Unless you've been living in another country for the past few weeks, you might have heard that we've been planning a bit of a 'do' over Easter - the opening of the £1.3m new seabird centre at Bempton Cliffs.
So how did it go? It was glorious! Even though the weather wasn't. Despite the famous Bempton Cliffs' mist descending, nothing could dampen our spirits as we welcomed visitors to our new home for the first time.
Preparations started early. Our youngest volunteer, Gracie, was out with her family doing the essential job of litter picking to make sure the place looked spick and span.
Warden, Dave Aitken, was put on bunting duty - and a grand job he did too. Our new decking area has wonderful views across the reserve, down to the cliff edge and then the sea beyond - the perfect place to enjoy a hot chocolate.
Inside, last minute touches were being made in every department. We stocked up, cleaned up and tuned up (OK, that was just the choir), until the shutters were rolled up and the doors finally swung open. Welcome to the first day of the rest of our lives.
We had a few surprises in store - the first 100 people through the door received a puffin badge as a memento of their visit and wore them with pride.
And no celebration would be complete without a cake! And what a cake it was.
ITV's regional news programme, Calendar, came along to film the proceedings. Site manager, Keith Clarkson shared the excitement of the event with those watching the lunch-time news across Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.
Finally, the moment arrived. Our site manager said a few words (and one of our long-time volunteers shed a few tears) as our local Wildlife Explorers group did the honours, and the seabird centre was officially declared well and truly open. The reserve's mascot, Mrs P shared the spotlight with the children and one of our 'live interpreters' in the guise of local clergyman, the Reverend Barnes Lawrence, who fought long and hard to bring the Seabird Preservation Act of 1869 into being.
Cameras flashed, visitors cheered, coffee cups were raised and our local community choir sang their hearts out.
Then it was all systems go.
Puffin Patrols set off in search of our most popular seabird, Wild Easter activities took kids around the nature trail and Mrs P gave out free cuddles. (Don't laugh, hugging a puffin is very therapeutic).
Was it the biggest Big Day ever? It was for us and we were hugely proud to have been part of it. And as one of our recent visitors commented on Facebook, 'I am still beaming with excitement'. Ditto.
Springwatch returns with a special just as the countryside is bursting into life.Tune in this Good Friday, 3 April 2015, at 9 pm on BBC2 to see Bempton Cliffs take a starring role. And, hot off the press, the programme is being repeated on Easter Sunday at 7pm. So you get two chances to see us on TV. Here's a run-down of what you can expect from our national team:
Springwatch at Easter will be based at our Bempton Cliffs nature reserve in Yorkshire — whose stunning chalk 400-foot chalk cliffs are home to a quarter of a million seabirds.
Presenter Chris Packham will be investigating the changing nature of this vast colony, finding out why its gannets are booming whilst the puffins and other species are declining in the face of rising sea temperatures.
At this critical time of year, nearby Flamborough Head is a busy crossroads for birds migrating in and out of Britain and a hotspot for strange sea creatures emerging from the deep to breed.
Michaela Strachan will be heading out to sea with some of our own staff, as well as those from the local Bird Observatory and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, as she spots migratory birds off the coast of nearby Flamborough Head. She'll also be searching for a strange and mysterious fish called the lumpsucker.
Meanwhile at Minsmere, Martin Hughes-Games will be hoping to witness sky-dancing marsh harriers and the arrival of avocets.
Last year, the avocet colony was devastated by a voracious badger that swam out to their island and destroyed over 20 nests in 20 minutes. This year, we've teamed up with Springwatch and the University of Brighton to put GPS collars on eight badgers to better understand their behaviour.
Finally, Simon King will be returning to Islay in Scotland, where he'll be filming the Mad March hares and this wild island's other spectacular wildlife.
Simon will reveal the surprising origin of the Easter Bunny: go for a walk in the fields where brown hares box, and you'll often find spotted eggs. Of course it's not the hares leaving them behind — it's lapwings that nest on open ground.
So don't forget to tune in this Friday, 3 April 2015, at 9 pm on BBC2.
The annual three-week programme will return to our screens from 25 May to 11 June 2015 and will be hosted at Minsmere for the second year running. You can find out more on the Springwatch website.
‘Would you like to follow me into the bedroom’. This isn’t my usual opening to a meeting about a radio advertising campaign (honest!) But since our visitor centre closed for redevelopment work, the entire Bempton Cliffs’ team has been squeezed into the small cottage we rent in Bempton village. And every corner has been commandeered as work space - even the back bedroom.
We locked the doors on the old visitor centre for the last time in August and the million pound plus transformation of the 1990s building into a seabird centre fit for 21st century needs started for real.
Thanks to over a million pounds of funding, with both the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Government’s Coast Communities Fund putting into the pot, the heart of this will be a multi-functional indoor space which will allow us to tell the story of the seabirds and wildlife that make their home on the cliffs.
There have been several false starts over the years – so many in fact that one of our long-term volunteers asked to cut the first bit of turf, just so she could be absolutely sure things were going to go ahead. We were very careful not to leave the keys in the excavator as Angela can’t actually drive!
Work had been delayed by a year after the discovery of great crested newts on the reserve. While we were obviously delighted that this protected species had decided to make its home on the cliffs, we also knew that its arrival would hold up the project. The experts monitored the amphibians over 60 consecutive days before relocating them. And in the end, the biggest surprise wasn’t the newts, but the army of 800 toads they recorded.
Once work got underway, things moved pretty quickly. From being a nature reserve, we turned into a building site almost overnight. Local company, Kemp Developments, had just seven months until the start of the new seabird breeding season, to complete the work. No easy task. We just hoped that the weather would be kind.
Fortunately the snow stayed away and although the builders had to invest in extra layers of clothing to keep out the famous Bempton ‘breeze’ (400 feet up, it can be windy and nippy on the cliffs!) work progressed well and in the blink of a gannet’s eye, the walls went up.
It all seems a very long way from our earlier home. The original Bempton Beach Hut started life at our Minsmere reserve and today, after admirable service on the cliffs, is still in use at Langford Lowfields in Nottingham. How’s that for recycling?
By January, the entire site was really taking shape – as this drone shot shows. The new top car park was almost complete. You can also see the extent of the amphibian fencing – 950 metres of it in total – and still in place to prevent any home-sick newts from returning to their old haunts.
Along the way we had some interesting moments. We put the old floor safe in the visitor centre to good use by enclosing a time capsule in it before the floor was cemented over. We included photos and RSPB name badges of current and past staff and volunteers. We wonder what our colleagues in the future will make of it should it ever be discovered.
We also had great fun trying to settle on a name for our new viewpoint. Bempton has series of cliff-top viewing platforms that give spectacular views along our stretch of the coast – and which allow close-up views of the nesting sites. A sixth one has been added thanks to funding from energy firm, GDF Suez, who recently opened a Yorkshire based office, in Leeds. As you can see, the view from it is amazing.
Locally, and on old OS maps, this patch of land was called Mossydown Gate or Moasey Downgate or what seemed like millions of other variations. We also knew it as Grandstand Gully and even Puffin Hole (as it gives great views of our favourite feathered visitor!). Eventually, after much research by our volunteers, we settled on Moseydown Gate.
So with our opening just a week away, there’s still lots to be done. But our ambition is to be the most accessible seabird colony in the UK, with the new Seabird Centre being the gateway to it..
And while our new home will be amazing for visitors, the stars of the show will always be the seabirds. Bricks and mortar just can’t compete with nature.
The new Seabird Centre at Bempton Cliffs opens on Good Friday, April 3 – and you can see the reserve on Springwatch at Easter on the same day on BBC 2 at 9pm.