On a high rise seabird city

After yesterday’s report from Flamborough, we move a little North to Bempton. If Flamborough is about what may drop in, Bempton is about the summer residents.

Bempton's high rise des res

Bempton’s high rise des res

A coastal cliff is like a giant city for nesting seabirds. A high rise empire of family, sex, life and death. You can see beauty and elegance, and tragedy and brutality. But none of it is ever less than fascinating. It’s not only a high rise because of the scale, it’s positively Ballardian (tip of the hat here to the film critic Mark Kermode).

At RSPB Bempton Cliffs, unlike in James Graham’s 1975 work, here the residents intermingle. The only stratification is in the rock. But that doesn’t mean there are no hierarchies at play.

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Probably the dominant force are the gannets. Huge and increasingly populous, and an ever-present threat to all the other residents. Be it bird or mammal, a gannet could and would eat it. Nothing outside of the largest eagle would take on an adult.

Gannet on the wing

Gannet on the wing

And yet they are also the most graceful sight you will find here, especially when in the air, gliding on wings that reach nearly two metres across.

At this time of year they are focused on the next generation. Gannets can live for more than thirty years and a single pair may well stay together for much of that. They reaffirm their bond through ritual and touch.

You've got to love how studiously the razorbill is avoiding looking at the mating gannets...

You’ve got to love how studiously the razorbill is avoiding looking at the mating gannets…

And yet once they are done, he looks on almost approvingly.

And yet once they are done, he looks on almost approvingly.

Amongst the prettiest residents are the highly vocal kittiwakes. Attractive as these delicate little gulls are, their onomatopoeic name is a distinctive sound of the cliffs, echoing out at all stops.

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Like the gannets their minds are on breeding right now, and many are collecting mud and grass for their nests.

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Further down our hierarchy we find the auks (or aukses if you are a fan of Gollum…). Most numerous are the guillemots, closely followed by the razorbills.

As a raft out to sea, they look like a group of indistinguishable black and white blobs. But closer to, the guillemots are more a chocolatey brown, whereas the razorbills are a purer black.

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You also cannot fail to distinguish them when you see the shape of the bills. A thin dagger on the guillemot, a hefty axe on the razorbill. These bills do the hard work of catching the fish that comes back to the nests. Unlike the gannets and kittiwakes that build a proper nest, the auks nest on bare rock, their egg staying in place thanks to a miracle of evolution, an egg shaped perfectly to roll in a circle, never falling off the edge.

Razorbill

Razorbill

As peaceful as they can look, fights can break out on the water.

The colour and contrast has been artificially heightened in this picture to help make the fighting pair clearer

The colour and contrast has been artificially heightened in this picture to help make the fighting pair clearer

There is a third auk here. Occasionally as a black blob whirrs into the cliffs, you see a pair of bright orange-red feet dangling out the back, and maybe a glimpse of a thick and brightly coloured bill.

Spot the puffin pt 1

Spot the puffin part 1

Spot the puffin pt 2

Spot the puffin part 2

Yes, the puffins are here too. But they are harder to spot. Unlike a site such as Staffa where they surround you in undisturbed earthen burrows, here they seek deep rocky crevices from which you may see a ghost of a puffin peering out if you stare long and hard enough.

If I didn't know there was really a puffin here, I could convince myself it was an artefact of shadow

If I didn’t know there was really a puffin here, I could convince myself it was an artefact of shadow

There are visitors to these cities too. A kestrel passing by made it onto their bioblitz, a count of all the species seen in a day (and as it was my spot radioed back, you’re welcome RSPB!).

Not dead, merely resting

Not dead, merely resting

Prancing

Prancing

Does not like having his photo taken

Does not like having his photo taken

Atop the high rise we find another resident, the always engaging and photogenic jackdaw. Here they went from prowling, to posing, to panting.

So there we have it. Not a dystopian nightmare, but a beautiful example of how nature works. All the dramas of the best fiction are here, but played out for real on a daily basis. What’s not to love about that?


 

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One Response to On a high rise seabird city

  1. Pingback: Some more pictures from @Bempton_Cliffs | Why watch wildlife?

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