A trip to RSPB Bempton Cliffs – Part 1 – Gannets

Bempton Cliffs, from Filey Brigg

Bempton Cliffs, from Filey Brigg

One of my favourite places in Yorkshire, a favourite back to my childhood, is Bempton Cliffs.

Long-term followers of the blog will maybe remember a trip here three years ago. On the RSPB website, one of the tags for Bempton is ‘bracing’, and in 2012 it more than met that description. But this time round (3 August 2015) it was a glorious sunny day, warm when out of the wind, but even that was a mere cool breeze, not the icy gusts of death!

The RSPB have done a lot of work here since then, and the new visitor centre is an excelent little facility. With it being summer they also had guides out at viewing points talking to families, which was great to see.



We actually managed an early highlight outside the village of Bempton itself with a Red Kite cruising low over the fields.

At this point of the year most of the auks (puffins, guillemots, razorbills) have left their nests and headed out to see. We did spot one flying out to sea though (a razorbill, I think). But the highlight are the gannets.

They are starting to leave the colony in August, but at the peak Bempton now has around 11,000 breeding pairs, plus about 4,000 younger single birds, plus chicks (one per nest). That can mean around 30-40 thousand birds!

SONY DSCThey cram into every bit of precarious cliff, and there is a constant noise of calls from parent-to-parent.

The image of gannets, I always feel, is oddly negative. If you talk about a person being like a gannet, you mean they eat anything. This is fair enough, but a pair of gannets has to feed up a chick that ends up heavier than than the adult, too heavy to fly initially!

But this does no favours to a bird that actually has a great pair bond, and a devoted approach to their family life. In the paparazzi-esque shots below you can see two adult gannets engaged in mutual preening, helping to strengthen their bond.

SONY DSC SONY DSCYou’ll also rarely see an unattended chick, as when one parent is fishing, the other is on guard.

SONY DSCAlthough sometimes, the attention given can make it appear the adult is using the chick as a pillow!


Preening, or sleeping?

They also keep that fairly bare nest provisioned with seaweed as insulating nesting material, and even this late in the season adults can be seen bringing it in.

SONY DSC SONY DSCThere is a real range of ages in the youngsters around, ranging from older chicks, to those that are still covered in down:

One rock, several stages of gannet moult

One rock, several stages of gannet moult

They are wonderful birds. I’ve covered them in a previous post where I touched on the possible myth of the air sacs. This is still a present-and-correct fact around the reserve, but for now it’s not been written out so must be taken as truth.

Pictures can rarely do justice to the colony, but this one minute video gives a sense of the noise (although much of the noise is me being buffeted by the wind):

What no moving image will do is introduce you to the smell of a gannet colony. Until you have stood with a wind coming off a cliff on which 30,000 fish-eaters have been excreting waste, you do not know what that sensation is! You’ll just have to visit yourself next summer.

I took lots more pictures of course, but hopefully this has given a flavour. Tomorrow we’ll talk about the other prominent seabird at Bempton, the kittiwake.


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5 Responses to A trip to RSPB Bempton Cliffs – Part 1 – Gannets

  1. Wonderful info and photos. I was there last summer and don’t think can fit a trip in this year so your post has really given me a flavour of the place. Well worth a visit. I’ll look forward to seeing the kittiwakes.

    • David says:

      Thanks. I try to get out there at least once a year, but next year really need to time it for when the puffins and other auks are still around.

  2. Pingback: RSPB Bempton Cliffs – Part 2 – Kittiwakes and others | Why watch wildlife?

  3. Emily Scott says:

    You have endeared them to me. But as I have a fish allergy I am grateful I can see the photos and video without the smell!

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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