The Farne islands in late June are a chaotic place; huge numbers of birds on all of the cliff faces and around the boardwalks. Late July is a very different experience though…
I collected Ruth and Ann from Ponteland and we drove across to the coast before heading north for a day of bespoke beginners birdwatching, culminating in a trip across to Inner Farne. Curlew, Redshank and a stunningly orange Black-tailed Godwit were all in the shallows as a female Red-breasted Merganser appeared to be delivering flying lessons to her little black-and-white ducklings who were still way too small to get airborne. Sailing across to the islands after lunch we soon encountered rafts of Puffins and Guillemots, Grey Seals were lazing in the surf and the vertiginous seabird colonies were now reduced to only Kittiwake and Shag. Landing on Inner farne, Puffins were whizzing by with beaks filled with small fish, and weren’t subject to the kleptoparasitic attention of Black-headed Gulls, in stark contrast to just a few weeks ago. Terns were represented by single Arctic and Common Terns carrying fish to small chicks and a pair of Sandwich Terns engaged in courtship flight as a Lesser Black-backed Gull gave us a malevolent stare from the wall around the lighthouse.
A great day out with really lovely clients, and now I know what make and model of car Ann drives I can give her a wave when I’m cycling through Ponteland on a Sunday morning 🙂
In late June, a big part of the Farne Islands experience is the aerial bombardment you’re subjected to as Arctic Terns defend their eggs and chicks…
I collected John from Bedlington, Colin and Martin from Morpeth and then Sue from Old Swarland (for her 4th trip with NEWT). A breezy but warm morning brought Curlew, Yellowhammer, Grey Seal, Shelduck and a Brown Hare running though short vegetation right on the shoreline. After lunch overlooking the Farne Islands we boarded the St Cuthbert and headed out of Seahouses Harbour. We were soon being passed by Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills and Gannets and soon the unmistakeable sound, and smell, of the seabird colony reached the boat. Landing on Inner Farne brought the expected mob of angry terns and we watched the tiny beak of an Arctic Tern chick as it chipped way at the eggshell surrounding it. Fulmars arced along the cliff tops, Kittiwakes were hanging on the strong breeze just a few metres away from us, Sandwich and Common Terns flew by without molesting us and Puffins peeked from their burrows. As we walked through the courtyard a lady walked by in the other direction; head down, hood pulled up and explaining to her friends how she’s really scared of birds. Inner Farne probably wasn’t the best choice of visitor attraction then…
With a Farne Islands Safari on Wedneday, I’d been keeping an even closer eye than usual on the weather forecast and particularly the forecast sea state and swell height. 1m waves, strong NE winds and heavy rain wasn’t the most promising of forecasts…
I collected Paul and Rose from the Dunstanburgh Castle Hotel and we headed north of Seahouses for a few hours birdwatching before our sailing across to the Farnes. A singing Reed Bunting was eventually located, and finally came out obligingly into the open, as Meadow Pipits displayed overhead and Sand Martins hawked back and forth low over the water. Gulls aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but Black-headed, Common, Lesser Black-backed and Herring all lined up obligingly next to each other for a mini-ID masterclass. A Shoveler escorted her ten ducklings across the pool as Coots fed young, Moorhens crept around in bankside rushes, Lapwing roosted in nearby fields and a Skylark, just a tiny dark speck against the clouds overhead, sounded inconceivably loud at the height it had reached.
Sitting and eating lunch overlooking the islands, the one thing that was really obvious was that the sea was calm, it wasn’t really windy and it wasn’t raining – so much for those forecasts then 🙂 We boarded Glad Tidings VII and headed towards the inner group of islands. Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were all heading back to their nests with food, Grey Seals were lazing around on the rocks and the sound, and smell, of the islands intensified. The onomatopaeic calls of Kittiwake echoed off the cliffs and a leucistic Guillemot caught my eye as it sat on the rocks amongst all of it’s regular-coloured relatives.
Once we landed on Inner Farne, the Puffins took centre stage. We watched as they headed back towards their burrows, only to be harried by Black-headed Gulls. One Puffin dropped it’s load of small fish right next to us, it’s wingbeats whirring audibly just over our heads as it tried to evade it’s pursuers. Large, ungainly, and very, very fluffy Shag chicks had grown to big to be contained in their nests and the grumpy moaning of the assembled auks added to the wall of sound. Sandwich, Common and Arctic Terns were all tending eggs or chicks, with the Arctic Terns being as feisty as ever, and a couple of them taking a particular dislike to Rose’s hat! As we walked back down the jetty to sail back to the mainland, Rose’s sharp eyes spotted one of those birds that are so cryptic in some habitats as a Ringed Plover dashed around between pebbles and rocks on the shore line.
One of the things I love about leading tours for NEWT is that almost all of our clients enjoy watching all wildlife. No matter what the particular target species is during a tour, there’s always plenty to hold the attention while we search for that target.
I collected Jo from Church Point for what turned out to be a one-to-one birdwatching and otter safari afternoon and evening around Druridge Bay and southeast Northumberland (our other participants had cancelled on Tuesday…). As is often the case wildlife watching was steady during the afternoon, with an interesting ID comparison between Black-headed Gull and Bonaparte’s Gull, but the evening, and falling light levels, brought the best of the day. A lone Avocet was voicing it’s displeasure at something – it isn’t always certain what, Avocets are just generally noisy and feisty – a distant whirring resolved into the drumming of a Common Snipe almost directly overhead, Curlew were calling over the marshes as a Brown Hare loped by and an obliging Barn Owl quartered grassland in front of us, periodically dropping into the vegetation but reappearing without prey until it was finally driven away by the attention of couple of Carrion Crows. Small flocks of, mainly juvenile, Starling began gathering until there were several thousand whirling around us, their wing beats like the arrival of a storm. My attention was on a group of Tufted Ducks though – alert, looking nervous and constantly lifting their heads to look around the water. I pointed them out to Jo and said I was confident that they’d seen an Otter close by. 20 minutes later and there it was 🙂 We watched it for an hour before it slipped from view. Then it reappeared and I gave directions “over to the right, next to that Mute Swan“…just as Jo spotted one away to our left, and a third one in front of us! Three Otters in an atmospheric cloud-heavy dusk and a second Barn Owl carrying prey low over the ground made for an exciting end to the day 🙂
I arrived in Seahouse to collect Jill, Pete, Liz and Bernie and we had a couple of hours on the coast before heading back to the harbour and boarding Glad Tidings. We were only just out of the harbour when the skipper slowed the boat almost to a halt…as a group of 5 Bottlenose Dolphins passed across our bow 🙂 We watched as they had a quick fly-by of another boat that was leaving the harbour and then they were gone.
As lines of Puffin, Razorbill and Guillemot passed by, there was a notable change in the weather. Blue skies and sunshine were replaced by cloud and falling temperatures, and a heavy mist was shrouding the islands. The Farne Islands are a surreal place as it is, but when some of the islands were just dark shapes in the mist they took on a whole different persona. The loud cries of Kittiwake echoed around the gullies, Sandwich, Common and Arctic Tern were all incubating eggs or chicks, a handsome male Red-breasted Merganser was sitting on the water just off the Inner Farne jetty and the whirling parade of Puffins carrying fish back to their nests was the focus of everyone’s attention, although female Common Eider sitting motionless on nests with small ducklings were greatly appreciated too.
With the first rain drops beginning to spatter on the car windscreen just after we returned to dry land we headed along the coast so I could reveal some of the better spots for wildife photography; what’s there? what time of day? what time of year? Then it was time to head back to Seahouses. Are the Farnes the best wildlife experience you can enjoy in England? Britain? the world? Possibly…
Our Bespoke Photography ‘Birds in Flight’ workshop was a day out for Max and Nigel – Max’s prize for winning the ‘Young Person’s’ category at last years North East Wildlife Photography Awards.
We met up at Newbiggin and drove up the coast to Seahouses. Before sailing across to the islands, we had a session covering ‘birds in flight’ techniques and camera settings, with Kittiwakes and Fulmars as the guinea pigs for Max to practice various techniques. In a stiff breeze, the birds were proving quite challenging – passing a few feet above our heads into the breeze and then racing back with the wind at their tails 🙂 Once on St Cuthbert II we were soon surrounded by an almost limitless supply of photographic subjects; Grey Seal, Shag, Cormorant, Razorbill, Guillemot, Gannet, Puffin, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns and, the most surprising sight of the day, a Rock Pipit dripping with water and holding a small fish! It was a great day out with two talented photographers, and I’m hoping to see more of Max’s images displayed at the wildlife photography awards evening on July 9th 🙂
Sunday dawned bright and breezy, but thankfully not quite so breezy as Saturday…
I arrived in Seahouses and met Greg, John and Lee for their bespoke Farne Islands photography workshop. We were booked on an afternoon sailing to Inner Farne, but we started on the clifftops around Seahouses, practicing techniques for photographing birds in flight. Kittiwakes and Fulmars make great subjects for practicing techniques, prior to landing on Inner Farne – which is a little bit more hectic 🙂
Sailing on Glad Tidings IV we were soon surrounded by Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Grey Seals. The cliffs were a hive of activity and once we landed on Inner Farne we braved the Arctic Terns as we explored the varied photo opportunities that the island offers. ‘Puffin with beakful of sandeels’ was top of the photography target list for the day, and that was soon ticked off, before we enjoyed an extended stay on the island before leaving on the last boat of the day.
Our Farne Islands Beginners Photography Workshops on June 28th and July 11th still have spaces available so give us a call on 01670 827465 to book your place, or get in touch if you’d like a bespoke photography day 🙂
When I arrived at Waren Mill to collect Kevin and Chris, things weren’t looking promising for our planned Farne Islands Safari. We drove down to the sea at Bamburgh and a quick look told me all I needed to know; there really was no chance of boats sailing out of Seahouses with the frothy white sea being driven by a strengthening southwesterly breeze. A quick discussion revealed a few species that Chris hasn’t seen yet, and we headed southwest towards the North Pennines to try and catch up with a couple of those.
Ring Ouzel was first up on our revised ‘shopping list’ and we got out of the car, only to discover that it was now so windy that standing upright was a challenge! We were close to a nest site, and I’ve spent enough years there to know that the birds feed in an area of short grass and clumps of rush just below the narrow secluded valley where they nest. A couple of minutes later I was scanning along the line of a drystone wall – and a male Ring Ouzel hopped out from behind a clump of rush 🙂 After a few minutes, enjoying good views of the ‘Mountain Blackbird’ as he crossed the rough pasture, we continued on our way. Curlew, Red Grouse, Golden Plover, Lapwing and a Woodcock, contentedly digging worms out of the earth, were all seen as we headed towards the next species on Chris’s target list. Black Grouse can be a difficult bird to find in the middle of the day, but I knew where I would expect them to be, and Kevin quickly spotted a dark head, with the tell-tale huge red eyebrow, poking up from the dense grassland. More Black Grouse followed and we headed across to the coast in search of a third lifer for Chris. The howling wind appeared to be driving a storm in our direction, and we just managed to find a Roseate Tern before the first rain drops started pattering on our heads 🙂
Wednesday’s weather was a complete contrast to Tuesday as I collected Mike and Janet from Dunstan Steads. This was their second trip with NEWT, after a Lindisfarne trip last November, and today we were heading across to the Farne Islands.
Starting on dry land, we watched Grey Seals lazing in the sunshine as Skylarks soared overhead, Sandwich Terns plunged into the sea and Gannets soared by on the gentle breeze. Crossing to the islands on St Cuthbert II, we soon had streams of Guillemots, Puffins and Razorbills passing by as Grey Seals popped their heads up out of the water around us and Kittiwakes called their name around the cliffs. Once landed on Inner Farne we came under attack by the feisty Arctic Terns 🙂 Common Terns and Sandwich Terns kept themselves to themselves as Black-headed Gulls attempted to rob any Puffins that flew back in with fish, Common Eider and Shags continued incubating eggs and brooding chicks, apparently unconcerned by the presence of so many people, and amidst the mayhem and noise of the tern colony one call stood out. ‘Choo-it, choo-it’ grabbed the attention as a ghostly Roseate Tern flew around the lighthouse and then off towards the mainland, and we had another four encounters with this beautiful species befopre we departed for the mainland 🙂
Tuesday was our first landing trip to the Farne Islands this year, with the breeding season well underway for some species, and only just getting started for others.
I collected Sally, Ian, Ben and Hannah from Waren Mill (you’d be surprised at how well hidden a holiday cottage can be in such a small village…) and we headed up the coast towards Holy Island for the first part of our day out, soon encountering Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and Common Buzzard. Grey Seals were ‘bottling’ offshore, Whitethroat were singing their scratchy warble from the tops of hawthorn bushes, Brown Hares were chasing each other in and out of dense crops and a group of Sandwich Terns feeding close to the shore were joined by a single Little Tern.
After lunch it was time to head across to the islands, onboard Glad Tidings IV, and we soon had lines of Guillemots flying past, Gannets soaring effortlessly by, Puffins on the water close to the boat, Ben and Hannah spotting jellyfish in the clear still water and the extraordinary experience of the cliffs on Staple Island, up close and personal with the sight, sound, and smell of a seabird colony. Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Shags may be the staple (sorry, please excuse the pun!) fare of the islands precipitous cliffs, and Grey Seals always grab the attention of everyone on board, but the highlight for many of our clients over the last seven and a half years has been landing on Inner Farne. Female Common Eiders, easily overlooked as they sit quietly on their nests, are remarkably approachable and Puffins are a firm favourite, particularly with clients who are taking photographs, but there’s little to compare with being dive-bombed by an angry Arctic Tern 🙂 Ben had his camera with him, so we spent a while watching the behaviour of the Puffins, determining what they were about to do just before they did it (the secret to great wildlife photography…) and Ben was soon taking some impressive flight shots as birds flew back towards their burrows after fishing forays out to sea. After returning to the mainland, passing dense groups of terns and Kittiwakes as they plunged into shoals of small fish, we spent some time scanning the mudflats of Budle Bay, as Eiders with ducklings swan along the Waren Burn and Curlew probed in the soft gooey mud.
Always an impressive day out – we’ve lived up here for over 20 years and still marvel at the stunning wildlife spectacle of a trip to the Farnes each time we head across there. It’s Thursday now, so we’d like to say “Happy Birthday Hannah” 🙂