RSPB Seabird Cruises off Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire in 2007


Manx Shearwater (photo: Steve Round).

Operating out of Bridlington Harbour, the MV Yorkshire Belle sails up to 3.5 miles off Flamborough Head in search of skuas and shearwaters. Each 3.5-hour cruise sails on eight weekend dates between September 1st and October 6th 2007. The boat safely carries 210 passengers, but for freedom of passenger movement, we restrict numbers to 150. The RSPB provides a cruise leader, who operates a running commentary, acting as an aid to directing passengers to birds, and helps with their identification. Volunteers from the East Yorkshire RSPB Local Group manage each cruise on the day, which includes providing information and supplying 'chum' (a concoction of environmentally friendly fishy bits and pieces).

Over the years, a wide variety of interesting seabirds have been seen. However, the success of any cruise is attributable to weather conditions, not particularly on the day, but often one or two days in advance. Following a north to north-westerly blow, often huge numbers of seabirds are displaced into the North Sea from the North Atlantic. Following this, most birds re-orientate and head back northwards, many of which pass Flamborough Head. These ideal conditions often take place from September to October, therefore we gear our cruise dates around these times. Obviously cruise dates are planned well in advance, but sadly we cannot predict the weather! Some cruises can be relatively quiet while others can be stimulating. There is always a sense of anticipation and expectation on the cruises, not really knowing what is lurking out in the swell.

Great Skua (photo: Steve Round).

We normally encounter our target birds, which include Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Manx Shearwater, and Sooty Shearwater alongside close range plunge-diving Gannets — a photographer's dream! Having said this, almost anything could show-up: some birds out of range of those land-lubbing, but devoted, sea watchers sitting beneath Flamborough Head fog signal!

Although we can never predict what we may see, from over twenty years of cruising off the Head, a vague pattern of species occurrence has developed. During an average season, on each trip we encounter at least one species of skua and shearwater, very rarely have we failed to connect with either. The most frequently recorded 'target' species are Arctic Skua and Manx Shearwater. Most often up to ten or more Arctics and Manxies are seen. In good conditions however, these numbers can be far greater.

Sooty Shearwaters, which breed off South America, undertake their winter-time clockwise movements in the North Atlantic; these birds regularly drift into the North Sea following intense west to north-west gales. As they re-orientate and filter back north out of the North Sea, birds pass the Head in great numbers. Rarely do we fail to see Sooties on cruises, although numbering less than ten; in 2002 we noted up to 300 birds on one trip alone, many very close to the boat. Balearic Shearwaters are sadly declining as a breeding species in the Mediterranean; however, occasionally single birds are seen, sometimes very close to the boat. Both Great Shearwater and Cory's Shearwaters have been seen, though these birds are very rare on our cruises. Late August to late September may be the best time to connect with one of these great ocean wanderers.

Long-tailed Skua (photo: Graham Catley).

Great Skuas are regularly seen during the season, and on occasions, small numbers of Pomarine Skua and lesser numbers of Long-tailed Skua, both from northern Scandinavia and Russia. Masses of Fulmars are normally seen frequenting the chum-line in the wake of the boat, with occasional 'blue' phase birds from higher Arctic areas. Leach's Storm-petrel has been noted too, with reports of probable European Storm-petrel.

Large numbers of the commoner gull species maintain a presence, however passengers may witness good numbers of Little Gulls in September and October. During this period too, Sabine's Gulls are occasionally seen and a few Mediterranean Gulls, though the latter tend to be a little later in September and early October. Common Terns and Sandwich Terns are regular, with fewer Arctic Terns and Black Terns.

For much of any cruise there is a steady attendance of commoner species feeding on the chum-line. These notably include very close plunge-diving Gannets, Kittiwakes, Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Common Gull, Herring Gull and occasional passing Black-headed Gulls.

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Later cruises usually produce ten or more Red-throated Divers with occasional Black-throated Divers and rarely Great Northern Divers. Diving ducks including Goldeneye, Tufted Duck, Scaup, Pochard, Eider, Common Scoter and Velvet Scoters are seen from most cruises; also passage dabblers such as Mallard, Teal, Pintail and Wigeon.

Grey Phalarope (photo: Graham Catley).

Waders are sometimes noted too; these include Curlew, Whimbrel, Dunlin, Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Knot and Oystercatchers. Both Red-necked Phalarope and Grey Phalaropes have been recorded, most times observed very close to the boat, occasionally allowing the boat to circle around them offering brilliant views.

Apart from shoreline and sea birds, others include a selection of common passerine species such as Wheatear, thrushes, pipits, warblers and skylarks. Occasional birds of prey and owls include Peregrine, Kestrel, Honey Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Short-eared Owl and Long-eared Owls. These are most often encountered on later cruises.

Cetaceans are commonly seen, though most refer to Harbour Porpoises. Sometimes 10–20 porpoises are recorded per trip; however, other species previously noted are rare, such as Fin, Minke and Sperm Whales, Bottle-nosed and White-beaked Dolphins. Also, the occasional sighting of Basking Shark and Sunfish may indicate another sign of climatic change in the North Sea. Butterflies include most of the common vanessid and 'white' species, while crane-flies and moths are sometimes noted.

Black-browed Albatross: New for 2007, or will it be a Yellow-nosed Albatross? (photo: Hugh Venables).

Obviously, we cannot guarantee what may or may not be seen on any particular trip, but it is the luck of the draw and the excitement of not knowing what is beyond the next wave! However, who knows what to expect. Fea's Petrel may become reality this year or perhaps a Black-browed Albatross? Let us wait and see.

All our cruises sail at weekends. This offers a good opportunity for birders to search Flamborough or Bempton early doors before going on a cruise. After each cruise, plenty of time remains in the day to visit coastal rarity hot-spots. A great day out!

Advance booking is recommended, though tickets may be purchased on the day from North Pier, Bridlington if spaces are available. Adult tickets cost £11, children (under 14) £5, family tickets (2 adults and 2 children) £30. Please call 01262 850959 for further information and to make a booking. Phone this number too, after 7.30pm the day before each cruise to ensure the trip is going ahead. On occasions, cruises are cancelled owing to predicted poor sea or weather conditions.

This autumn's cruise dates are:

  • Saturday 1st: midday
  • Sunday 9th September: 9am
  • Saturday 15th September: 11:15am
  • Sunday 16th September: 11:45am
  • Saturday 22nd September: 9am
  • Sunday 23rd September: 10:30am
  • Saturday 29th October: 11am
  • Saturday 6th October: 10am
Written by: Lesley Brown, Seabird Cruise Manager