It is the smell that you notice first as you approach the seabird colony at Bempton in North Humberside. Walking down through the traditionally managed meadows, there is little other sign of the impressive limestone cliffs that hold this stretch of coast high above the sea. These cliffs are home to many thousands of nesting seabirds, from Kittiwakes and auks through to the Gannets we have come to see. The cliff-top path follows the line of the coast and every so often it becomes a promontory, affording views of the cliff itself as it folds back into the mass of land. Such viewpoints provide a wonderful opportunity to observe the nesting seabirds, some just a few feet away, perched precariously on the narrow ledges. Others glide past at head height, wings rigid as they effortlessly slide in and across the prevailing wind before dropping down to the ledge on which their nest is placed.
Many of the early nesters have finished breeding and just a handful of nesting auks remain, the rest now at sea with their young. The colony is dominated by Kittiwakes and Gannets and the air is full of their calls, especially the onomatopoeic ‘kitti-wake, kitti-wake’ call of the slender Kittiwakes. The Gannets are less vocal, perhaps because this is a low density colony for them – the narrow ledges, interspersed with sections unsuitable for nesting, limit where the Gannets can nest and so you do not get the densely packed colony structure more typical elsewhere. Bempton is also unusual for the fact that it is Britain’s only mainland Gannet colony and one of just three located on our east coast. The colony itself was founded in the 1920s, most probably by birds dispersing from the Bass Rock colony which lies to the north. For decades, just a handful of pairs nested at Bempton but then, in the 1970s, the colony suddenly started to increase in size; by the mid-1980s it had reached 780 pairs and by the mid-90s it had reached 1,631 pairs. The most recent census, carried out in 2000, numbered the colony at 2,552 pairs. The sudden growth in the colony also brought with it other changes, namely an earlier onset to breeding and increased breeding success, both thought to be the result of the increased social stimulation that comes from having more birds within the colony.
How this breeding colony will fair over the coming years is less certain and will very much depend on the availability of nesting ledges and the abundance of fish stocks in the North Sea, with overfishing and climate change worrying factors that may yet have a part to play in the future of Bempton’s Gannets.