Here we are with another recent sightings update! First up, following on to last time's big news, I'm pleased to report that we've still had a fair number of late puffins hanging around the cliffs, as you can see....
Some puffins are still here! Photo taken 18 July, by Jaime.
As a result, our popular daily Puffin Patrol guided walks with our enthusiastic volunteers (including, periodically, yours truly) have been extended through this weekend. But the puffins are gradually decreasing in number, and soon will truly be gone for this year, so if you've been hoping to see them, don't miss your chance!
Last call for Puffin Patrol! Join one of our enthusiastic guides to see and learn more about all our birds! Photo by Jaime.
This applies to all of our auks, the family of which puffins are a member; most of our razorbills have left, and the guillemots are beginning to dwindle as well. Both these birds lay their eggs directly on the cliff ledges, without a nest, leaving their chicks very vulnerable to predators. The chicks are adapted to leave very quickly, after only 2 to 3 weeks, at which time they take a jump and head out to the safety of the sea before they're even ready to fly. In fact, they take around 30 days after taking the plunge before they have the feathers and strength to properly fledge off the sea! But because they leave so quickly, their parents leave relatively early too. A few late guillemot chicks have still been reported here and there this week, but if you don't want to miss the auks, we're getting down to last call for this year!
A few razorbills remain, but compared to a few weeks ago, numbers are really dwindling! Photo by Jaime.
Razorbills, like our other auks (puffins and guillemots) will soon be all gone. Photo by Jaime.
That's not to say there's not still a lot to see on the cliffs! The kittiwakes are only just beginning to fledge, the gannets will be around quite a while yet, and as to our latest egg-layers, the fulmars, I'm pleased to report we've finally got a confirmed chick off the south side of New Roll-up viewpoint! I've not managed to get a picture of it just yet, but rest assured, I'll be trying hard this weekend!
'Gotta run! I finally have a baby to feed....' Fulmar taking off from the sea, photo by Jaime.
Two other types of sightings have been picking up as well! Our shags are making more regular appearances down along the water. These cormorant-like birds are probably the most cryptic of our 8 nesting seabird species -- since they prefer to nest in the caves at the very bottoms of the cliffs, sightings are not nearly as common or easy as with the others! In fact, we do get cormorants passing by occasionally, but they fly quite high, whilst the shags stay very low to the water. If you happen to see one or more large, all-black birds skimming the tops of the waves, then you're probably in luck with these ones! To illustrate the most you're likely to see of them without binoculars, I took a quick snapshot of a group of 4 today.
Family of 4 shags off Staple Newk viewpoint. This is how they look without binoculars. Photo by Jaime.
Secondly, we're seeing sea mammals peeking in, and should continue to see more as time wears on. If you want to know what to look for, have a look at this grey seal, spotted today just below Grandstand viewpoint.
Grey seal as seen without binoculars off Grandstand viewpoint. Photo by Jaime.
Yes, that's it, down in the lower left -- not nearly as dramatic at all as one might think. Nonetheless, to spot that odd, dark shape rising from the water, then raising one's binoculars to make out the details of a head, a dorsal fin (in the case of porpoises), or other features... or maybe even catch them looking back at you... can be quite a thrill!
As to our other exciting sightings, on 11 July a great skua was spotted under Bartlett Nab viewpoint, and has been reported here and there since. July 12 saw two swifts over the south end of the main reserve, and our resident corn buntings were on full display around New Roll-up viewpoint, along with a sedge warbler and a juvenile cuckoo. Several painted lady butterflies have been seen lately, with the most recent noted on 13 July. The paths and trails through our meadows are teeming with peacock butterfly caterpillars since the 14th of July, when a female wheatear was also seen, with a moorhen at our feeding station and kestrel hunting over the cliffs rounded out the exciting sightings for the day.
On 15 July, several of our volunteers noted that our tarrocks -- that is, young kittiwakes -- were beginning to take to the wing. One of our most experienced volunteers also spotted a rarity on the reserve: a female house sparrow. This may not seem remarkable, but the reserve is generally home only to tree sparrows -- the village just up the road is positively teeming with house sparrows, with not a tree sparrow to be found, but the two species seem to have developed their own boundary somewhere along the road down to the reserve, and each generally keeps to their own side. When I first arrived, I had difficulty telling them apart! Some of the other volunteers pointed out the key differences to me, however, and now when I see them it seems perfectly obvious! Firstly, male and female tree sparrows look the same, while male and female tree sparrows don't.
House sparrows are "dimorphic", meaning that males and females look different. Photo by Jaime.
Tree sparrows are not dimorphic; males and females look the same. Photo by Jaime.
Tree sparrows generally look a lot like male house sparrows, but as you will notice, house sparrows have a grey cap atop their heads, whilst tree sparrows are a more gingery colour, tree sparrows also have a dark spot on the cheeks which house sparrows lack. The tree sparrows also have a much less pronounced black 'bib' under their bills. But then... I could have sworn I saw some female house sparrows about!
Juvenile tree sparrow. Photo courtesy of Dave Aitken.
In fact, despite the strikingly obvious differences in side-by-side photographs, to the untrained eye, young tree sparrows look a bit like female house sparrows at a distance. The key features to look for are, again, those cheek patches starting to come through, and the really gingery head.
Rounding out our sightings, on 17 July, our moorhen was spotted at the feeding station once again, and a juvenile marsh harrier was seen hunting near Jubilee Corner viewpoint.
Warning - if you're uncomfortable with bones, the next picture is not for the faint of heart!
To finish out this update, I wrote in a previous update about owl pellets. I finally had occasion to take apart the owl pellet we found, and inside found all sorts of bones. The size of them makes them very delicate and difficult to separate without breaking (genuinely, there were ribs in there that were thin as cat's whiskers!). The best-preserved of the lot was the skull of a small mammal. If I had to guess... maybe a vole? The size seemed about right, but I reckon I'll have to consult someone more experienced to be sure -- it's not every day we get to see bones, so without guidance, learning the exact features to look out for can be tricky! Still, even without a positive identification, it's certainly something neat to see!
Small mammal skull recovered from an owl pellet. Photo by Jaime.
My time here at Bempton, sadly, is nearly up, so I'll be back in a few days' time with one last update. Until then, happy spotting, and hope to see you out on the cliffs!