Puffin power

SUFFOLK is a great county for watching wildlife. However, the absence of tall sea cliffs means that we miss out on one of Britain's greatest wildlife spectacles: breeding seabird colonies.

SUFFOLK is a great county for watching wildlife. However, the absence of tall sea cliffs means that we miss out on one of Britain's greatest wildlife spectacles: breeding seabird colonies. For these you must head to the north and west coasts.

I recently travelled to Yorkshire to visit one of the best seabird colonies at RSPB Bempton Cliffs nature reserve, near Bridlington.

Unlike most seabird colonies, which are on islands, Bempton is on the mainland so is easy to access and is home to an incredible 200 000 breeding seabirds. The sheer limestone cliffs rise about 120 metres (400 feet) above the sea and stretch for more than three miles towards Flamborough Head. Paths along the cliff top lead you to several safe viewing areas, where you will have spectacular close up views of seabirds.

Seabirds spend most of the year at sea, only returning to the cliffs to breed, so you should aim to visit a colony between mid April and mid July.

The first thing you will notice on arriving at a seabird colony is the noise. The smell is impressive too. So many seabirds generate a lot of droppings called guano, and the smell can be overpowering if the wind is in the wrong direction.

The sound of 200, 000 seabirds chattering and arguing over nest sites is deafening at times, yet above the cacophony it is possible to pick out the distinctive call of kittiwakes. These attractive gulls are the most numerous birds on the cliffs and continually call their name: “kit-ti-wa-ake.”

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Kittiwakes are lovely birds. They have delicate yellow bills, which are bright red inside, and black legs. The grey wings have black tips, which look like they've been dipped in ink. Kittiwakes do breed in Suffolk, although neither the colony size nor locations are as spectacular. There are colonies in Lowestoft harbour and on the power station outfall rigs at Sizewell.

Kittiwakes share the sheer cliffs with another gull-like bird, the fulmar. Fulmars are the closest to relative to albatrosses found in Britain. Formerly restricted to the remote Scottish island of St Kilda, they have increased both their range and numbers in the last century and now breed in small colonies at Hunstanton and Cromer in Norfolk.

Like albatrosses, fulmars have unusual tubular nostrils on the top of the bill that help them to excrete salt - vital for a bird that spends its entire life at sea. They can live for thirty years or more, and only come to land to nest. They are superb fliers, gliding for hundreds of miles on stiff wings, barely flapping them at all if there's enough wind.

The other birds to share the steepest cliffs are guillemots and razorbills. These are both auks, and look similar to penguins with their blackish upperparts and white bellies. Guillemots and razorbills do not build nests. They lay their eggs directly onto the narrowest ledges on the cliffs. To prevent them from rolling off, the eggs are pointed at one end so that they roll in a circle if knocked.

Bempton is perhaps most famous, though, as the only mainland gannet colony in the UK. Gannets are wonderful birds. Their gleaming white plumage can be seen from a great distance, and the yellow feathering on the head is distinctive.

Gannets are big birds, bigger than a herring gull, and are masterful fliers. They can glide for hours on their long wings before closing their wings and diving spectacularly into the sea for a fish.

These are definitely my favourite seabird, and at Bempton there is a unique opportunity to watch them close up. You can then see the delicate greenish line on the top of the toes of their big webbed feet, and the lovely pale blue ring around the eye.

If you look closely at gannet nests, you will see that many of them contain bits of fishing net - a reminder of how vulnerable many of our seabirds are. These nets can easily become entangled around the birds' feet. Many seabirds die from swallowing discarded rubbish, especially polythene bags that can look like a jellyfish to a hungry seabird.

Thousands of miles away from Britain, the world's most impressive seabirds face extinction as a result of being caught on hooks of huge long-line fishing boats in the southern oceans. Every species of albatross is threatened by this needless destruction, and the RSPB is working with other conservation organisations around the world to protect these incredible birds.

Weblinks: www.savethealbatross.net .


Puffins are always popular, and many people ask me where they can see them.

The simple answer is that from Suffolk you will need a long drive because the closest colony is at Bempton. With their large, colourful bills and clown-like expressions, puffins are full of character and offer many superb photo opportunities. They are often known as sea parrots.

In May, you can often see the puffins gathering beakfuls of grass to line the nest, which is deep in a burrow or rock crevice. Puffins are expert diggers, using both their beaks and feet to excavate a new burrow, but they are just as likely to take over an old rabbit burrow on an offshore island.

Later in the summer, you will be more likely to see them in their famous pose, with a beakful of fish. These will have been caught many miles out to sea and brought back to feed their hungry babies.

Or RSPB Minsmere nature reserve, at Westleton, Saxmundham, Suffolk on 01728 648281. E-mail minsmere@rspb.org.uk

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