Special feature: Puffins are stars of the show at Bempton nature reserve

Their raucous cries fill the air, thousands of seabirds whirling about and cramming onto tiny ledges in what was must be one of nature’s busiest and biggest maternity wards. 

Monday, 28th June 2021, 12:15 pm
Seabird cruises aboard the Yorkshire Belle are popular with visitors to RSPB Bempton Cliffs. Picture by Simon Hulme
Seabird cruises aboard the Yorkshire Belle are popular with visitors to RSPB Bempton Cliffs. Picture by Simon Hulme

From the “old tractor” sound made by the biggest birds – the gannets – to the screeching of the guillemots, the noise and guano-tinged air stun the senses.

Among them darting about, rather quietly, are the birds the visitors have come to see

The puffins are the smallest, but the undoubted stars of the show, their bright orange legs and feet and multi-coloured beaks making them stand out among the other darker hues.

Seabird cruises aboard the Yorkshire Belle are popular with visitors to RSPB Bempton Cliffs. Picture by Simon Hulme

But their gaudy colours will only last until breeding is over and the plates on their beak – made like our nails from keratin – shrivel and drop off, and they turn back to a dull, rather inconspicuous, bird of winter.

It is such a difference that they used to get mistaken for being an entirely different species.

Although they can be seen from the cliffs above, the best view has to be from on board the Yorkshire Belle which runs RSPB trips regularly over the summer from Bridlington. 

The cry goes up “puffins at eight o’clock” as the Belle gently turns into Breile Newk, getting tight up against the cliffs for the breathtaking spectacle of birds carpeting the sea and sitting tight on their eggs on impossible-looking slopes.

Seabird cruises aboard the Yorkshire Belle are popular with visitors to RSPB Bempton Cliffs. Picture by Simon Hulme

Now and then, bits of bright blue fishing rope can be seen in the gannet nests – on Queen Rock, which stands tall out of the sea, a herring gull has made its home in a tyre.

“You used to see Tesco and Sainsburys bags (in the nests) – anything brightly coloured. They’ve even found crisp packets and false teeth.

“If they see it floating in the sea they will have it,” said volunteer Steve Rose, who added it is a good sign not to see any bags today. “I think we are all learning from the experts not to dispose of plastic.” 

Elsewhere, puffin numbers have plummeted. But at Bempton, figures are reassuringly stable – although at only about 3,500 individuals they are few in number, compared to the tens of thousands of gannets who also come here to breed.

Seabird cruises aboard the Yorkshire Belle are popular with visitors to RSPB Bempton Cliffs. Picture by Simon Hulme

RSPB seabird cruise leader Keith Barrow explained that elsewhere colonies have been struggling through lack of food, mainly tiny sand eels. They get hoovered up mainly by the Danes, who extract their oil and use the solids for fish meal – they used to use them as fuel for power stations. The Bempton birds, on the other hand, have access to a couple of decent fishing spots off the Humber.

“All we are doing is getting people out there and enjoying themselves and trying to get over how important the colony is and some of the problems we are facing,” said Mr Barrow.

Everything constantly evolves. In 1969, there were only 21 pairs of gannets, while in 2017 there were 13,392. What were once the homes of herring gulls became that of guillemot, and now they have been ousted by gannets.

Similarly, views change. These days people come and admire the birds, but in the 1850s, shooting parties would set out from Bridlington and kill as many as possible. Kittiwake feathers were very popular in women’s hats.

Seabird cruises aboard the Yorkshire Belle are popular with visitors to RSPB Bempton Cliffs. Picture by Simon Hulme

The vicar of Bridlington Priory was so incensed he got MPs together and the Sea Birds Preservation Act was passed in 1869, 20 years before the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds came into being.