RSPB Bempton Cliffs nature reserve is host to some of Yorkshire’s largest sea bird colonies. I visit this wildlife Mecca every year to see the tens of thousands of nesting sea birds that cling to these 300ft-high cliffs each summer.

These birds are so numerous they create patterns in the strata of rock in the cliff-face as different species group amongst their own type. Guillemots and razorbills usually settle on the smaller ledges. The larger ledges are occupied by gannets and noisy kittiwakes.

Fulmars, gannets, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and puffins are also here tending to chicks, swirling through the air above the cliffs as they bring food to and from their nests.

After three weeks of enforced rest following a major back operation, I was beginning to go stir crazy and so last month I organised a daytrip to this stunning wild spot.

One of the first birds I spotted was a young male peregrine perched on the cliff. I watched it preen and stretch, then noticed it look up and begin calling to an adult female flying along the cliff edge. This was clearly the young peregrine fledgling’s mother.

Seabirds cling to these steep cliffs during the breeding season in the hope that their young will be safe from predators. But they are only relatively safe, since this concentration of chicks clearly attracts predatory birds like peregrines.

My favourite viewpoint at this reserve is Staple Newick, where the rock juts out into the sea to form a chalk arch at the southern end of the reserve. Each summer this church of rock is covered with nesting gannets.

Gannets are stunning birds. Pure white with black aerodynamic wing tips, soft yellow heads, and striking blue-grey dagger-like beaks edged with black, they are an artist’s dream.

Gannets are the UK’s largest sea birds and it is fascinating to watch as they dive into the sea at dizzying speeds. They have air sacs in their face and chest to cushion the impact as they plunge into the water, much like bubble wrap would protect the impact of a fall.

They also have binocular vision, which helps them to judge distances accurately as they continue to pursue fish underwater.

Bempton is host to the UK’s largest mainland colony of gannets. And with more than 11,000 breeding pairs nesting along its cliffs every summer, it is hard not to feel overwhelmed.

From a photographer’s perspective, it’s difficult to know which way to look. I tend to focus on just one area and let the stories of these birds’ lives play out.

I spent the next four hours just looking and filming once such area of gannets. As I watched birds come and go I began to be able to pick out individuals.

Gannet nests are set just pecking distance apart and squabbles between neighbours are common. I watched a female gannet struggling to land on its nest. Its mate was dozing alongside their large downy chick and there was no room.

On the third attempt the female crash landed, which, with a six-foot wingspan, was a less than graceful manoeuvre to say the least.

Startled from its slumber, the male gannet lashed out instinctively and grabbed the poor female by her neck, pinning her to the ground with his beak.

The neighbours joined in the fracas, snatching at the poor female gannet’s wing. It wasn’t until the besieged bird called out in protest, that its mate realised his mistake.

He immediately released his grip on her neck and she turned round to peck him, as if telling him off. Then they both turned on their neighbours.

When all had settled down, the male and female started over and greeted one another in far more formal fashion. It was as if nothing had happened.

This gannet greeting was beautiful to watch. Both birds pointed their beaks skywards, then shook their head from side to side and rubbed their beaks together whilst calling out.

As if the drama offered by this stunning gannet courtship display wasn’t enough, a peregrine then put on its own stunning air show.

It tail-chased herring gulls and gannets across the sea with such style it was obvious it was having fun and showing off rather than hunting.

I watched it suddenly leave the herring gulls and punch upwards, using the updraft of the cliff to gain height before stooping back down again, this time to harass a


Then there was a rush of wings as it passed right overhead. It was a great end to a magical day. I was so pleased to be out among the action and a great release from the cabin-fever I had been experiencing since my back operation.