An unexpected winter visit to Bridlington on the glorious Yorkshire coast found me back on a favourite bit of birdwatching territory. A trip to Bempton Cliffs was a must, but it came as something of a shock to realise that it was almost 40 years since I had last been there, and almost 50 years since my first memorable visit on a school birdwatching trip, way back in 1969; so long ago that my last sound recording of a colony of Gannets was made on Compact Cassette. Remember those? Clearly time to make amends.
Back then, you parked in a field and enjoyed the truly scary experience of walking along a muddy path and leaning over sheer unfenced 300-foot sea cliffs to watch, photograph and record the spectacular seabird colony. These days it is so much more organised – the car park, the RSPB visitor centre, the tarmac paths and the sturdy wooden viewing platforms. Probably a good thing with many times more visitors than in the ‘old’ days.
But from the sound recording point of view little has changed, and the problems remain. When I record seabirds I like to be pointing my microphones upwards, away from wave noise, but at Bempton there is no choice; from your lofty perch you are always pointing your mics down towards the sea, so unless you are incredibly lucky and have a flat calm sea (rare on the North Sea coast) you cannot separate bird calls from breaking waves. However the 6th Feb was pretty good on a number of counts: a fairly calm sea, a complete lack of noisy birdwatchers and photographers, and being so early in the season, the Kittiwakes were not yet back on their ledges. Kittiwakes are one of my favourite birds, but once they are around, you can forget recording anything else.
All this made for a good few hours recording small numbers of Guillemots and Gannets, while watching hundreds more gathering out on the calm sea, ready to occupy the limestone ledges which will be their home for the next few months. I was pleased to see that the coastal path beyond the main reserve has kept its untamed character, apart from the fact that once the ground had thawed, the red Yorkshire mud is as claggy as ever, necessitating a serious boot cleaning session back home.
I know that it won’t be another 40 years before I return to enjoy these spectacular cliffs, not least because I doubt if it will be a fit place for a centenarian…