Living the (Cretaceous) Dream: or the little things that make the world

I was privileged recently to spend a week at Flamborough on the Yorkshire coast, enjoying the late warmth of a sunny autumn and exploring the deep past and its relationship to the rich wildlife still found in and around this famous cliff-lined headland. Here is Flamborough lighthouse overlooking Selwick’s Bay, which has been ground out of the soft chalk as if a sea god had taken a huge bite out of the coast.

The whole coastline is made of layers of chalk, like this small and beautiful cove that is between North Landing and Flamborough Lighthouse. The cliff is relatively low-lying at this point – about 20m high – but it rises as much as 100 metres at Bempton just to the north. All parts are the product of phytoplankton that drizzled on to the bed of the Tethys Sea during the Cretaceous period about 100 million years ago. They have a rather grand name – coccolithophores – but they are unicellular algae and would be minuscule to the naked eye.

You cannot help but be mesmerised by the comings and goings of the seabirds at Bempton, which has long been an RSPB reserve. I cannot believe that I last visited in about 1977. Why have I waited so long? Yet not a lot seems to have changed, except perhaps the big increase in breeding gannets, which are now present in their thousands. When I last came they were numbered in tens. The other big change is in me. Then, I would have seen only the birds. Now I appreciate more fully how life’s basic processes are shaped by tiny little creatures we can’t even see. E O Wilson my favourite naturalist called insects ‘the little things that run the world’. But coccolithophores are perhaps ‘the littler things that make the world’. Those sublime cliffs on which the gannets breed, and whose immense stilless they dramatise with their endless traffic, are the work of algae.

Atlantic gannets at any distance look simply magnificent. But at close quarters, when you can pick out the weird geometry of their lined faces and the steel-blue plastic goggles about their chalky eyes, you realise exactly how strange they are. A dinosaur, perhaps, befitting a Cretaceous landscape.

A drama I really savoured was watching the white-streaked dark immature gannets power up for flight, battering their wings against the sea breeze and preparing for the next stage in their remarkable lives. They jump off the cliffs – they are known as ‘jumpers’ – and then live on the sea surface as they acquire the skills of flight and their plunge-dive feeding technique. The parents have so stuffed them with fresh fish the chicks are heavier than themselves at this point. The surplus fat is what sees through the learning phase of their first independent weeks.

I love to see gannets in fast-powered motion but just as wonderful is to watch the two-metre span merely adrift on air and those great black-paddle feet dropped down to create turbulence as the birds balance and dance like any white-clad angel. And the other reflection is to try to imagine their nonchalance at peering down over a 100-metre precipice when I would be frozen with vertigo and terror. What lives they lead. To imagine their world is to be unleashed from our own.

I cannot help adding, despite the poor quality of the image, a brief mention of the black-browed albatross that has taken up temporary summer residence at Bempton since June. It is possibly the only one on the northern hemisphere and may be doomed never to get back to the Southern Ocean whence it came. Somehow it crossed the tropical doldrums and now is fated to spend its potentially long 50-year life at the wrong end of the planet. It is the sleeping black-winged bird at the centre of the image. Its own flying capabilities make even the gannets look rather ordinary, but that is another story.

Around the corner from Flamborough is the port and seaside resort of Bridlington. It was a strange but fascinating mix of holiday kitsch and northern coastal culture, with the otherness of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle mingled in for good measure. Because Brid is still a major fishing port, especially for local crabs, lobster, prawns and North Sea fish species – herring, mackerel etc. So there were the sound and sights of the fairground big wheel with the deep strange odour of lobster creels fresh from the sea bottom. Here were the taste of tutti-frutti icecream mingled with the sound of herring gulls vomiting up the ‘long call’ (when they throw their heads back and laugh maniacally with wide-open beak).

A favourite in the harbour was turnstone. These little characterful birds were everywhere, busy foraging among the nets and tied-up fishing boats along the various jetties. The difference between their breeding dress and winter plumage is really striking and each one seemed to be different from all its neighbours. Everyone truly is an individual and loaded with personality. It is odd to think that a bird like this adult above could well have arrived recently from the northernmost terra firma on Earth, such as the coast of Svalbard, where its near neighbours could be walruses and polar bears. And here it is among the Victorian stonework surrounded by children lining for crabs and Yorkshire ladies in their Kiss-Me-Quick-style hats.

The main part of the harbour where the fish processing lorries arrived to load their cargo was thronged with birds. Kittiwakes had attempted to nest on the harbour walls and there was a lovely overlooked stretch of stonework where, judging from their accumulated guano underfoot, waders have roosted for decades during high tide. There were about 30 redshanks with a few turnstones.

The one pale eye to rival the gannet’s is that of an adult herring gull. I was interested to see the British race argenteus mingled with the subtly different argentatus race that comes from northern Europe such as Scandinavia. The head of the latter has a different less steeply angled forehead (ie flatter), and flatter rear crown as well as a darker overall cast to the grey mantle. The bird above is a British bird.

Almost as characterful as the turnstones was this lone purple sandpiper. An adult recently arrived back from the Arctic north

The North Sea has recently suffered a wreck of common guillemots during which many have washed up either moribund or dead. The incident has been attributed to a toxic algal bloom and there were certainly several birds around the harbour including this bird of the year. It was probably born around the coast at Bempton. Let’s hope it survives to join the throngs on the ledges next spring.