years and, at the height of the breeding season, not pay a visit to Bempton Cliffs. This place meant very little to me when I was living in the UK, as all of the ‘specialities’ there would typically get seen elsewhere over the course of a year. After being away for a bit, though, you do realise just how important and remarkable the place is, with all those delightful seabirds offering such unique and personal insights into their lives at little more than arms length in many cases. Being on holiday, I was also keen to do the ‘guesthouse’ thing, perhaps because this (stereo-) typical kind of UK seaside accommodation was one that I had never actually stayed in before. I spent two nights in the (!) of Bridlington at a very favourably-priced guest house (Schofield), which surprisingly I found myself really liking. I couldn’t say the same about Bridlington itself, though, which I felt could not possibly be an actual working town, but  rather some kind of run-down ‘1940s-themed’ retirement village (with blue rinse, sour-looking mien, and racist POV being requirements for residency). Obviously, lots of 'reverse culture shock' micro-aggressions whilst there I could bang on about (including being treated like a criminal for trying to change a £50 note at the post office), but that’s not really the point of the post. Anyway, Friday afternoon was straight up to Bempton Cliffs with the main target being the Atlantic Puffins Fratercula arctica there. I had been worried that many may have left already, but there really were loads around, the only issue being that most of them preferred to spend their time deep in cracks rather than out on the cliff ledges. Still, one or two proved easy to photograph, alleviating the fear that I might possibly dip!

The other auk species were similarly abundant, yet comically I found fewer of these in decent spots for photos than I did Atlantic Puffins! A Razorbill Alca torda with a chick was reasonably close, meaning I cut put that one on my ‘photoed list’ (not that I keep such a thing). There were also plenty of Common Guillemots Uria aalge around, including one ‘bridled’ individual (a less common form which I wanted to see, as it would mean having cleaned up on all the auks possible here).

The other big targets on the cliffs are Northern Gannet Morus bassanus and Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis. Despite being common, finding birds in aesthetically pleasing spots (rather than just from directly above) was a bit challenging, and not at all possible in the case of the Fulmar. I was also disappointed with the shots I took of Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, so was happy to find them now nesting on houses in Bridlington, together with the much more numerous European Herring Gulls Larus argentatus.

I took a different approach Saturday, as it was overcast and did not look as good as Friday had done for the cliffs. I chose instead to catch a bus to North Landing and stroll leisurely along the cliff tops back towards Bempton, picking up cliff top farmland species as I went. A little disappointingly, I only got three with the camera (though saw several other 'desirables' along the way), but at least one of these was Corn Bunting Miliaria calandra which historically used to be quite rare.

I couldn’t get close to male Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus, unfortunately, and had to make do with a juvenile. I had also hoped for more shots of Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis than I got to see some variation, but at least the only one I did get did prove very confiding.

I’d timed my visit so that I’d be able to get on the last of the RSPB ‘Puffins and Gannets’ cruises of the summer. This leaves Bridlington on the ‘Yorkshire Belle’ and sails directly under the cliffs at Bempton, offering a different perspective on all the birds nesting there. According to the on board commentator, some 300,000 seabirds are nesting on the cliffs at Bempton this year, quite a spectacle, and the view of the coastline is really quite spectacular from the boat.

The trip was worth it for the European Shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis alone as these are impossible to photograph from the top of the cliffs, electing as they do to nest at the foot of them.

I did poorly for auks, strangely, both on the sea and flying, but did at least manage to get all three of them. The only disappointment was once again failing to get any decent shots of Northern Fulmar, somewhat surprising as there were plenty around.

The big bonus of the trip was a moulting Bonxie Stercorarius skua which took off from the front of the boat and did the very briefest of flyovers as it headed towards the rear. I managed just the one shot of it, sadly, but as this is the only one of the North Sea skuas not to occur in Taiwan (where anything like this would be South Polar), it really was the one I wanted most.

An agreeable weekend all told, I would say, with sufficient on my camera from both offshore and on to make it feel to have been worthwhile, and very pleasant conditions for tramping around along the top of all those cliffs. Additionally, there really can’t be many places left in the world where you can enjoy the novelty of being back in the 1940s, and for the window on yesteryear it provides alone Bridlington is probably well worth the visit! Above photos taken at Bempton Cliffs and its environs, East Yorkshire 14-16/7/17.

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