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An Inspirational Visit to a Gannet Colony

Three weeks after a fairly major back operation, my enforced rest was beginning to feel stifling and I was in need of a wildlife-fix. So when some friends came to stay for a weekend in July and offered to carry my cameras for me, I was off!

RSPB Bempton is a Mecca for Wildlife

We went to RSPB Bempton Cliffs, a nature reserve on the east coast that is host to some of Yorkshire’s largest sea bird colonies. A year doesn’t seem complete without visiting this wildlife Mecca. The last time I was there it was winter and the seabirds that cling to these steep chalk cliffs in the summer were all out at sea. Although the cliffs were still a spectacular sight, back then they looked bare; like a deserted city.gannets at RSPB Bempton

gannet colonyThis time I could smell the sea bird colony as soon as I got out of my car. As I walked towards the cliffs, I could hear and see birds riding on updrafts. But it wasn’t until I reached the edge that I was greeted with one of the most spectacular sights in Yorkshire. Tens of thousands of nesting sea birds cling to these 300ft-high cliffs each summer.

RSPB Bempton is home to Yorkshire’s biggest sea bird colonies

Their huddled forms create patterns on the cliff-face as they group amongst their own type. Following the strata of the rock, were lines of different bird species; all sitting on precarious nests. Guillemots and razorbills settled on the smaller ledges. The larger ledges were occupied by gannets and noisy kittiwakes, tending to their super cute fluffy-grey chicks.

The air was filled with a myriad of swirling birds. Fulmars, gannets, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and, the birds everyone comes to Bempton to see: puffins.

painting inspired by watching puffins at rspb bemptonfins
Courting Puffins | Limited Edition Print | Click for More Info

These clowns of the sea have colourful bills and legs – and eyes that look as if they’ve been made-up. As I watched one came flying into the cliff face, wings whirring, and disappeared into a crevice in the rock face where it had a single chick on a nest waiting for a meal. These birds are true seafarers. They spend most of the year out at sea and only come ashore to breed. They choose steep cliffs like Bempton in the hope that their chicks will be safe.

Peregrines hunt on seabirds at RSPB Bempton

But actually, they are only relatively so, because 50 yards on from the puffin nest I had just spotted, was a young male peregrine perched on the cliff.peregrine at RSP Bempton

I watched this falcon for a while as it preened and stretched, and then I heard an adult calling. A female peregrine was flying along the cliff edge. As she flew past, the chick looked up at her and called out hoping its mother would deliver a meal. But the adult landed around the corner, just out of sight.

I walked on to my favourite viewpoint, Staple Newick, at the southern end of the reserve. Here the rock juts out into the sea forming a chalk arch. This church of rock is covered with gannets.

Why gannets are an artist’s dream

Gannets are stunning birds. Pure white with black aerodynamic wingtips, soft yellow heads, striking blue-grey dagger-like beaks edged with black and piercing grey-blue eyes, they are an artist’s dream.gannets

gannet painting by Robert E Fuller
Gannet Painting | Robert E Fuller

Bempton is host to the UK’s largest mainland colony of gannets. With more than 11,000 breeding pairs nesting along its cliffs every summer, it is hard not to feel overwhelmed. From a photographer’s perspective, it’s difficult to know which way to look. I like to focus on just one area and let the drama play out. It’s the only way to decipher individual stories.

How to watch gannets

I spent the next four hours just looking and filming an area of gannets. As I watched them come and go from their nests with food and nesting materials I began to be able to pick out individual birds. Gannets are the UK’s largest sea birds and it is fascinating to watch as they dive into the sea at dizzying speeds.

They have air sacs in their face and chest to cushion the impact as they plunge into the water, much like bubble wrap would protect the impact of a fall. They also have binocular vision, which helps them to judge distances accurately as they continue to pursue fish underwater.gannets at RSPB Bempton

Gannet nests are tightly-packed and set just pecking distance apart, so squabbles between neighbours are common. I watched a female gannet struggling to land on its nest. Its mate was dozing alongside their large downy chick and there was no room. On the third attempt, the female crash-landed, which, with a six-foot wingspan, was a less than graceful manoeuvre, to say the least.

Gannets nest are so close fights often break out

Startled from its slumber, the male gannet lashed out instinctively and grabbed the poor female by her neck, pinning her to the ground with his beak. The neighbours joined in the fracas, snatching at the poor female gannet’s wing. It wasn’t until the besieged bird called out in protest, that its mate realised his mistake.

 

He immediately released his grip on her neck and she turned round to peck him as if telling him off. Then they both turned on their neighbours. When all had settled down, the male and female started over and greeted one another in far more formal fashion. It was as if nothing had happened. This gannet greeting was beautiful to watch. Both birds pointed their beaks skywards, then shook their heads from side to side and rubbed their beaks together whilst calling out.

gannets at RSPB Bempton

gannets at rspb

A peregrine fly-by finale

As if the drama offered by this stunning gannet courtship display wasn’t enough, a peregrine then put on its own stunning air show. It tail-chased herring gulls and gannets across the sea with such style it was obvious it was having fun and showing off rather than hunting. I watched it suddenly leave the herring gulls and punch upwards, using the updraft of the cliff to gain height, before stooping back down again, this time to harass a jackdaw.

rspb bempton

Then there was a rush of wings as it passed right over our heads. What a great end to a magical day. I was so pleased to be out amongst the action, after three weeks of home rest I realised I had been suffering from cabin-fever.

 

 


Paintings Inspired by the Sea-Bird Colony at RSPB Bempton

The cliffs at RSPB Bempton are so inspiring. Below are some paintings I have produced after visiting. Click on the links for prices and more information. 

painting inspired by watching puffins at rspb bemptonfins
Courting Puffins | Limited Edition Print | Click for More Info

 

puffin painting inspired by rspb bempton
Puffins on the Lookout | Limited Edition Print | Click for More Info

 

gannet painting by Robert E Fuller
Gannet Painting | Click here to see more bird paintings like this

 

Read More

 

Why East Yorkshire is the best place to watch gannets now

 


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