North York Moors

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Honey Bee on heather by Tammy AndrewsHoney Bee on heather by Tammy Andrews

Take in the scent of summer. Our moors will soon be a magnificent purple blaze as the heather flowers, alive with the buzz of honeybees, damselflies, moths and butterflies.

From mid to late August and into September, the moorland is an unsurpassed attraction when all the tiny flowers of heather burst into bloom and the landscape in transformed into a seemingly endless carpet of pink and purple. Three types, ling and cross leaved heath, together with deep dark pink/purple bell heather, provide the most continuous and extensive display compared to anywhere else in England.

Our tip

Take a closer look at Fylingdales Moor, the vast heather moorland inland of Robin Hood’s Bay and Ravenscar. Notice anything special? Unlike most other moorland in the National Park, grouse-shooting isn’t permitted here and instead it’s managed as a conservation area.

That means it’s home to over 90 bird species (including birds of prey like the merlin, Britain’s smallest falcon), plus otters, water voles, orchids, butterflies, moths and adders – forming a wonderful web of moorland wildlife. And of course it’s a great place to have a wander amongst the heather at this time of year. It’s open access land, which means that walkers don’t have to stick to footpaths or other public rights of way (unless they are accompanied by a dog).

Also look out for:

  • Bilberries fruiting on the moors. Globe-shaped, pink flowers appear among the green shoots of this low shrub from July to September. The flowers mature into small, globular black berries that have a bluish, waxy ‘bloom’, like grapes. Go bilberry picking for cooking in bilberry tarts - delicious with cream!
  • Day-flying moths as well as butterflies abound this month, making the most of summer’s nectar rich flowers; beautiful yellow-underwing moths feed on the moorland heather. Why not set a moth trap overnight, and see the plethora of moths that are drawn to the lights? Returning to the trap in the morning to discover what’s inside is always fascinating.
  • Porpoise, dolphins and seals. If it’s a still day when you’re out at the coast and the tidal surge on the North Sea isn't strong, it’s worth keeping an eye on the water, especially from sea-top cliffs. With few cresting waves, it’s easier to spot the tell-tale fins of harbour porpoise and dolphins swimming offshore. If you’re lucky you may also see the bobbing head of a seal or two. You may also spot the Great Skua and Arctic Skua offshore as they migrate along the eastern coast back to Africa for winter. Binoculars are useful here!
  • Go on a spot of fossil hunting too. The coast around Whitby and Staithes is also renowned for its rich seams of fossils encased in the rocky cliffs and in pebbles on the shore. 

Responsible fossil hunting

Fossil hunting is great fun but please do follow our guidelines to prevent any unnecessary damage to our natural heritage.

  • Look for fossils in loose beach material
  • Only collect a small number
  • Keep detailed records (what, where, when)
  • Keep hammering to a minimum
  • Avoid disturbance to wildlife

We always recommend that you check local tide times. You can buy a copy of the tide timetable at the Gateway Centre in Staithes and various shops up and down the coast. Find it in the Bayfair newspaper or check the tide times online. Set out at least an hour before low tide to give yourself enough time to walk out and explore before heading back.

Stay well away from the base of steep cliffs and wear appropriate footwear and clothing.

Walk of the month

Take advantage of the long summer days to enjoy the National Park in a nutshell on a longer 11 mile walk from Ravenscar to Robin Hood's Bay. From the craggy heights of Ravenscar, the route runs across Howdale Moor for some classic moorland scenery before dropping down to the old Scarborough-to-Whitby railway line and along to the famous smugglers' haunt of Robin Hood's Bay. Both here and at nearby Boggle Hole you can indulge in a spot of rockpooling, before returning along the clifftop for exhilarating sea views along the Cleveland Way National Trail.

Yorkshire Coast Nature tips

The experts at Yorkshire Coast Nature are our eyes on the ground, here's Richard Baines' pointers on what else to look out for this month.

Whales in Yorkshire? Don’t be Daft!  

That’s the answer I have heard from several people when I tell them about our seabirds and whale trips from Staithes.  This is the fifth year running our Yorkshire Coast Nature trips in partnership with Real Staithes; skipper Sean Baxter and family, all our wildlife guides and clients. Now it’s time to celebrate and reflect on our adventures in the North Sea off the coast of the North York Moors National Park.  

Minke Whales (c) Dan LombardWhen we first started the trips in 2014 we really didn’t know what to expect. There were whale sightings from Sean, mysterious rumors from fishermen and tourist boats, but we didn’t know how many or when to expect to see them. I remember on our first reconnaissance trip, migrating butterflies flew past the boat eight miles out at sea, a fantastic sight. Then out of no-where a huge whale appeared about 100m away and then vanished. I will never forget my first sighting of a minke whale in Yorkshire. It looked huge, the beauty and thrill of a first mega wildlife encounter.  

We decided to name our trips Seabirds and Whales because we all love seabirds and there are so many fantastic birds out there. We were also a bit nervous about depending too much on whale sightings. But we really needed to attract seabirds to our boat; getting close up views is the best way of appreciating these amazing animals.  

That’s where our secret weapon the ‘chum’ came in. After lots of advice and recipes from popcorn to strange fish oils we settled on simple fish bits supplied by Scalby Sea Life Centre left over from their rehabilitation work. Over the years it’s worked a treat. It’s amazing the difference it makes. From no birds as far as the eye can see; add some chum…loads of birds, as if by magic, chumtastic! Here are a few of our best seabird encounters with a little help from our best chum!
In the first year we enjoyed great views of northern gannets, northern fulmars and manx shearwaters. Then on the 13 September 2014 a sooty shearwater landed right next to the boat feeding on our chum for 20 minutes. Sooty shearwaters hold the world record for the longest animal migration ever recorded electronically; a massive 64,000km. This was a wonderful opportunity to see a seabird which had been born in the South Atlantic on the Yorkshire coast.

Sooty Shearwater (c) Richard BainesOn the 2 August 2015 we had a wonderful up-close visit by a balearic shearwater. Balearic shearwaters are a critically endangered seabird which breeds on remote islands in the Mediterranean. They are seen annually on our coast but few people have photographed one in Yorkshire so we were excited to get that opportunity.  

We have seen several pomarine skuas over the years but on the 5 August 2017 a beautiful near adult spent time around our boat. That was great but it’s the great skuas or ‘bonxies’ that are the real stars for me. Every year they harass and attack seabirds behind our boat; pirates of the sea. Fight club seabird style. Watching them is a fascinating insight into how they time their flight runs to perfection just as a seabird grabs some food, bang! the skua arrives and steals the show.  

The juvenile puffins are really cool. It never ceases to amaze me how they can leave their burrow and know how to survive out at sea without any on the waves training by their parents. We see between six and 20 juvenile puffins on most trips every year between the end of July and beginning of September. Out on a boat in late summer is the best way to photograph juveniles because of their tendency to leave their nesting burrow at night away from the cliffs.  

Puffin (juvenile) (c) Richard BainesMinke whales have undoubtedly increased in numbers on our coastline in the past 10 years. I grew up birding on the coast in the 1980s in the North York Moors and I never remember anyone seeing a whale in those days. We now see minke whales on most of our trips. Calm weather and a flat sea are best and the highest chance is between July and the end of September. The adults are wary so we are very careful not to approach too close but younger whales appear to be very curious. Almost every year we are blessed with a very close encounter as an immature minke decides to give us the eye, swimming right up to the boat lifting its head out to check us out.

We never know quite when the best weeks are going to be for whale sightings. Its all about the food. Minke whales have a varied diet but increase in numbers when the herring spawn offshore. In 2018 the last few days of August and first week of September was fantastic. Aided by flat calm sea and great visibility we saw a lot of whales on every trip and logged over 200 encounters (a tally mark for each sighting) on each trip! We also saw a possible Humpback Whale, the classic one that got away…

It’s not only whales we encounter. In July 2018 we were graced by bow riding White-beaked Dolphins a real treat as they swam alongside the boat for over 20 minutes.  

Later in the autumn, songbirds are on the move and we see a variety of tiny birds flying past the boat. Chiffchaffs, goldcrests and in 2018 a northern wheatear passed us by, skimming the waves, only a short distance to go for safety and food after crossing the North Sea. These wonders of bird migration alongside the magnificent whales are truly unforgettable experiences.

This year we are working closely with the North Sea Wildlife Trusts and their cetacean conservation project. We have an official surveyor on every trip. We are very pleased to have an opportunity to help a project which aims to understand more about our whales and dolphins and work towards protecting these fantastic mammals for the next generation. Everyone in Yorkshire should be proud about whales in their home county, spread the word and take measures to protect these fantastic mammals.    

Look out for all of these birds and minke whales from the cliff tops of North and East Yorkshire. The spectacular coastline of the North York Moors National Park provides good vantage points to look out to sea. My advice would be to choose a view not too high so you can see more detail over the sea. A calm and settled sea is important and if you see the Yorkshire Ccoast Nature crew on Sean’s boat ‘All My Son’s’ give us a wave!