Our rearranged Farne Islands photography workshop was a second day out with NEWT for Bryan, and a chance for him to take on the challenge of Puffins in flight ;-) We sailed across to the islands on Glad Tidings IV (returning at the end of the afternoon on St Cuthbert III), and amidst the chaos of Arctic, Sandwich and Common Terns, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Shags we worked on camera settings for action photography, but also on the elusive, almost instinctive skills that need to be developed to capture flight photographs of such a fast moving target. At one point we swapped cameras, with Bryan taking on the physical challenge of the substantial lump of kit that is a Nikon D300s and 70-200mm f2.8 lens :-) As he settled into a smooth panning action, aided by the weight of my camera/lens, and began taking the shot at just the right time, he switched back to his camera with Puffin after Puffin captured through the lens, and I grabbed a couple of shots myself
Saturday afternoon was our Farne Islands Beginners Photography workshop. I picked Peter up from Eshott as I headed north, and we met up with Doug at Seahouses harbour. This was Peter’s fourth trip this week (on his birthday, following his North Pennines trip on Friday – his wedding anniversary!). Doug had been out with me before too, on our Coastal Dawn photography workshop in March, although the weather was a bit more amenable this time round :-) Settings for wildlife and action photography are very different to the settings for extracting a landscape image from the gloom of an early spring morning, so I ran through the settings on Doug’s camera with my recommendations for how to improve his chances of catching ‘the moment’.
Perhaps the greatest skill a photographer needs on Inner Farne is the ability to tune out the chaos that surrounds them. Common and Arctic Terns form an angry buzzing cloud around the heads of visitors to the island, the harsh calls of Sandwich Terns cut through you as they fly to and from their colony, Puffins shoot by with beakfuls of sandeels, so close that you can feel the rush of air from their wingbeats and the clifftops are covered in Shags, Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Guillemots as Fulmars soar by on stiff outstretched wings. Around the Puffin burrows, groups of Black-headed Gulls sit and wait for the return of what should, on the face of it, be an easy meal. It doesn’t always work out that way though, and the melee provides excellent photo opportunities. That chaos is the Farne Islands strength as a location for our photography workshops though. The wildlife is approachable and obliging, so it’s a great place to concentrate on learning, and practicing, new photography techniques.
We’ve still got a few spaces available for our Farne Islands photography workshop this Saturday (July 5th), so give us a call on 01670 827465 if you’d like to come along
Even when you can see inclement weather ahead of you, there’s usually a light at the end of the tunnel
I collected Stephen from home in North Shields, and then Peter from his holiday cottage at Eshott, and we headed north towards the Northumberland coast and the Farne Islands, our destination for the afternoon. The first half of the day was planned to be a walk along the coast from High Newton, but the deteriorating weather made that an unwelcoming prospect and instead we had a ‘car as a hide’ morning of birdwatching. A Spoonbill in Budle Bay was an unexpected find and the eerie calls of Grey Seals carried through the mist and drizzle across the low-tide mudflats.
Then the light at the end of the tunnel appeared, well not so much a light as an incandescent ball of wildlife magic. We were eating lunch, and looking forward to the journey across to the islands, when Peter said “They look like dolphins off the end of the rocks”. I lifted my binoculars and the view was filled with Bottlenose Dolphins :-) We watched as they passed close to the shore, then they settled and began feeding between Bamburgh Castle and Inner Farne. A quick text to William meant that, by the time we arrived at the harbour, all of his skippers knew where the dolphins were and our journey across to the islands included several minutes with them bow-riding our boat. I’ve been studying this group of dolphins for the last three months, and some inital findings are in MARINElife’s press release. Following a cruise around the islands, we landed on Inner Farne. One of the wardens mentioned that the Bridled Tern had been seen, and a quick sacn soon revealed it’s location in amongst the roosting Arctic, Common and Sandwich Terns. Here are a few pictures of this stunning seabird from last year on Inner Farne
After an hour amongst the Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Shags and terns, we crossed back to the mainland and headed south. Miserable morning, magical afternoon
Whenever I head out for a day guiding clients, I have a plan. Occasionally we deviate from that plan…
I was heading to collect Liz and Mark from the Lord Crewe in Bamburgh, for their Farne Islands prestige tour, and I thought I knew what we’d be doing throughout the day – a walk along the coast in the morning, picnic lunch overlooking the Farne Islands and then the 13:00 sailing on Glad Tidings. Simple, straightforward and a routine we’ve followed so many times with almost military precision.
However, just before I arrived in Bamburgh, Alan P. played a wild card “Hi Martin, the dolphins are in Newbiggin Bay”. This introduced another option for the morning…a drive south to try and catch up with the pod of Bottlenose Dolphins that have been hanging around the north east coast since late March. I presented the options to Liz and Mark and they didn’t hesitate to decide on a wild dolphin chase :-) Alan was sending texts to keep me up-to-date with the location of the pod, so the latest information I had as we reached southeast Northumberland was that they’d headed south. A day earlier I’d tracked them down the coast at the same time of day, so I thought they may well have repeated their movements. It isn’t always that simple though, so I headed for a viewpoint that would give us the widest possible spread of coastline in view. That strategy proved the best one as, away to the north, but further offshore than they’d been earlier in the morning, we could see a dark dorsal fin breaking the surface close behind a small fishing boat :-) Having located the pod distantly, we headed for a much closer viewpoint, and enjoyed prolonged views of ~16 Bottlenose Dolphins as they surfaced, breached, and charged through what was presumably a large shoal of Mackerel. As the pod headed north, it was time for us to do the same so that I could get the day back on track.
Lunch was followed by a trip to Inner Farne in a stiff cold breeze. The cliffs were echoing with the onomatopaeic calls of Kittiwake, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were coming off the clifftops like guided missiles as they headed out to fish, Gannets soared effortlessly by on the breeze, Fulmars arced around the cliff faces on stiff wings, Grey Seals were hauled out, soaking up the rays, and Cormorant and Shag seemed to be causing confusion amongst some passengers on the boat. As we waited to land at the Inner Farne jetty, a call stood out from the general background mayhem of a seabird breeding colony; ‘choo-it, choo-it’, so distinctive, and a ghostly pale Roseate Tern flew just above our heads before landing with the Arctic, Sandwich and Common Terns roosting near the jetty. On the island we ducked to avoid the attention of some rather agitated Arctic Terns, and concentrated on Liz’s aim for the afternoon – getting a good photograph of a Puffin :-) There were plenty of obliging models to choose from, and we watched as birds returning to their burrows with beaks filled with sandeel were mobbed by Black-headed Gulls. After the chaos of the island, we finished the afternoon relaxing in the dunes at Bamburgh, eating carrot cake as Meadow Pipits and Skylarks sang and displayed in the sky around us
Seeing a familiar location, in unfamiliar conditions, can be like visiting somewhere for the first time. Over the years nearly all of our trips to the Farne Islands have been in glorious weather. I could never be blase about the islands, but sometimes I hope for a new experience…
I arrived at Seahouses Harbour just after 11:30 to meet up with Melanie and Gustavo. Melanie is a journalist from Germany, currently writing a piece about Northumberland, and I’d been asked to be her guide to the Northumberland coast (Farne Islands, Bamburgh Castle, Holy Island). We hit a snag straight away – they’d been delayed in Alnwick and didn’t arrive in Seahouses in time for our sailing around the islands! A quick change of our booking, and a drive to Bamburgh for the quickest tour of the castle imaginable (thanks to Chris and his staff) and we were back in Seahouses for the 13:30 sailing. The earlier sailing had gone out in fine weather, but this one was cold, densely overcast and drizzly; very, very drizzly. The sea was mirror calm all around the islands, disturbed only by the patter of raindrops, revealing huge rafts of Puffins, Guillemots andRazorbills. Kittiwakes shrieked from the cliff faces, Fulmars glided effortlessly overhead and Grey Seals watched warily as we passed by. Common, Arctic andSandwich Terns were fishing, Shags and Cormorants were standing, sentinel like, on the rocks and Gannets passed by on their way to and from distant feeding grounds.
It really did feel like a completely different experience to usual, and Holy Island in the rain, although it’s a very special place too, was going to struggle to match that strange other-worldliness of a seabird colony in the gloom
Last Thursday should have been a bespoke photography trip to the Farne Islands, but a discussion with William on Wednesday evening confirmed what the forecast had been suggesting for a few days – heavy easterly swell would make it impractical to sail. I was out and about in the drizzle so Sarah got in touch with John, David and Sheila and we rearranged the trip for Saturday instead.
That turned out to be an excellent decision, with Saturday dawning dry, bright, sunny and with only a hint of a breeze. We arrived in Seahouses just after 09:00 and were soon onboard Glad Tidings II, with William at the helm, on our way to Staple Island, passing groups of Grey Seals lazing in the sunshine. Staple can be a difficult island to land passengers on, but it’s always worth the effort. Puffins with beakfuls of sandeels were next to the landing and many photographers from our boat didn’t make it any further on to the island for quite some time. Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Shags, Guillemots and Razorbills are all good photographic subjects, Puffins are the real stars of the island but there were some very accessible female Eiders incubating too. A frequent mantra that I try to instill into our photography clients is to choose their battles carefully – whatever focal length lens you have, there’s always the opportunity to take stunning images. Don’t frustrate yourself by trying to over-reach the performance of your equipment. I had a camera with a 70-200mm lens in my rucksack – not a long focal length, but enough when you’ve got a subject quite close. We explored bits of the island looking for a spot that offered Puffins in flight at reasonable distance, and the best bit of the morning on Staple came during our lunch break, when Puffins were flying so close overhead that you could hear the whirring of their wings, and everyone sat back, relaxed and tried to second-guess which direction each Puffin was going to fly :-) With a lovely group of clients, the day was a real pleasure, and we were soon on Glad Tidings IV, transferring to Inner Farne for the afternoon. Inner Farne offers similar to Staple, but with the addition of Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns and we explored the island in search of photographic subjects. The first three images below are my own. Puffinin flight, Black-headed Gull tussling with Puffin, Arctic Tern and Common Tern images are all (c) J. Spence. Many thanks to John for letting us use his stunning images in this blog post
Beautiful weather, great clients and the ‘Galapagos of the North’ – what a great end to the month, although for NEWT the month wasn’t quite over yet…
Probably my favourite pelagic of all of the North Sea pelagic trips that we run (although I enjoy all of them immensely!) is our 10hr Farne Deeps – Northumberland’s ‘Ultimate Pelagic’. The forecast looked about as promising as it gets and I arrived at Royal Quays in good time, to discover that most of our participants were already there :-) This was just a day before I would be heading south to the British Birdwatching Fair and five of our participants would also be visiting Rutland over the coming weekend.
As we sailed north east we soon found our first cetaceans of the day, a small pod of Harbour Porpoise. 10 minutes later our progress northeast was slowed as we enjoyed prolonged views of a Minke Whale. Continuing towards the Farne Deeps, a deep-water offshore area that I’ve been interested in since the late 1990′s and the North East Cetacean Project has been surveying since 2009, we encountered our first White-beaked Dolphins of the trip. In an interesting rolling swell seabirds were passing by too; Fulmars, Gannets, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, Great and Arctic Skuas and the occasional Puffin all attracted interest. Small groups of White-beaked Dolphins were found in locations where we expected them before we headed further offshore to the area that we’ve shown to hold large aggregations of dolphins in the mid-late summer. Almost exactly where we would expect them to be we found several dolphins breaching. Others began bow-riding and soon there were groups of White-beaked Dolphins in every direction; tail-slapping, breaching, spy-hopping and just generally performing. Eventually as many as 60 of these stunningly beautiful dolphins were in view and all of the photographers on board were busy filling their memory cards. 16 years of organising North Sea pelagic trips and they just get better every year
Sometimes things go right, sometimes things go wrong, and sometimes things go just right and completely wrong all at the same time…
We set sail from Beadnell with a full boat, and stopped just outside the harbour to ask a local yachtsman if he’d seen any whales or dolphins during the day. “Yes, White-beaked Dolphins, about 6 of them, 3 miles E of Boulmer…6 hours ago”. Even though his sighting was before lunchtime, it was still encouraging news, particularly as our plan was to head south as far as Boulmer anyway.
Gannets, Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins were soon spotted and then, as we headed from Craster towards Boulmer, Andy spotted a dark shape away to the east. We stopped and waited, then it surfaced again. Guessing where it would surface next I lifted my binoculars and then almost dropped them as the centrally-placed, upright, dorsal fin of an Orca passed across my field of view! I’m notoriously sceptical of claims of Orca in the north east but, with over 1000h offshore, I always thought I’d bump into one eventually I needed a longer lens on my camera so I reached into my camera bag, took out a 300mm f2.8, removed the 70-200 from the camera…and then broke the camera lens mount as I tried to attach the longer lens :-( As the distant dark shape appeared again, still heading slowly north, we suddenly had White-beaked Dolphins close by too. Eventually we had ~20 of them close to the boat, and I was stuck with one broken camera and a spare camera body that had decided that it wasn’t going to communicate properly with the lens. I managed to get a few record shots of the dolphins, and planned to set my alarm for early on Sunday morning so I could try to sort out camera issues before heading offshore on a North East Cetacean Project survey.
In late July there are a few species that we’d be amazed to not find on a North Sea pelagic trip; Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Kittiwake, Fulmar and Gannet are all great birds to see, and are all part of the experience that is the North Sea in mid-summer. There are other species that can overshadow the regular cast list though; Sooty Shearwater is a real ‘birders bird’, close views of any of the skuas grab the attention and, with seabirds covering such vast distances, there’s always the possibility of something completely unexpected. But, for crowd-pleasing spectacular there’s little that can compete with our marine mammals. Grey Seals often pop their heads up as we pass, but the real awe-inspiring species are whales and dolphins. Our previous pelagic had been illuminated by Minke Whales but on this trip we were confident of finding a different species. Ten years of finding, studying, and mapping the distribution of, White-beaked Dolphins gives us a narrow target area to search in the third week in July…
As we headed north, a shout from Jimmy alerted everyone to the presence of a small pod of dolphins ahead of us. Sure enough, the White-beaked Dolphins came across to investigate our boat and we soon had 12 of them around us :-) Once I was sure that everyone had seen them – which didn’t take too long! – I waited for them to surface alongside us so that I could take photographs of their dorsal fins. Through a combination of NEWT pelagic trips and survey work for the North East Cetacean Project, we’ve built up a catalogue of individual White-beaked Dolphins off the Northumberland coast. Having been the first pelagic tour operator to regularly find White-beaked Dolphins off the Northumberland coast, and the only one to have contributed to the Marine Conservation Zones project, we’re proud to have been involved in leading the way in groundbreaking research to map the distribution and abundance of White-beaked Dolphins. We’d like to thank all of our clients who’ve contributed, and continue to contribute, to the catalogue too
Of course, dolphin dorsal fin images aren’t the most exciting shots you can get, and the glassy calm water produced lots of other interesting possibilities…
It was a chance I wasn’t going to miss; I was on the PV St Oswald, we were about to pass the SarahJFK in the River Tyne at North Shields, Sarah was on board with 10 of our clients and a late withdrawal had left a space free :-) The smoothest of ship-to-ship transfers – accomplished by two excellent skippers who I would trust with my life – took place, and I was heading back out into the North Sea for another 4hr sailing
Heading back to the location of the last White-beaked Dolphin sighting I’d had during the survey, we were on the North Sea in quite remarkable conditions. So flat that it looked like glass, Gannets, Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were all reflected in the glassy surface. A small group of dolphins surfaced, but only myself on the starboard side, and Jon on the back of the boat on the port side managed to see them as they were directly in front of us. We continued our search as a spectacular sunset started to develop and then, as we headed back through the area where the dolphins had been, and it suddenly turned overcast, Ruth said “there’s something over there”. That something was a Minke Whale, and soon everyone on board had excellent views as it surfaced and fed :-) Could it get any better? Of course it could…then there were 2 together! Away to the south, what was, probably, a 3rd Minke Whale surfaced and then the sort of magic that our summer evening North Sea pelagic trips seem to produce so often happened. The sun broke through the clouds and I could see some interesting photographic opportunities developing…as long as the whale was going to be obliging
We’ve got a few spaces remaining on some of this year’s North Sea pelagic trips so give us a call on 01670 827465 to find out what’s available and to book your place. You’ll get to spend time on the North Sea and all of the sightings we make on our pelagic trips are contributing to a genuinely groundbreaking research project that’s the only one providing vital information about the distribution and abundance of Northumberland’s whales, dolphins and porpoises, to the ongoing Marine Conservation Zones process.