The coast is reasonably accessible from Gilling East. An hour or so of driving and we can be anywhere between Teeside and Bridlington. But, mindful of my carbon footprint, I am rather selective with my visits. Whilst I look with great interest at sea watchers’ records flooding in from the east coast at this time of year I am happy to accept that my visits will be occasional and therefore potentially hit or miss. But the presence of a black-browed albatross at Bempton had been nagging away at me since its arrival in June!
I wanted to go with my nine year old son Tolly and yesterday was our first good opportunity. While in some ways I feel a degree of sadness at the thought of a wandering black- browed albatross alone in the wrong hemisphere, who can deny the incredible opportunity this has presented for so many to see such a spectacular bird.
We set off before 6am into a grey dawn, yet another dull, murky start courtesy of this gloomy anticyclonic weather system. It just became more murky as we drove coast bound. On leaving the car to walk to the cliffs at RSPB Bempton Cliffs reserve we were hit by the strength of the wind which peaked where it was being ‘squeezed’ over the cliff top. Bempton never disappoints and without hesitation we were glad to be there, albatross or not. The spectacle of thousands of gannets sometimes within touching distance was simply spectacular. The sound of them and the wind and the sea almost hurt our ears.
Looking out to sea, pewter skies weighed heavy on dull turquoise waves which pounded the chalky cliffs three hundred feet below. We could just about see Filey Brigg. It was cold stood there but we had a report that the albatross was on the cliffs out of view. We kept the faith, but the temptation of a hot cup of coffee back at the visitor centre grew exponentially.
An RSPB guide kindly informed us that some birders were watching the albatross from further along the cliff top. Well if nothing else it was an excuse to keep warm by moving, so we set off, all the while mesmerised by passing gannets hanging in the updrafts. We soon joined an excited party of observers, and had our first view of the albatross albeit distantly through the scope. We marvelled at its size, its rather stern yet rather peaceful expression and its light peachy coloured bill.
We watched it preen and clamber about a little and saw those enormous wings half open, then it turned and faced out to sea, leaned forward and tipped into the updrafts. Without delay it went to land on the sea. This was our next view, its bulky head held mainly upright, it stood out well in the waves. We didn’t have to wait long to see it fly. This if I’m honest was the moment I was waiting and hoping for- an albatross in flight. It glided effortlessly above the waves giving us memorable views, very “natural” albatross views as Tolly called them. But soon it was back on the cliff within feet of where we had previously seen it. So more, even better views of it were obtained as the light was now slightly brighter.
We decided having been on the cold cliff top for several hours to head back for some late breakfast and a hot drink, quietly hoping it would take to the air again as we returned along the cliff top.
It did! We rushed to the viewpoint and joined an excited crowd watching the beauty of its flight as it drifted back and forth amongst the equally beautiful gannets. It passed over us, beside us and below us showing us all angles and demonstrating its effortless gliding abilities. I particularly loved seeing its head-on approaches on bowed wings. After several passes it gently lowered altitude to begin another landing approach towards the cliff. This gave us views of albatross wings at full stretch; it looked like a long, dark, thin ‘plank’ amongst the many bright white gannet wings. It approached the cliff, slowed down and settled out of view.
We had seen it on the cliff, on the sea and best of all in the air. The joy this bird brought was palpable all around; joy seen on people’s faces and heard in their voices. People were quite simply beaming with delight. We were elated and felt extremely lucky to have had the full albatross experience in a one off visit. We decided not to wait for another view, we couldn’t have asked for more anyway, so walked back to have some now very late breakfast and coffee.
Sitting outside the visitor centre with food and drink we could reflect on our experience, there are many memorable occasions if you look at nature, some involve rare species, others common species, but this felt very special. The albatross was the icing on the cake because at Bempton you can’t lose on any visit with spectacular scenery and countless birds just going about their lives right in front of you. But seeing the joy on other people’s faces was undoubtedly a big part of the experience- feeling collective joy. It reminded me of seeing hundreds of happy faces after watching a starling murmuration on the Somerset levels.
Nature really does have the power to lift our spirits. This bird is in the ‘wrong’ hemisphere and I can’t help wondering what sort of future it will have, perhaps remaining on its own for many years to come? But hundreds of people have seen it and perhaps that will spark a young person to pursue a career in conservation or encourage in others a life long interest in natural world? I left Bempton Cliffs feeling that this black-browed albatross has already done an immeasurable amount of good for conservation and human wellbeing.