Sunday, 5 July 2020

Seabirds at Bempton 3rd July 2020

Today found me driving to the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs reserve in Yorkshire in another attempt to see a Black browed Albatross. This time the elusive bird had first been seen yesterday evening and then earlier today, flying along the cliffs and joining the Gannets that breed there. I got to Bempton at around 2.30pm but was three hours too late.The albatross had flown north at 1130am and despite a crowd of over 200 birders waiting until dusk to see if it would make a re- appearance, it never did.

This was my second dip at seeing this much wanted addition to my British list and such a shame as this time the chance of seeing it looked so good but it was not to be. In such a situation there is nothing to do but accept that not all twitches can be sucessful and this, unfortunately was one of them.

Bempton however, has much else to offer, especially at this time of year when the various seabirds  nesting on the huge cliffs are at their spectacular best and even without an albatross on offer it is always a worthwhile and rewarding experience to visit there to see the breeding seabirds.The six hours I spent at Bempton were therefore not wasted from my personal point of view as I spent the time happily watching and photographing the abundant seabirds currently nesting on the cliffs.

The afternoon was not the best weatherwise, being beset by high winds and nasty rain squalls, that were chilling and inconvenient but not enough to prevent me from appreciating and enjoying the birdlife all around me. I stood on one of the specially constructed viewpoints, as did many others, looking out to sea or along the cliffs, finding a vacant place on the lookout point from which to watch a multitude of Gannets, Razorbills, Guillemots, Puffins and Kittiwakes riding the wind or perched on precarious ledges along the impressive cliffs.

I took some of the usual classic shots of Gannets in flight, their white forms wheeling above a cold and grey looking North Sea but rather than go for this kind of coffee table image all the time I concentrated more on particular birds that were striking attitudes or doing something, rather than just sitting in a nice pose. I personally find these kind of images more interesting than the more standard presentation.

Here are some images that I took of the various species I found on and around the cliffs at Bempton.


Seen perched on or flying below the impressive and majestic three hundred foot cliffs it is sometimes hard to realise just how large Gannets are. They are Britain's largest seabird with a six and a half foot wing span. The colony at Bempton was founded around 1930 and is Britain's only mainland gannetry. However space is limited on the narrow ledges of the cliffs and large parts of the cliff are unsuitable for nesting so there are not the vast numbers that can be found at other colonies such as at Hermaness in Shetland but still there are more than enough Gannets to keep anyone satisfied. A ceaseless procession were flying back and fore below me with virtually all being full adults, just the occasional immature individual, dressed in the brown and white speckled plumage of a bird in its third summer of life, brought variety.

Adult Gannets
Some Gannets were in the process of constructing nests, flying in to the cliff face with beakfulls of grass while others were already guarding a fluffy white youngster. In the latter case both birds were on a narrow ledge that seemed far too precarious for the young bird's safety, as with one false move it would fall hundreds of feet to its death on the sea below but today it was a case of so far so good.

Adult Gannet with its youngster that is around 4-5 weeks old.Note how narrow and confined the ledge is on which the young Gannet must remain until it fledges
I watched a pair of immature Gannets, standing well away from the main throng and going through their intricate courtship rituals, holding heads high on extended necks, bills pointing skywards or gently nibbling their partner's head feathers, strengthening their pair bond in the process. They will not breed this year as they are only in their fourth year of life, both bird's age discernible from the variable state of their plumage which was not quite the pure white of an adult but retained some brown feathers in wings and tail.

Gannets normally first breed in their fifth year of life so these two were rehearsing and learning the process required to successfully find a mate, lay an egg and rear a chick. All that will come to fruition next year on these very cliffs if the birds survive the winter at sea. Both showed to a lesser or greater degree their immaturity by the presence of scattered dark brown feathering in their wings and tail. one appearing to be more advanced in its moult to adulthood than the other. They spent minutes on end bonding, before one suddenly dropped off the side of the cliff, wheeling away in flight across the sea. The other, looking slightly perplexed at its partner's abrupt departure stood for a while and then it too dropped almost vertically seawards before levelling out on widespread wings and, swept away on the wind from the cliff, rejoined its partner in the mass of flying Gannets over the sea.

Another immature Gannet, probably four years old and not yet ready to breed for the first time came within just metres of us, stalling in the offshore wind to put down on the barest covering of orange sand on a narrow ledge of rock, at thc very edge of a dizzying drop to the sea. Possibly it was prospecting for a nest site for next year or more likely it was displaced by the breeding adult Gannets, clustered along the nearby ledges on the cliff face.

So close was it, that if you were of a mind to, its beauty could be fully appreciated without recourse to camera or binoculars. Gannets possess a special aura. An iconic bird instantly recognisable to everyone. Some bird species have this aura others do not. Bryan Nelson in his book  'The Gannet' summed it up succinctly when he wrote 'There has to be something wild, austere, mysterious or irresistably charming to qualify.'

The Gannet is one that most certainly qualifies.

Rarely do you have the opportunity to see a Gannet this close but all bar one of my fellow birders did not seem in the least interested in this opportunity to admire its impressive pale greyish blue bill, defined by narrow dark edging and the thinnest of dark lines running from base to tip, a blue orbital ring around its ice grey eyes contained in a tiny mask of bare black skin, the smooth contour of its white head tinted with golden buff on its crown and down its thick neck. The rest of the bird's plumage was pure, almost dazzling white apart from the dark brown flight feathers protruding to points, over and above its white tail. Each toe on the huge webbed paddles that are its feet neatly outlined in pale lime green. A bird of the ocean and to a large extent coloured with the infinite shades of the sea and sky.

It stood for a while but became restless, not looking comfortable, uneasy on its uneven narrow rock platform and soon flew back into the throng of its fellow Gannets that were passing back and fore in front of the cliff.


I confess to having a great affinity to Razorbills. They are my favourite seabird. The combination of  black and white that serves as their breeding plumage is smarter than the brown and white feathering of a Guillemot and the overall black of their upperparts is refined to aesthetic perfection by delicate white piping on and around their bill and on the tips of their secondaries which forms a narrow white trailing edge to each wing.

Unlike the Guillemots they do not cluster in tenements on ledges along the cliff face but seek out their own personal space on narrow rock platforms and ledges nearer the cliff top and guard this insecure and precarious space from all comers apart from their mate.

They squat on their legs for support whilst craning their necks to check on what is going on around them.

Compare the lack of depth in this bird's bill to the one shown in the two images above
Could this difference signify either age or sex? So often questions arise when you
spend time looking at a bird for an extended period.

When relaxed they sink their large head into their shoulders, holding their thick bill at an uptilted angle but should any other razorbill approach too closely they open their mandibles to reveal its golden interior, a surprise of colour in an otherwise monochrome bird. Usually the partial opening of its bill is deterrent enough but occasionally the bird will augment its warning by emitting a clicking growl, if necessary.

To watch Razorbills squatting quietly in pairs or singly brings a sense of transcendant calm amongst the ongoing sound and frenetic energy of the seabird colony. Nothing seems to trouble them too overtly as they sit, self contained and silently self assured, as if they know something the other birds do not.

Often it is impossible to see their tiny eyes. minute and button like, overshadowed by the huge head and blunt profile of their bill. A bill the direct opposite of the stiletto possessed by the Guillemot. The large bill is accommodated by the Razorbill's stocky thickset body. Somehow it works so that the bird itself can never quite be called inelegant.

The edge of the cliff below my viewpoint seemed to serve as a neutral gathering point where Razorbills could come and rest without incurring any aggression from others. They never remained long but for a while would just sit and look about until the call of their natural environment, the sea would prove too much and they would depart, pairs or single birds dropping off the edge, descending on whirring wings but sometimes the wing beats would be exaggeratedly slow, more a rowing action as the bird sculled seawards on the tailwind blowing over and out from the cliff.


An adult Kittiwake landed on a rock occupied by some Razorbills and obviously took exception to their presence and went into a threatening display. The Razorbills shuffled out of harms way and the Kittiwake held the pose for half a minute before furling its wings and ceasing to call. I always think of Kittiwakes as the most benign of gulls but here was a markedly different aspect to their character. A few minutes later another Razorbill landed on the same rock and the Kittiwake immediately threatened it with spread wings, loud calls and bowed head. Its blood orange coloured tongue extended well beyond the tip of its lower mandible as it gave voice, contrasting with the pale yellow mandibles, something I have never noticed before. The Kittiwake did not remain on the rock for long and departed to join others of its kind either on their nesting ledges nearby or flying above the sea.

Rock Dove

From my vantage point I noticed a pair of Rock Doves coming and going from a small opening in the cliff face just below the top of the cliff. Looked at closely they are an attractive bird always looking smart and somehow leaner and cleaner than the feral pigeons one sees everywhere and descended from wild birds such as this. It was good to see a properly wild bird and it and its mate came and went throughout the six hours I was there.


Last but by no means least is perhaps everyone's favourite seabird the Puffin. A few pairs were mingling on the cliff face amongst the Razorbills and Guillemots. They are much smaller than the other two auk species and are able to negotiate their way to even more precipitous areas than the other auks. Colourful and charismatic their behaviour, especially when paired, is both endearing and fascinating. Puffins are unashamedly curious and nosy and a pair were exploring the extreme edge of a rock face opposite me. One was more inquisitive than the other and sidled down a small precipice to look into a hole, that was far too small to act as a nest chamber, from what I could see, but nevertheless the bird spent some considerable time with its head and parrot like bill inserted in the hole. Its partner succumbing to its innate curiosity, made a move to see what its mate was doing in spending rather too much time examining the hole, and came closer to see what the fuss was about. The pair finally retreated back to the top of the ledge, presumably satisfied that they had discounted  all possibilities of the hole being suitable as a nest site and eventually flew off.

Monday, 29 June 2020

His Imperial Majesty 28th June 2020

Late June and throughout most of July is when my focus shifts to one of the highlights of the year for me and that is seeking an audience with H.I.M (His Imperial Majesty). To those of you not having succumbed to its spell, I refer of course to the Purple Emperor butterfly. By far and away the most capricious, frustrating, temperamental, exasperating and enigmatic insect you could possibly choose to study but it is these very qualities that make it so alluring.

They are never easy to see, as the males spend most of their time high in trees, especially oaks, while the females hide themselves away from the males, lower down in sallows, and are rarely seen as they go about laying their eggs on the sallow's leaves.

Occasionally the males will descend to the ground to feed, extracting minerals from all sorts of unsavoury items such as dog and fox faeces, horse droppings and anything that is rotting and utterly repugnant to us humans. Such is the enigma of this, the largest and most beautiful of our native butterflies.

The mystique attached to them is legendary and some, such as Matthew Oates have devoted a lifetime to studying them and to adding, in their own unique way, to the charismatic reputation of this butterfly but still there is much that is unknown about them as they are so elusive.

When one does come to earth it is a cause for minor celebration as the chance of seeing one is so random. I can recall countless times when I am patiently waiting along what appears to be a suitable ride in the forest only for one to show up to delight others with  its company, not that far away, but unknown to me, That is what it is like if you are a devotee of His Excellency The Purple Emperor

The male is basically brown with white markings across all four wings but catch its wings at certain angles in the sunlight and they take on a colour like no other, a wondrous shimmering blue or purple that seems to change in intensity even as you look at it. One slight move of its wings and they once more adopt the colour brown and you think you may have imagined what you saw, another flick and the blue/purple flashes like a beacon once more.

It is a breathtaking and exhilerating surprise that never fails to captivate and elicit wonder from anyone who has not seen it before and indeed from those that have. Employ every superlative you can and still the experience exceeds an adequate description. Once seen you are entrapped forever in a desire for more, Couple the butterfly's elusiveness with its short flight season of just a few weeks and one can understand the allure. it is without doubt the highlight of the butterflying year for me and many others.

Purple Emperors are not scarce and in fact are increasing but their treetop lifestyle means that the impression is that they are uncommon. Some years are better than others for sightings. The maximum I have seen in a day is seven but usually a good day for me is seeing one or two. Often I just see them flying high above the treetops but occasionally I am granted what everyone of us yearns, to watch one feeding on the ground, impervious to a gaggle of admiring human faces peering down at it or prostrating themselves on the ground next to it, as if in worship, in order to get that definitive shot.

The butterfly once ensconced on its food source will not move, a picture of concentration and it would take heaven and earth to shift it when in this mood. You can even coax it onto your finger if you have a mind to, where it continues to imbibe sweat from your trembling digit. All sorts of other foul smelling lures have been tried, some work some do not and those that work on one day do not always work on another.There really is no short cut to attracting this insect. Infinite patience and a great deal of luck are the only constants

This year, so far, I have  seen six emperors but only one remained on the ground for any period and then it was for only two or three minutes. Sadly it was looking tired and worn, its wings tatty, scuffed and frayed but nonetheless it was an emperor and the magical aura of its visitation still lingered about it.

The heatwave we have experienced recently has gone and the weather has become as capricious  as the insect and now three days of very strong winds have been added to the mix of cloud and rain causing even more upset to both watchers and butterfly.

I was becoming disheartened and desperate to see an emperor close up and for an extended period of time but today the weather, as predicted was one of light cloud with just occasional sunny periods all accompanied by a very strong, gusting southwest wind. Not good at all.

I refused to be deterred and set off, not for my favoured location of Bernwood Forest but to Bucknell Wood in nearby Northamptonshire. I left my home early and arrived at the wood at 8.30am with the sky completely overcast but every so often the sun would shine for a few minutes before the cloud rolled over once again. The wind was troublingly strong but the ride I had in mind would be sheltered by the mature oak trees on either side. The crucial factor was the sun, would it shine long enough to persuade any butterfly and one in particular to take to the air?

I parked the car, walked to a cross roads of tracks and set off up the narrow track bisecting the ride in front of me. Sheltered from the buffeting wind it was warm when the sun shone down the ride but cold when under cloud. Hardly any butterflies were to be seen. A few of the ubiquitous Meadow Browns and Ringlets were all that accompanied me along the ride in the sunny spells, jinking and bouncing above the wet grass or clinging onto grass blades when it was cloudy awaiting the next sunny spell.

For me it was just a case of waiting and hoping, the chance of seeing an emperor at this precise moment was more fantasy than reality. I walked the ride several times but had only a Red Admiral to add to my meagre butterfly total. 

Red Admiral
An hour passed unremarkably and the sunny periods became a little longer. More butterflies were persuaded to move and amongst those was that most elegant of insects, a White Admiral, that with shimmering flicks, propelled itself at speed, on flat wings, to glide ethereally through the trees and bushes. Another stopped to feed on bramble flowers, its dark brown almost black, white banded wings spread to absorb as much of the available warmth as possible. The underside of this butterfly's wings are to my mind the most beautifully patterned of all, a pleasing mixture of chestnut brown and white.

White Admiral
Sacrilege I know, when I should be exclusively looking for an Emperor which closely rivals the Admiral's underwings for beauty but there you are. Long waits for His Majesty often bring other rewards to savour.

Silver washed Fritillaries also stirred with the increasing sunny spells and began hurtling along the ride, not many but all seemingly on an urgent mission, with no time to stop. Finally one settled on a thistle  and nectared for a few minutes before realising it had places to go and was off at speed into the green mystery of the wood. Such fantastic looking insects, big, bright and orange.

A male Silver washed Fritillary
It was now over three hours that I had been waiting and wandering the ride. I would give it thirty more minutes which would take me up to noon and then depart. Fair enough, I told myself, I had gambled with the weather and it had not paid off, too much wind and not enough sun.  I looked down the ride for one more time and there was something different, the distinctive triangular outline of a large butterfly's closed wings on the ground. A shark's fin outline in the middle of the muddy track, fifty or so metres up the ride. It could only be one thing. His Excellency. I took off, running and made myself stop well short of the insect just in case it was  not settled. Nothing would be more dispiriting or deflating than to allow any over eagerness on my part to put the butterfly to flight as this would likely be my one and only chance. I edged towards it, expectant, excited and apprehensive all at once. It could go either way now. If it was settled it would remain and allow me to walk right up to it but if not it would fly off and disappointment would claim me for its own.

I moved slowly forward and the butterfly took no notice. I stood over it and walked around it, the butterfly immune to my presence. I could see its yellow proboscis, curved like a minute spaghetti string into the horse dung. I abandoned myself to a heady delight, alone and triumphant in the middle of a wood. The long wait forgotten in an instant. I checked my phone. It was 1143. 

The butterfly moved slowly over the horse dung, sucking up the minerals, changing angles as it did so, closing and then opening its wings, flattening them wide to catch the warmth of the fleeting sun but so far not a flash of regal purple. I changed my stance to look at it from another angle. 

The butterfly responded by shutting its wings, displaying an intricate patterning and large 'false' eye on the undersides, then it opened its wings, placing them flat to the ground and there was that breath expelling flash of glorious colour on its wings. Not just on one wing but both! Oh yes. Thank you sir and please let's have some more if you so desire. It did and I received regular shots of adrenalin as the butterfly showed me its hidden glory. 

It lasted for twelve minutes, the butterfly feeding avidly but then, presumably satiated it lost interest and wandered off the horse dung and onto the surface of the track, walked around aimlessly as if it was searching for something but obviously failed to find it and fluttered into the air, describing a couple of low circles around my legs, then once round my waist before flying off at speed into the trees, brushing off the impertinence of an over inquisitive dragonfly on the way. 

His Imperial Majesty had left and I never saw him again.  

I wanted more, so much more your Royal Highness!