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Head to Flamborough to see nature blow in
10:47am Saturday 26th October 2013 in Features
In the latest in our occasional series on Yorkshire nature reserves, STEPHEN LEWIS enjoys a bracing visit to wind-swept Flamborough Cliffs to watch migrating seabirds.
FLAMBOROUGH cliffs on a glorious mid-October morning. The wind buffeting in from the North Sea almost knocks you off your feet. At the deep, rock-bound inlet known as Newcombe Hope, the sea is being driven into a savage, foam-whipped whirlpool. Spume flies high into the air to settle at our feet on the chalk grassland above the cliffs.
In winter, the sea-foam up here has been known to freeze, carpeting the grassland above the Hope, says Caroline Thorogood. She’s leaning into the wind, almost shouting to be heard.
It may be blowing a gale, but the sky is a clear, unsullied blue.
The chalk cliffs stretching away north of North Landing gleam so brightly it almost hurts the eyes to look at them. Great, muscular waves, driven by the wind, shatter against them, flinging sprays of foam high into the air.
This is a glorious place to be. The stretch of cliff top running south from North Landing forms part of the Flamborough Cliffs nature reserve managed by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and is one of Caroline’s favourite places.
It is characterised by a series of deep, rocky inlets – Newcombe Hope, followed by Breil Nook, with its sheer stack known as Queen Rock.
At this time of year, until the end of the month, these cliffs are a great place to watch migrating seabirds – shearwaters, skuas and others, heading south for the winter – as well as gannets, which have spent the summer breeding at nearby Bempton.
A wind blowing from the north east, like this one today, is perfect for watching the seabirds, says Jono Leadley, the trust’s director of development, because it drives them in closer to shore. And sure enough, it isn’t long before we spot a group of gannets out at sea, their bodies gleaming white in the sun.
A darker bird with them is a young gannet, Jono says. The feathers gradually darken as the bird gets older, until it gets its adult plumage at about five years.
Today is spectacular: but this is a great place to visit at other times of year too.
In spring and early summer, these cliffs are alive with breeding seabirds: fulmars, herring gulls, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and puffins. Because of the rocky inlets, it is possible to get great views of them, says Caroline, the wildlife trust’s regional manager for the Vale of York So clear are the waters around the head that she has stood on top of the cliffs looking down, and actually seen puffins swimming beneath the surface of the water When the tide is out during the breeding season, you can also go down onto the strand at North Landing. “Then you can see the kittiwakes at eye-level,” Jono says.
If you enjoy rock pooling, meanwhile, Flamborough Head is a great place to visit at any time of year.
The Flamborough Cliffs nature reserve runs along a narrow strip of coast from just north of Thornwick Bay to south of Breil Nook. The coastal footpath then continues on round, past the Flamborough lighthouse, to South Landing. This isn’t part of the nature reserve, but it is possibly the best place for rock pooling, Jono says.
When the tide is out, you can splash around among the pools to your heart’s content searching out starfish, edible crabs, whelks and barnacles – and shannies. These are tiny, speckled fish that, when motionless, are almost impossible to spot against the bottom of pools. When they move, however, they suddenly become visible, darting into the cover of a frond of seaweed or beneath a rocky overhang.
To help you enjoy the rock pooling, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust last year set up its Living Seas Centre, next to the East Riding of Yorkshire Council car park above South Landing. It is open at weekends to the end of November, and also hosts school visits.
Staff from the centre lead rock pooling safaris, as well as beach-cleans and strand walks.
The best way to make the most of a visit to Flamborough Head is to go with friends in two cars, suggests Jono.
You can leave one car at North Landing, one car at South Landing, then walk along the cliff-tops between the two, passing the lighthouse (and a couple of cafés) along the way.
That way you’ll get the most out of the stunning cliff-top views – you may even catch sight of harbour porpoises or minke whales far out at sea if you’re lucky – and also enjoy the wooded gullies above South Landing.
On our visit, the sycamore and rowan trees were filled with migrating birds: redwing, fieldfare, goldcrest, blackbirds and thrushes. Many of these were migrating south from their summer haunts in Scandinavia, Jono says.
The great migration of both songbirds and seabirds will continue to the end of the month. So now is a good time to visit. Just hope for that wind blowing from the north east.
• Fact file To get to Flamborough Cliffs nature reserve, head for the village of Flamborough, then out of the village follow the B1265 signposted for North Landing. There is a car park.
To reach South Landing, and the Living Seas Centre nearby, go to Flamborough, then just past the church in the village turn right onto South Sea Road. Follow this to the Living Seas Centre and the East Riding of Yorkshire car park.
The Living Seas Centre is open weekends until the end of November, and staff lead regular rock-pooling safaris, beach cleans and strand walks. These are more frequent in the summer, but there should be a number of events over the next couple of weeks to coincide with school half-terms. Check out the website at ywt.org.uk
•On our visit to South Landing, we spotted a young harbour seal pup, which had laboriously hauled itself up onto the beach to rest.
We suspected it was unwell. The Sea Life Centre at Scarborough was called, and a rescue team headed out, who confirmed the pup – which was about four to six months old – had a bad case of herpes, and was also infested with worms.
The pup was taken back to Scarborough for treatment where, after being dosed with antibiotics, it is said to be doing well.
Lyndsey Crawford, the Sea Life Centre’s curator, said viral and other infections were common amongst young harbour seals (also known as common seals), which are less strong than their more robust cousins the grey seals.
The centre has rescued about 15 this year, of which half subsequently died.
The advice if you see a seal on the beach which you suspect may not be well is to call the Sea Life Centre on the number below.
In no circumstances approach the seals, Lyndsey said – and make sure you keep your dogs away too.
Seals are not tame – and they also carry a number of diseases which can be passed to people (and dogs) through contact.
• If you see a sick seal, call the Sea Life Centre on 01723 373414, extension 8.
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