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A Visit to the Haunts of the Guillemot
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Loudon's Magazine of Natural History, 1835Art. II. Notes of a Visit to the Haunts of the Guillemot, and Facts on its Habits.
By Charles Waterton, Esq.

The Magazine of Natural History*, Conducted by J.C. Loudon, Vol. VIII, 1835, London. (original pp. 162 - 165). [* Often just referred to as "Loudon's Magazine".]

The immense range of perpendicular rocks, lashed by the ocean's briny surge, offers a choice and favourable retreat to myriads of wildfowl, from far-famed Flamborough Head to Bempton, and thence to Buckton and Speaton, and onwards to the Bay of Filey.

He who wishes to examine the nidification of these birds ought to be at this part of the sea coast early in the month of May. About five miles from Bridlington Quay is the village of Flamborough, chiefly inhabited by fishermen; and a little farther on is a country inn, called the North Star, which has good accommodation for man and horse; but a lady would feel herself ill at ease in it, on account of the daily visits of the fishermen, those hardy sons of Neptune, who stop at it on their way to the ocean, and again on their return. Here they rendezvous, to fortify their interior with a pint or two of comfort, and to smoke a pipe, by way of compensation for the many buffets which they ever and anon receive in the exercise of their stormy and nocturnal calling.

On the bare ledges of these stupendous cliffs the guillemot lays its egg, which is exposed to the face of heaven, without any nest whatever; but the razorbills and puffins lay theirs in crannies, deep and difficult of access. Here, too, the peregrine falcon breeds, and here the raven rears its young; while the rock pigeon and the starling enter the fissures of the precipice, and proceed with their nidification, far removed from the prying eye of man. The kittiwake makes her nest of dried grass wherever she can find a lodgement, and lays two spotted eggs, very rarely three. The cormorant and shag inhabit that part of the rocks which is opposite to Buckton Hall. You are told that the cormorants had their nests, in former times, near to the Flamborough lighthouse; but now these birds totally abandon the place during the breeding season. The jackdaw is found throughout the whole of this bold and craggy shore; he associates with the seafowl, as though he were quite at home, amongst his own inland congeners.

Towards the top of the cliffs, both rabbits and foxes have descended from the table land above them, and managed to find a shelter among the crevices, in places where you would suppose that no four-footed animal would ever dare to venture. A low mound, half earth, half stone, thrown up by the farmers for the protection of their flocks, skirts the winding summit of the precipice. Cattle have been known to surmount this artificial boundary, and lose their lives in the roaring surge below.

This extensive range of rocks, as far as appertains to birds, is not considered private property. Any person who can climb it may carry away what number of eggs he chooses. Still there is a kind of honourable understanding betwixt the different sets of climbers, that they will not trespass over the boundaries which have been marked by mutual consent.

The eggs of the guillemot and razorbills form a considerable article of traffic from old May-day till about the middle of June. Though the eggs of the kittiwake and puffin are of fully as good a flavour, still they are not in such request, on account of their tender shells, which are easily broken in packing, and in transporting from place to place.

The usual process of seeking for the eggs is generally carried on by three men, though two will suffice in case of necessity. Having provided themselves with two ropes of sufficient length and strength, they drive an iron bar into the ground, about 6 in. deep, on the table land at the top of the precipice. To this bar is fastened the thickest of the two ropes, and then it is thrown down the rocks. He who is to descend now puts his legs through a pair of hempen braces, which meet round his middle, and there form a waistband. At each end of this waistband is a loophole, through which they reeve the smaller rope. Sometimes an iron hook and eye are used in lieu of this loop. A man now holds the rope firmly in his hand, and gradually lowers his comrade down the precipice. While he is descending he has hold of the other rope, which was fastened to the iron bar ; and, with this assistance, he passes from ledge to ledge, and from rock to rock, picking up the eggs of the guillemot, and putting them into two bags, which he had slung across his shoulder ere he commenced his arduous undertaking. When he has filled these bags with eggs, he jerks the rope, and the motion informs his friends at the top that it is now time to draw him up. On coming up again to the place from whence he first set out, all the eggs are taken from the bags, and put into a large basket, prior to their being packed in hampers and carried off in a cart by wholesale dealers, who purchase them from the climbers for sixpence the score.  At Bridlington and the neighbouring places the eggs are retailed at a halfpenny a piece.

The rocks are searched for eggs every third day, provided the weather be fair. It requires considerable address on the part of the descending climber to save himself from being hit by fragments of the rock, which are broken off by the rope coming in contact with them. He avoids the danger by moving sidewise when the stone is falling, and by taking care, as he goes down, to clear away with his foot any portion of the rock that seems ready to give way. One of the climbers, while he was imparting to me instructions how to act, grinned purposely, and showed his upper jaw. I learned by his story, that, last year, a falling stone had driven two of his front teeth down his throat ; while the poor rascal, with all his dexterity, was unable to fend off the blow.

As I was lowered down, the grandeur and sublimity of the scene beggared all description, and amply repaid any little unpleasant sensations which arose on the score of danger. The sea was roaring at the base of this stupendous wall of rocks ; thousands and tens of thousands of wildfowl were in an instant on the wing: the kittiwakes and jackdaws rose in circling flight; while most of the guillemots, razorbills, and puffins left the ledges of the rocks, in a straight and downward line, with a peculiarly quick motion of the pinions, till they plunged into the ocean. It was easy to distinguish the puffins from the razorbills in their descent: these presented a back of a uniformly dark colour; those had a faint white diagonal line running across the wings. The nests of the kittiwakes were close to each other, on every part of the rocks which was capable of holding them; and they were so numerous, as totally to defy any attempt to count them. On the bare and level ledge of the rocks, often not more than six inches wide, lay the eggs of the guillemots : some were placed parallel with the range of the shelf, others nearly so, and others with their blunt and sharp ends indiscriminately pointing to the sea. By no glutinous matter, nor any foreign body whatever, were they affixed to the rock : bare they lay, and unattached, as on the palm of your outstretched hand. You might see nine or ten, or sometimes twelve, old guillemots in a line, so near to each other that their wings seemed to touch those of their neighbours ; and when they flew off" at your approach, you would see as many eggs as you had counted birds sitting on the ledge.

The eggs vary in size and shape and colour beyond all belief. Some are large, others small ; some exceedingly sharp at one end, and others nearly rotund. Where one is green, streaked and blotched with black, another has a milk-white ground, blotched and streaked with light brown. Others, again, present a very pale green colour, without any markings at all; while others are of a somewhat darker green, with streaks and blotches of a remarkably faded brown. In a word, nature seems to have introduced such an endless intermixture of white, brown, green, yellow, and black into the shells of the eggs of the guillemots, that it absolutely requires the aid of the well-set pallet of a painter to give an adequate idea of their beautifully blended variety of colouring. The pen has no chance of success in attempting the description.

The rock-climbers assure you that the guillemot, when undisturbed, never lays more than one egg; but that, if it be taken away, she will lay another; and, if she be plundered of that, she will then produce a third; and so on. If you dissect a guillemot, you will find a knot of eggs within her. The rock-climbers affirm that the bird can retain these eggs, or produce them, according to circumstances. Thus, if she be allowed to hatch her first egg, she lays no more for the season; if that egg be lost or taken away, another is laid to supply its place.

The men also assure you that, when the young guillemot gets to a certain size, it manages to climb upon the back of the old bird, which conveys it down to the ocean. Having carried a good telescope with me, through it I saw numbers of young guillemots, diving and sporting on the sea, quite unable to fly ; and I observed others on the ledges of the rocks, as I went down among them, in such situations that, had they attempted to fall into the waves beneath, they would have been killed by striking against the projecting points of the intervening sharp and rugged rocks: wherefore I concluded that the information of the rock-climbers was to be depended upon ; and I more easily gave credit to it, because I myself have seen an old swan sailing on the water with her young ones upon her back, about a week after they were hatched.

He who rejoices when he sees all nature smiling around him, and who takes an interest in contemplating the birds of heaven as they wing their way before him, will feel sad at heart on learning the unmerited persecution to which these harmless seafowl are exposed. Parties of sportsmen, from all quarters of the kingdom, visit Flamborough and its vicinity during the summer months, and spread sad devastation all around them. No profit attends the carnage; the poor unfortunate birds serve merely as marks to aim at, and they are generally left where they fall. Did these heartless gunmen reflect, but for one moment, how many innocent birds their shot destroys; how many fall disabled on the wave, there to linger for hours, perhaps for days, in torture and in anguish; did they but consider how many helpless young ones will never see again their parents coming to the rock with food; they would, methinks, adopt some other plan to try their skill, or cheat the lingering hour.

Walton Hall, Jan. 8. 1835.

Click to enlarge. This picture depicts the Squire examining the nidification of birds at Flamborough Head, Yorkshire." (1)
[NB. All birds, their nests and eggs are protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, and it is thus an offence to damage or destroy an active nest or prevent parent birds access to their nests.]

See also:
The Climmers of Bempton
Read more about birds and climmers at Bempton and Flamborough at The RSPB website.

Notes
1. Remarkable Men, Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge, Charing Cross, London. Circa 1892.

Click to enlarge.
The guillemot (L. Uria aalge)

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A gannet (L. Morus bassanus) cruising by Bempton Cliffs.

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View along the cliffs towards Flamborough Head.

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Bempton Cliffs viewed from the beach at Filey Bay.


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The rock dove (L. Columba livia) at Bempton. It is the wild ancestor of domestic and feral pigeons. Click to enlarge.
A beachcomber on the beach at Filey Bay.
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Close-up of the carrion crow (L. Corvus corone) at Filey Bay.

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The waves of the North Sea crashing over Filey Brigg.

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Herring gull (L. Larus argentatus)
 



A Visit to the Haunts of the Guillemot
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