We often get letters from our visitors telling us how much they enjoyed their trip - and in this case, getting up close and personal with our spectacular gannets. Thanks to Chrissy Gwilliam for sharing her and her husband Phil's experience with us.
"Living in the heart of Somerset we often travel to the coasts of Devon and Cornwall and sit looking out to sea in awe at the Gannets flying and feeding off shore. We would often look at each other and say 'wouldn't it be nice to see these magnificent birds close-up?'.
In Spring 2016 we took early retirement and having the chains of work broken, we booked a holiday in East Yorkshire with a view to visiting the breeding Gannet colony at Bempton Cliffs.
On 24th June we left Somerset at 5.45 am arriving at our holiday cottage at 1200 hours. The weather was 20 degrees C and sunny. This was not a time to stop and savour our holiday cottage - the Gannets were calling us! We drove straight to Bempton Cliffs (approx 2.5 miles away from our holiday cottage). The excitement was mounting but also a fear that we may not get close to the Gannets - we so desperately wanted to stand and observe these wonderful birds at close quarters. How wrong was our fear!
It is now Friday (our last day) and we have been at Bempton Cliffs at 0730 every day (except for the wet Wednesday) staying most of the day observing the habits of these truly remarkable birds. We have been priviledged to watch the bonding between pairs of Gannets, the tenderness of the parents feeding and preening their chicks, but most of all to watch within feet (and I do not exaggerate when I say feet) the Gannets gathering material for nest building/repairs.
Without a shadow of a doubt this has been one of the most memorable experiences of our life. We have had many special moments, for example, puffins running around our feet at Skomer, seeing Short Eared Owls and Barn Owls flying around us at Titchwell and seeing Bitterns and Great White Egrets in numbers at Ham Wall, and now we have shared some of the life of a Gannet. It has been a truly amazing experience and one that we will cherish forever.
Thank you RSPB for sharing your cliffs with us.
PS: I have to mention the other delight - the humble Tree Sparrow! In south west England we only see House Sparrows, so this was also a treat for us."
Well! This is my last blog on this site, as my time as a residential volunteer monitoring seabirds finishes at the end of this week – and it will be ‘Goodbye from me’ as the old saying goes. So, as a parting shot, I would like to share with you some thoughts on the final stages of the seabird breeding season here at Bempton, at least from a razorbill and guillemot perspective.
As you may well know, the only way the razorbill and guillemot chicks can leave the cliffs is by jumping off them! Hence why they are called ‘jumplings’. This may seem horrifyingly dangerous, and indeed it is as I shall explain shortly, but believe it or not, properly supervised by their fathers they are probably safer out at sea than on the cliffs. Whilst on the cliffs they can be knocked off in an uncontrolled manner when fights break out, as they often do, and they can be killed. Also, they are at risk of being taken and eaten by gulls and possibly crows. However, when out at sea, the gulls really won’t follow them too far off shore, and the crows will really not go out to sea at all so predation from those sources is eliminated. Plainly, they are also not at risk of falling anywhere when at sea level and they are very well adapted for a life on the ocean wave.
So recently, when scanning the cliffs, I have often seen little chicks about a ¼ the size of their parents preening themselves and looking very interested in the big world around them. Sometimes, the parent is absent for a while and the chick is alone with only its near neighbours for company and, sometimes, those neighbours are not very neighbourly, pecking and harassing the chick.
This little chick was left by her/his parent (No. 14 of Carter Lane One, for those of you with an eye for detail!) for about 20 minutes. Fortunately, the neighbours were well disposed towards them, paying them little attention, and to my relief the parent returned to take charge.
When the chick is ready to jump, it does! I watched one run past other adults towards the edge of the cliff and literally throw itself over. What is then meant to happen is that the father will either jump with them, or will be waiting for them in the sea below. They then pair up and you see them both paddling away out to sea really fast, the father making sure he is going at the pace of the chick but plainly making sure there’s no hanging about, they’re off beyond binocular vision in about 5-7 minutes.
Unfortunately, if the father doesn’t pair up with the chick you can hear the cries of the chick. They are much higher pitched sounds and once you’ve got your ear in you can clearly hear them. This cry is to attract their fathers, but, it also attracts other adults of their species and gulls. Neither of these options is good. I have seen guillemot chicks harassed by guillemot adults such that four or five adults will chase the chick and peck at it and it looked to me as if they were trying to pull it underwater. Even if they didn’t drown it, I would imagine the chick would tire and be very stressed.
I have also seen herring gulls trying to eat dead guillemot chicks and they wait at the bottom of the cliffs in the sea for their chance to get one. On one occasion, I saw a juvenile black-backed gull intimidate a herring gull away from its dead guillemot chick, take the chick and down it in one.
This is why the jumplings jump late in the evening, to try and avoid the predators.
Last few chicks on the cliffs!
Even now, there are a few chicks of both razorbill and guillemot on the cliffs. I can still see a selection of little fluffy bottoms resting under their parents. This really must be lovely and warm, for they are not only under the parent, but very often resting on top of the parent’s feet. This not only keeps them off the rock, but, trust me, an auk’s foot is very warm! Earlier in the season I rescued a guillemot that was stuck behind a farm fence at Flamborough, and when I picked it up, it’s feet where so warm! I considered taking it home as a bed warmer but thought someone somewhere would have me up for something, so I released it over the cliff instead and it flew away mighty fast!
Some last thoughts...
One of the things that has surprised me has been how tolerant the birds are about being so close together, even those from different species. I know fights break out but on the whole, things are pretty calm. I’ve seen a brooding guillemot sit on the tail end of a brooding razorbill to the consternation of neither! I thought there would be a punch-up but nothing happened.
As can be seen below, some puffins chose to nest in a hole directly behind a razorbill breeding site (No. 49 at Grandstand North to be precise). When the puffin needed to come and go it had to crash land over the top of the razorbill, and once committed to this course of action, continue clambering over its neighbour. I don’t think the razorbill thought much of the arrangement, pecking at the puffin periodically, but things seemed to calm down pretty quickly and an uneasy truce appeared to be maintained.
The other thing I have noticed is the amount of litter there is in the nests. This kittiwake has a balloon in the nest and I’ve seen balloon streamers, fishing net and plastic bags in the nests. This really is a terrible thing for animals and these birds in particular as they can get tangled in this material, become unable to move and/or go foraging and they will die. Also if they eat this material it blocks their digestive tract and they will die. It really is a reminder how careful we must be with things that make our lives so easy and to eliminate single-use plastics from our lives if we can. Seems a bit of a random topic to end on, but, although it may be random, it is incredibly important and we can all do our bit not to add to the problem.
So, it is with great thanks that I close my blog for this season. It really has been marvellous to be so close to the birds and to have the opportunity to watch their behaviour. I have been round all of my plots today and said goodbye to the remaining birds and their chicks, and wished them good fortune in their challenging lives ahead!
And I do the same to you and I hope you have found these pieces interesting. I am already looking forward to next season and to reacquaint myself with some of my avian companions, with whom I have spent many hours, even if only from a distance!
So, it’s good bye from me and, as the picture below makes us go ‘Ahhh!’ – it’s goodbye from them.
Is there a badge for baking in the Brownies? If there isn't, there should be. Because the 9th Bridlington Brownies and Rainbows all deserve one.
They had a Puffin Muffin making session and came up with this selection of scrummy bakes.
Let the girls know how well they've done by leaving a comment below and we'll pass them on.
The Puffin Muffin competition continues until 20th July so if you think you can top the Brownies and Rainbows efforts, have a go and upload your photo to our Facebook page (RSPB North Yorks and East Riding).