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How do you count a quarter-of-a-million seabirds at Bempton Cliffs?

Last modified: 26 June 2015

Kittiwake in flight

Image: Steve Round

That’s the question BBC 1’s Countryfile presenter, Ellie Harrison, asked the seabird monitoring team at RSPB Bempton Cliffs earlier this month and their explanation was featured in the broadcast on Sunday 21 June.

Annual counts of the cliff top's seabird species provide valuable data that enables the RSPB to improve its understanding of seabird populations and assists in their conservation.  The programme focussed on the kittiwake whose numbers across the UK have crashed by 50% - a decline which is reflected at Bempton Cliffs.  In the 1980s there were 80,000 pairs in the colony.  By 2008, the colony comprised of just 36,000 pairs.

So exactly how do you count 250,000 flying, flapping and fidgeting birds on 400 feet high cliffs that face the restless North Sea?  The obvious answer is to get in a boat – which is exactly what the Countryfile film crew did, accompanied by staff from RSPB Bempton Cliffs.

But that’s not the only option as Sophia Jackson, the reserve’s seabird monitoring residential volunteer, explained:
“The method we currently use is the good old-fashioned one of dividing the cliff into sections, and patiently looking through binoculars and counting the birds using a ‘clicker’ – one click equals one bird.  But the way forward might be using a drone, essentially a small airborne camera.  We’re testing one for the first time, with the approval of Natural England, to assess its effect on the seabirds.  And first impressions are good – the birds didn’t appear to spooked in any way be by the strange new species flying alongside them.”  

Countryfile was also interested in seeing the gannets in action as plunged into the deep waters beneath the RSPB nature reserve for food. To get a different take on this, they turned to award-winning wildlife photographer and RSPB Learning Officer, Steve Race, who has produced some incredible images of the colony on Bempton Cliffs.

Steve has a tried and tested formula for encouraging the UK’s largest seabird to feed close-by.  He said: “We throw a fishy mix of gannet delicacies, called ‘chum’, overboard and this ‘free lunch’ attracts the birds in huge numbers.  The sky fills with gannets that then plummet missile-like into the sea all around the boat.  Ellie Harrison said experiencing this was easily one of her top ten wildlife moments.”

Steve also got the opportunity to teach Ellie a few tricks of the trade as she attempted to capture the perfect image of a diving gannet: “The best way to do this is to go for a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.  Then press and hold the shutter and fire off as many shots as you can.”

The programme also featured an innovative way to clean up the seas called ‘Fishing4Litter’ that has been developed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in conjunction with Flamborough’s fishing community.  

Viewing figures for Counryfile currently stand at 5.9 million and the East Yorkshire episode of Countryfile can be viewed on BBC iPlayer until 20 July.  

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