Birdwatch: Proliferation of sea birds begins afresh on the cliffs

The gannet is Britain's largest sea bird and around 11,000 pairs can be seen at Bempton Cliffs.   Picture: James Hardisty.
The gannet is Britain's largest sea bird and around 11,000 pairs can be seen at Bempton Cliffs. Picture: James Hardisty.
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In early spring Britain’s ‘seabird cities’ start to come back to life again as thousands of birds return to the ledges where they will nest.

Among these colonies is the RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs reserve where more than 200,000 birds nest each year.

Fulmars, guillemots, and razorbills are back on the cliffs, rafts of kittiwakes are gathering on the sea beneath and, most impressive of all, gannets are busily pairing up.

The gannet is Britain’s largest seabird, the adults with bright white wings tipped with black and yellow heads. Bempton Cliffs hosts just over 11,000 pairs each year and is probably the best place in the country to see them at close quarters from the reserve’s viewpoints.

The males sit on the ledges trying to attract passing females and courtship involves much head shaking, clattering of beaks and preening before the pair settles down together. Once paired they often stay together for life and come back to the same nest site each year.

Gannets learn to recognise each other’s voices. They take turns to incubate their single egg and as one parent returns from feeding trip out at sea it flies up the cliff calling to its mate before taking over nest duty.

Once they have hatched and reared their chick the adults move out into the North Sea or Atlantic while the young birds roam further to the warm seas off West Africa or into the Mediterranean. At first they look quite different from their parents with practically black plumage flecked with white which slowly turns whiter as they mature.

Kittiwakes have spent the winter out in the Atlantic and some stray off course on their way back to nest sites with individuals seen inland this week at the North Cave Wetland, East Yorkshire the Old Moor reserve near Barnsley and Angler’s Country Park, West Yorkshire.

A great white egret was seen with a little egret on the Potteric Carr reserve near Doncaster.

Bitterns are booming daily on the reserve while one has been present at the Thornwick Pools, Flamborough, only the third record for the headland.

With the weather warming up as the week continued thoughts turned to the first arrivals of spring migrants with reports of sand martins, wheatears and garganey further south.

In Yorkshire a white wagtail, the continental race of which our pied wagtail is a sub species, was seen at Potter Brompton near Scarborough at the weekend and the first sand martins and wheatears might reach the region next week.

The second volume of the North Cave Wetlands report highlighting the development of this East Yorkshire reserve over the past five years goes on sale at the end of this month. All wildlife records from 2011-15 are covered with full colour photos while the birds list includes all records from when the site first began to be watched in 1994.

The report, which costs £7.50, will be on sale at The Wild Bird Café on the reserve and also at the Sea Life Centre, Flamborough and the Potteric Carr reserve’s Visitor Centre.