Sunday 30 July 2023

Bempton Cliffs East Yorkshire 25-26th July 2023

Bempton Cliffs is an RSPB reserve in East Yorkshire that is rightly famous and popular with birders and the general public alike for the close views it offers of thousands of breeding seabirds that come every year to nest on the steep cliffs that run for six miles and are 100 metres at their highest point. Gannets, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins can all be seen from the various viewpoints that have been strategically constructed at the cliff edge to facilitate viewing without disturbing the birds or indeed to prevent people falling to their death.

Last year Bempton Cliffs  was visited by a Black browed Albatross which joined the Gannets on the cliffs but sadly failed to return this year. Myself and Mark went to see the albatross no less than six times but this year despite its absence we nevertheless decided to return and spend a couple of days at Bempton photographing and enjoying the spectacle of so many seabirds gathered in one place.

We were a little late going to Bempton this year and most of the auks had departed with only a few pairs of Guillemots remaining to guard their chick whose departure from the cliffs was imminent but Gannets and Kittiwakes were still present in large numbers and we were happy enough watching and photographing their comings and goings.

Britain holds 55%, close to 300,000 pairs, of the world's population of Northern Gannets (their proper name) and up until the arrival of this latest deadly mutation of the avian flu virus numbers were increasing at an estimated 3-5% a year.

Northern Gannets, to give them their correct name, are spectacular birds and at Bempton, their largest mainland breeding colony, one has the opportunity to come very close to them as they cruise along the cliffs, sit on an outcrop preening or display to each other. Many at this time are non breeding birds of various ages (Gannets do not breed until they are four or five years old) but some adults have well grown young which will still require some time to grow before they are ready to leave the cliffs and take their chances.

The huge worry this year, as it was last year, is avian flu and thankfully the Gannets seem to have escaped the worst at Bempton although there were a few dead birds floating in the sea. It only brought home to me how fortunate we were to still be able to enjoy the Gannets and made me appreciate them even more if that were at all possible.

An adult Northern Gannet

    A two year old Northern Gannet 

A four year old Northern Gannet displaying

Northern Gannet with its well grown single chick

A three year old Northern Gannet

Northern Gannet pair's greeting ceremony

The other seabird species still present in large numbers at Bempton was the Kittiwake or Black legged Kittiwake to give its full name. This was refreshing as a report had recently come through that a section of the cliffs where they breed had been closed off in an attempt to quarantine an outbreak of avian flu. I  saw several dead bodies lying in the grass on a remote part of the clifftop but despite this sad sight there were many pairs with two almost fully grown healthy young, perched perilously on their precipitous nests whilst many others, both adults and young were flying around the cliff faces.

An adult Black legged Kittiwake and its two well grown young on their nest platform

A recently fledged Black legged Kittiwake in its first days of independence

The recently independent young were still trying out and strengthening their wings, flying out from the cliff in endless sorties to circle around amongst the Gannets and adult Kittiwakes, familiarising themselves with the cliffs, getting a feel for the wind currents and practicing landing and departing from the cliffs.Apparently it has been a good year for them, despite the virus, with many adults raising two young to the flying stage and it was a joy to watch the young circling endlesssly back and fore from the cliffs.

The juvenile's plumage is a very attractive combination of white, black and grey. The black on their wings forming a distinctive inverted v  shape as they fly.. Small and petite they present an image of fragility but are anything but as apart from this time on the cliffs they will spend the remainder of the year far out to sea until those that survive return next year to breed.

Juvenile Black legged Kittiwakes

An adult Black legged Kittiwake

My abiding memory apart from the sight of all these birds is the sound of the colony, the combination of the Gannets constant deep rhythmic growling and the Kittiwake's harsh exclamations are the true soul of the colony, the sound rising up from the cliffs below as you wander onto each viewpoint. In the end I tired of taking images and took to standing, pensively looking down on the birds flying over the sea and rejoicing in their presence.

There is one other bird for which Bempton is well known and that is the Tree Sparrow. This is now a species in severe decline throughout Britain. They are all but gone from my county of Oxfordshire despite feeding programmes but Bempton has bucked the trend and the birds are literally everywhere on the reserve and on farmland beyond, cheerfully chirruping and hurtling in excitable flocks across the grass to hide in bushes, chattering wildly. to themselves and even to be found in and around the cliffs where some breed whilst others utilise nest boxes erected for them on the visitor centre's walls.

They are prolific around the visitor centre although maintaining a marked degree of wariness at busy times. We waited until the centre was closed in the late afternoon and most visitors  had departed as this is when the sparrows feel confident to come down to feed on the crumbs left under the picnic tables or on the grass seeds along the paths.

There were good numbers of  fledged young birds in family groups which bodes well for the future.

Adult Tree Sparrow

Juvenile Tree Sparrow

While at Bempton we were told of a small nature reserve nearby at a holiday park that was home to a pair of breeding Little Ringed Plovers with three young about ten days old. A small hide overlooked an area of pools and muddy scrapes, so as a break from the seabirds we went to have a look early on Wednesday morning.

On opening the viewing flaps of the hide we saw the plovers immediately, well the young anyway. I can only describe them as fluffballs, disarmingly cute with a disproportionately large head and legs which seemed much too long for such a tiny body. They ran, almost constantly, at incredible speed around the muddy fringes of the water whilst their anxious parents called to them. If you thought Sanderlings moved fast on twinkling legs these three, if anything moved even faster. Hardly ever stopping, apart to pick at some minute food item for a millisecond, they were off on yet another lightening sprint. It was a trial of will to focus on them with the camera, for as you did they were gone again.

The fluffy down, you could hardly call it feathers, was an amalgam of buff, brown, grey and black, rendering them perfectly camouflaged on the sandy scrapes. The parent birds were constantly on the alert for any potential danger, sometimes unecessarily so  when ceaselessly harassing a harmless Dunlin and chasing it round and round the scrapes but also fearlessly taking a higher risk when landing briefly on a Herring Gull's back in a frenzied attack.The gull rapidly departed.

At regular intervals, one or even two of the young would gravitate towards one of the parent birds which would squat on the drier areas of mud to brood the young whilst at other times the adult would remain standing and fluff out its underpart feathers and droop its wings as the young birds stood beneath them, burying their head and body into the adult's feathers and with only legs and feet clearly visible, creating a quite comic vision of an apparently six legged bird. They would remain like this for some time, snug and warm before re-emerging to resume their high speed roaming of the scrapes.

Saturday 29 July 2023

World Travellers at Farmoor Reservoir 24--27th July

Where does the time go? Already the vanguard of returning arctic breeding waders  have reached my local Farmoor reservoir and in the last few days two very colourful examples in the form of an adult Turnstone and Knot have brightened the reservoir's grey concrete shores.

The Turnstone is a regular visitor in small numbers to the reservoir and at this time of year are still in their tortoiseshell patterned breeding plumage, the mixture of orange, black and white always to my eyes attractive. On their favoured habitat  of seaweedy rocky shores the colours blend in perfectly and make the birds far from conspicuous but on the bare concrete of a temporary stopping off point such as the reservoir they appear far more conspicuous and the colours really stand out.

Complimenting the variegated plumage are legs of bright orange red. They will change rapidly in the next few weeks as the coat of many colours will be replaced with dull overall brown for the winter although the orange legs will remain.

Judging by the plumage of this latest Turnstone at Farmoor it was possibly a female, suggested by the large amount of black streaking  on its crown and the small amount of white on the sides of the breast Sexing Turnstones is very tricky unless a pair are seen together when the differences can be compared although still by no means foolprooof.The fact this bird was a female would make sense as many species of arctic breeding waders follow a strategy where the females return south first, leaving the male to look after the young and move south with them in the coming weeks.

The Monday afternoon I saw the Turnstone was dull and overcast and I struggled with the light but fortunately, as with many waders that visit the reservoir, this individual was very confiding and allowed me to approach it closely unlike the adult Dunlin that was associating with it and was far more circumpsct about my attempts to get close. 

Nonetheless I spent a pleasant hour watching and photographing the Turnstone and as I always do pondered the wonder of this small bird's travels, knowing it had most probably come from Greenland or northeast Canada, possibly via Iceland, or even flying non stop across the Atlantic to pitch down for a day or two to rest and recuperate on the reservoir, the next best thing to its normal coastal habitat, before becoming restless once more and flying  onwards to an unknown seaside destination.

The next day I went with my birding pal Mark to spend a couple of days in East Yorkshire in order to visit the  seabird colony at the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs.

On Wednesday a Knot decided to  stopover at Farmoor Reservoir and I had to wait until my return from Bempton on Thursday evening to go and see it. The Knot was a far scarcer visitor than any Turnstone and attracted quite a bit of interest especially as it was still in faded summer plumage which is an attractive pale orange on its underparts and chequered brown and buff upperparts.

Normally migrating waders gravitate to the central causeway on landing at the reservoir so I made haste towards there but just as I was passing the small yacht marina I glanced down onto the concrete shelving and there was the Knot wandering along below me, nonchalantly picking  off invertebrates.

It was ridiculously tame and walked right past me without a second glance.The evening was fine, warm, windy and sunny which all sounds good but the position of the sun and the harsh light it cast made photographing the bird far from straightforward.Eventually I managed to get positioned on the wall where it was walking below and towards me and the sunshine was not intrusive.

I cannot recall when last there was such an early returning Knot at the reservoir, let alone in summer plumage.Interestingly there was a summer plumaged Knot seen associating with returning Black tailed Godwits, two weeks ago, at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge in the neighbouring oounty of Gloucestershire.

Usually Knots in summer plumage are only seen at the reservoir in Spring and then very infrequently..Birds returning from their breeding areas tend to arrive rather later in the summer than July and most are grey plumaged juveniles.

Like the Turnstone this bird had already travelled a phenomenal distance, similarly coming from Greenland or northeast Canada maybe even the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. Yet again watching it quietly feeding by the water's edge I felt a surge of emotion rise within me knowing how far its travels had been to get here to my local reservoir.

Thursday was the last day the Knot was seen and it must have departed overnight. I wait now to see what other waders will arrive to brighten my day. Hope springs eternal as they say and is what brings me back to Farmoor Reservoir on an almost daily basis.