Sunday, 9 June 2013

Bempton 2013

This year the Steve Ashton School of Photography was held at Bempton with Martyn (a new-comer to the group), Tim, Peter, Mike, Alan , me and of course the great sage himself.  As normal the plan was to depart East Kent early Sunday morning so as to arrive in time to get a photographic session in Sunday afternoon.
A week ago, after what seemed like months of cold gloomy weather Steve’s confidence of good weather was, for once, getting a little shaky but he shouldn’t have worried for as the day of departure grew near the weather prospects improved and we arrived in wall to wall sunshine – typical of all our tours to date. As Steve so often tells us “It’s all in the planning”.
As expected Bempton was alive with gannets, razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes but the first 15-20 minutes was spent with the tree sparrows – there were loads of them. This colony has increased significantly over the last few years. I don’t know why but they are doing something right up there.

Juvenile tree sparrow - at least something is managing to breed

The sparrows seem to be nesting under the roof of the visitor centre; there were no house sparrows around. Do they compete for nest sites? The sparrows also fan out across the cliffs so you could find them almost anywhere on the cliff top fields and fences.
Most of the afternoon was spent on the gannets because there were less auks at close quarters than usual and by that time of the day the cliff face is in the shade.

The light was brilliant but we had a table booking for 7.00 pm so around 6.15 we had to leave.
We had a nice meal the highlight being when Martyn couldn’t decide which desert to have so had 2 earning the name “2 Puddings” for the rest of the trip (and possibly forever).
Monday (3rd) was North Yorkshire Moors day with a local bird tour group – Yorkshire Coast Nature - with Richard and Steve. As a tour of the moors and forests it was very good in that they showed us a load of places with good birding but photographically we didn’t get very much.  I didn’t keep a full list of birds seen but some of highlights were spotted flycatcher, common redstart, red grouse, golden plover, ring ouzel and whinchat. I only managed blog quality images of the grouse and very distant shots of the plover and whinchats.  We also went to the forest at a place know for goshawk and dipper and although a goshawk was seen by Richard (and glimpsed by Martyn and Mike) I didn’t see it and the dipper family had fledged and seeming moved on.
We dined at a pub near the forest and after went to try for nighthawks – this was successful with 2 or 3 showing almost overhead (they had only come in during the last few days). This was a great way  to end a long day because for several of the team nighthawk was a lifer.
Tuesday morning (4th) saw us assemble at 5am for another session at Bempton for gannets in the morning sun. For the first hour I think we had the reserve to ourselves and again I concentrated on the gannets  trying to get some shots of the feet hanging down – we had been told that the males had blue stripes and the females yellow/green but every bird I saw and photographed had yellow/green feet.
A lot of the time they were too close for the 400mm lens
Several pairs of gannets were fencings:

And I had the pleasure of a gannet landing around 5-6 yards away, posing (see my Flickr site) then plucking grass from the bank for it’s nest

At 7.00 it was back for breakfast then  back up to the moors for a more thorough search for red grouse. I don’t know how Steve and “2 Puddings” managed to work out where we had been the previous day but they did and eventually the search was rewarded with some brilliant grouse sightings and shots.
Grouse - male

Grouse - female
A lot of the grouse had young but I never managed a shot of those.
We did see golden plover and curlew as well but never close enough to get a decent shot.
We also went back to the whinchat spots and at one a whinchat popped up right beside the lead car (driven by Steve) and they rattled off about 10,000 shots whilst the rear car watched on in envy at a distance. Now I thought the role of the tour leader was to put his clients onto birds not get the shots himself and only move out of the way once the bird has flown and /or their cards were full.
The closest views the rear car  managed
Still tours with Steve are a little different.
In the evening we had another great meal and “2 Puddings” repeated his performance of the first night with 2 colossal puddings which cemented his nickname though he did concede that getting both down was a struggle.
Day 3 the weather finally let us down and it was drizzling when we got up at 5.00 so I and several others didn’t bother going out though Steve, 2 Puddings and Alan did. After breakfast the rain had stopped we went along to Bempton to photograph the residents in gloom. For some totally unknown reason I spent the gloomiest day of the week trying to photograph auks on the wing. Not the most sensible thing to do but I hadn’t taken many and there was always the ones sitting on the cliffs.

 I’m not sure how the auks are doing because whilst there were thousands of them there seemed less on the cliffs near the view points than my previous visit and I only saw one guillemot sitting on an egg:

I did manage a spectacled guile in flight – I only actually saw 2 the whole stay so that was a minor miracle.

I think it was this day that Steve earned the name “Showers”. He showered before going out at 5.00am, again after breakfast, again when we got back and again before going to bed (or something along those lines).
Day 4 was again up to the cliffs for some though I stayed at the hotel – I needed to be close to the loo. I also decided it was prudent to miss breakfast.
The plan was to head home after breakfast but to break up the journey by dropping in at Lakenheath to try for the red footed falcon.  There was a brief discussion of the route – either via the Humber bridge and down past Lincoln (the most direct at about 170 miles) or via the M18/A1/A14 (probably the quickest even though 210 miles or so).  Showers Ashton doesn’t believe in maps because “it’s all in the head”. Well I’m not sure what’s in his head because I spent an age trying (and failing) to work out where we were on the A1 only to realise we were actually on the M1. This “short cut” (M18 across to the M1 then east on the A14 from Rugby) works out at around 240 miles!!!!  Masterful navigation by Steve and his head.
As I said earlier, these tours are different! As it was the red footed falcon hadn’t been seen all day and had been very elusive over the previous few days so we only stayed at Lakenheath an hour or so. I also think Steve was craving for another shower.
So there you have it. We went for gannets, auks and grouse and we got pictures of gannets, auks and grouse.......thousands of them, plus quite a few of tree sparrows. A lucky few got whinchat and we all put on a few pounds from the amount we ate.......especially 2 Puddings.
Planning will start soon for next year’s trip though there is a rumour we might go somewhere more exotic ............ perhaps Steve will use a map there.


  1. Great account and fantastic gannet photos! Such brilliant birds :) Really like the razorbill shot too!

  2. The Steve Ashton School of Snapping clearly worked well - you even got your pic on the Bempton Facebook page:

    Not only that, a challenge to have a shoot-off against their own Steve snapper.