In near-perfect conditions we arrived at Seahouses yesterday evening for our 3hr coastal cruise on Ocean Explorer. As well as some of our ‘regulars’ we had Andy, Jan and Sam on board, on their final evening in Northumberland.
Soon after heading south down the coast towards Dunstanburgh we came across a couple of Harbour Porpoises. Typically shy, they surfaced a few times and then vanished into the depths. Gannets featured throughout the evening, passing both north and south, and one or two were seen diving. Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were bobbing about on the water and a mixed flock of Arctic and Common Terns and Kittiwakes had found something to hold their interest. We stopped to see if anything else would come along, and were soon joined by a Fulmar, stunning in the beautiful light.
We gradually headed north, and approached the Farne Islands as the sun began to set. Grey Seals poked their heads out of the water and came off the rocks to investigate our boat, Cormorants and Shags perched sentinel-like on the rocky islets, Turnstones prodded and poked their way around the edge of the mass of Seals and Sam punched the air in elation as his first Curlew flew by The setting sun provided an opportunity to experiment with an aspect of photography that I’ve never really been able to get to grips with, and one which I’ve always been fairly ambivalent about. Excellent light, excellent location, all the ingredients were there to convince me…
As I got home on Tuesday night after our evening pelagic the rain was still hammering down. With a forecast of more rain for Wednesday, and a planned Farne Islands safari, I started thinking about a contingency plan as I dried off all of my camera equipment.
Wednesday dawned…with more heavy rainfall. I needed an idea of what was happening further north and a quick text to William was soon answered; the rain in Seahouses was light and sea conditions were fine so boats were sailing I collected Louise and Martin from Warkworth and we headed north along some decidedly damp roads. A morning birdwatching on the Northumberland coast, including Grey Seal, Roe Deer, Swallow nestlings, Shelduck, Eider, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank and a very obliging Whitethroat, was followed by a lunch break just north of Bamburgh Castle, and then it was time to board Glad Tidings for the sailing across to the islands. With a bit of swell on the sea, a chilly wind kicking spray from the bow, and another oppressive sky the islands were incredibly atmospheric. Puffins were sitting in huge rafts just off the islands, Guillemots and Razorbills were flying back to the cliff ledges with fish, Gannets were soaring majestically by the boat, Grey Seals lazed in the surf and Kittiwakes called incessantly from their precipitous nest sites. As we landed on Inner Farne the aerial bombardment from the Arctic Terns was much reduced from the level of recent weeks, and there were plenty of young terns trying out their wings in short flights across the boardwalk. Sandwich Terns were carrying food back to quite large chicks and the island seemed to be awash with Puffins. Every flat area next to the sheer cliff faces was covered in them and hundreds were flying around the island. Louise, like many of our clients when seeing Puffins for the first time said “Aren’t they small”. Everyone expects them to be bigger than they actually are. Kittiwake chicks were almost too big for the nest ledges, and Razorbills and Guillemots were watched at close quarters too. With the poor weather the number of visitors to the island was quite low, making for quite a different experience to our trips earlier this year when all of the boats were full.
Most of our Farne Islands trips this year have been on Glad Tidings 1, and Bobby and Billy always keep their passengers entertained. Now, as I look out of my office window while I’m typing this on a fine, dry, sunny afternoon, Bobby’s words, as he delivered us safely back to Seahouses come to mind “Aye, it’s improved. Now it’s like a fine autumn day rather than a bad winter one”.
Wednesday was a trip that I’d been looking forward to for some time. Syd is a regular client, and always very entertaining, and this time around his son Gavin was booked with him as well, for a Farne Islands safari.
With plenty of comments on Twitter in the weeks leading up to the trip, we were all praying for good sea conditions for the day. The forecast suggested that the afternoon could be a bit wet so I thought about visiting Staple Island instead of Inner Farne, before satisfying myself that it would stay dry for us in the afternoon and sticking with my original plan of walking along the dunes at Newton in the morning, and catching the 1pm boat to Inner Farne. The morning walk produced lots of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits as well as Common Blue Butterflies and Northern Marsh, Pyramidal and Bee Orchids. The tern colony was a hive of activity, with the Arctic Terns bringing food to their chicks and some Little Terns engaging in some late season breeding activity. While we were there, the terns kept lifting from the dunes in a ‘dread’ but the source of their concern wasn’t immediately obvious. Myself and the wardens commented that it was what we would expect if a Peregrine was passing over, but scanning the sky overhead didn’t produce the menacing shape of that particular predator. Eventually we did spot a raptor, although not an expected one, as a Marsh Harrier flew south along the fields inland from the terns. After having our lunch stop in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, we took the short drive to Seahouses. Approaching Monk’s House Pool, Syd and Gavin had the bird of the day as a Hobby flew north over the roadside fields.
We boarded Glad Tidings IV for the journey across to the islands and sat next to local birder TC, who had watched all of the hirundines in Seahouses start alarming…just a few minutes before the Hobby was between Seahouses and Bamburgh. After the sailing around the islands, with their Grey Seals, Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Shags and Common, Sandwich and Arctic Terns, we landed on Inner Farne and Gavin concentrated on photographing Puffins. We were ‘treated’ (if that’s the right word…) to an example of just how cruel nature can be as a Kittiwake chick wandered away from it’s nest and towards the edge of the ledge. It turned back from the edge, made it’s way unsteadily back to the nest, and was promptly tossed over the edge of the cliff by the adult! As it landed on the next ledge down, it was attacked and killed by 2 juvenile Shags in front of a group of horrified onlookers.
After nearly 2 hours on Inner Farne, we boarded Glad Tidings for the journey back to the mainland…and the first few drops of rain fell as we reached the top of the steps on the harbour
Our Farne Islands Safari last Wednesday continued the theme of returning clients; Christina was on her third successive day out with us (and fifth in total), Barry and Maureen were back again after an Otter Safari in 2010 and Rob and Lesley were with us for the first time (but have another trip booked for September).
I’ve visited the Farne Islands countless times over the years, and it’s still as magical an experience as it was the first time. As the boat pulls out of Seahouses harbour, and you can see the islands on the horizon, the pulse starts to quicken. Soon you’re sailing through rafts of Shags, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills, birds are racing by with beaks filled with fish and then the characteristic smell of a seabird colony hits you, Grey Seals are bobbing up and down in the water and the nesting cliffs tower overhead. Once you’re on the islands the real experience is the aggressive nest defence by the Arctic Terns. It always amazes me how many visitors to the islands seem either unprepared, or simply unaware, of what’s waiting for them once they get off the boat
What made Wednesday so special though was the weather. The sea was mirror-calm and once we were on the islands conditions were stunning. It was a real privilege to be there with a group of clients, to experience the delights of a seabird colony with them, and to be able to appreciate the wider landscape of Northumberland from that offshore position. It was interesting to see everyone taking their own approach to enjoying the experience; having a good walk around and looking at everything…finding a quiet place to sit and savouring the whole experience from that spot…concentrating one that one seabird species that’s missing from the photo archive.
Whether I’m leading a ‘normal’ Safari Day, or working with photography clients, we always hope for the sort of weather that last week delivered
Monday was an all-day Farne Islands Safari with Mike and Maggie, who I was really happy to meet up with again after their two trips with us last October.
All-day trips to the islands always face one particular hurdle – landing on Staple Island. Big tides and any appreciable swell make getting on to the island an interesting proposition and, after our boatman had looked at the swell and decided it wasn’t safe, we had a tour around the outer islands before returning to Staple as the tide fell. This time all were able to disembark safely, although a number of passengers were struggling to follow the very clear instructions they had been given by Billy and Bobby about how to get off the boat and on to the island!
Staple is always a popular island with our clients. You can get on with your photography without the constant aerial bombardment from the Arctic Terns that make Inner Farne such an exciting place to visit Mike has the same camera that I use so we went through the custom settings to make photographing birds in flight a (slightly) easier proposition, and I settled to spotting approaching photo opportunities while Mike concentrated on the scene through his viewfinder, with Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes, Shags and Fulmars all performing well. Inner Farne in the afternoon was a different proposition altogether; early June is the time when the Arctic Terns are at their most defensive and aggressive - pity the visitors who turned up without hats Judging wind speed and direction, and the position of the Sun, led us to the right spot to photograph Puffins as they arrived back from their fishing expeditions and Mike was able to put his newly learned techniques into practice. After a day,which seemed much too short, we were on our way back to the mainland, and discussing Mike and Maggie’s next trip north and what we’d do next time. When the company of our clients is as enjoyable as the wildlife, it’s always a good day
Our Marine Wildlife Festival pelagic trip should have taken place on Saturday, but the poor weather led to several ‘phone calls and e-mails, and a re-scheduling to Sunday instead.
We lost a few participants who couldn’t make the rearranged date, but we gathered a few extras on Saturday/Sunday too, and arrived at Seahouses Harbour full of enthusiasm for our first pelagic trip this year. In the extremely capable hands of John, onboard Glad Tidings V, we headed across to the Farne Islands and the Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Shags, terns, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Grey Seals. After a journey through the islands we sailed south and then east before heading back north along the coast. Harbour Porpoises provided the cetacean interest, lots of Gannets were soaring majestically by and three Manx Shearwaters flew north. The number of positive comments by text, e-mail and ‘phone, since Sunday evening has been great and it’s always good to see how much people appreciate the marine environment of the North Sea, even if it sometimes seems impenetrable.
Bird of the day though, was the one that was only seen by a couple of very lucky participants. We were a couple of miles south of the islands when someone asked the question “Martin, which Storm-petrel is it likely to be that we saw back there?”…
Thursday was another day for returning clients, as I collected Louise from her holiday accommodation at Brockmill farmhouse for a bespoke photography trip to the Farne Islands. We began, as most of our Farne Islands trips do, with a visit to a mainland tern colony. As happens so often, the Little Tern colony had been washed out by a very high tide – with all 42 pairs having abandoned their nests. The 250 pairs of Arctic Terns was also a long way below the number that had been there, with the tides having washed away the majority of that colony as well. Lots of the Arctic Terns were displaying, so they may well manage to re-lay.
The Farne Islands, once we arrived on Inner Farne following our journey on Glad Tidings, were as spectacular as ever. Guillemots, Puffins, Razorbills, Shags, Kittiwakes and the terns offered up many photographic opportunities and it was great to enjoy all of that with a client whose views on photo agencies, camera equipment and manufacturers are always entertaining. As we stood above lighthouse cliff on Inner Farne, the weather began to change – and not for the better…
After four years of guiding visiting birdwatchers around some of the stunning habitat that we have in Northumberland, one thing we’ve learned above all else is that hardly any two people hear, or see, things the same as each other.
As I drove to Rothbury, to collect Bill, Kate, Gerry and Ieva, I was wondering what the day would bring. I knew what the weather would be like; clear blue skies, glorious sunshine, maybe a cool breeze on the coast. What had me gripped though, was what a group of clients from the US would find most entrancing about Northumberland’s wildlife.
As the day progressed I found myself seeing and hearing some of our regular species as if for the first time. With clients who were already familiar with some of our birds, but unfamiliar with others, we paid an incredible deal of attention to Tree Sparrows, Little Grebes, Shovelers, Shelducks and the other birds that we see on most, if not all, of our Druridge Bay trips. As each new species was observed, a field guide was produced to check relevant ID features (always a good approach if dealing with an unfamiliar bird). A Willow Warbler perched obligingly in full view just a few metres away, singing his descending silvery cadence, two Reed Warblers delivered their metronomic chuntering from adjacent reedbeds, Avocets dozed in the bright, warm sunshine, strings of Gannets flew northwards into the stiffening headwind, Puffins swirled around Coquet Island, Eiders bobbed about on the swell and a Turnstone, respendently white-headed on it’s northward journey to the breeding grounds, played Sanderling-like with the onrushing tide. As Kate demonstrated some excellent field ability, picking out a distant Roseate Tern, a Stonechat grabbed our attention. Starkly black and white, with a rich orange breast, as he flitted away from us along the fenceline he flashed a white rump and big white wingbars. Almost certainly a Siberian Stonechat, he evaded all of Ieva’s attempts to photograph his striking rump and then vanished across the fields in pursuit of a Meadow Pipit.
Bird of the day? I’ll leave that one to Bill “For me, it has to be Sedge Warbler“
My own highlight of many trips involves those ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ moments, and they come in many guises…
A Chiffchaff was singing as I collected Alec and Margaret from Waren Mill and we headed south down the coast toward Druridge Bay with a day of birdwatching ahead of us. In quite stunning weather we enjoyed fields of Curlew, rafts of Puffins on the sea, and clouds of them swirling over Coquet Island, Fulmars shearing along the cliff-tops, plenty of wildfowl, including a red-head Smew – thanks Gill – and Bean, Canada, White-fronted, Greylag and Pink-footed Geese and 2 Short-eared Owls. It’s always a pleasure to take out clients who really appreciate Northumberland, and even more so when it’s their first visit to our beautiful county and they’ve already vowed to return regularly.
One of those special moments was provided by a bird once described by a good birding friend as “Annoying. They never stop singing, they’re really, really annoying”. The object of his ire? None other than the humble Skylark. I have to say that I don’t find them annoying at all. I’ve hidden in rocky crags, monitoring Hen Harrier nest sites, with Skylarks singing directly overhead, I’ve walked around Holy Island in the summer with several birds singing from so high that they were just dots in the sky and I’ve marvelled at their song as it carries on the breeze. One thing we saw on Thursday was the thing that Chris found particularly annoying; as we drove from Cresswell towards Druridge Pools, we stopped to check the roadside fields and several Skylarks were singing nearby. Suddenly, one of the birds was zig-zagging as it tried to avoid the unwelcome attention of a Merlin. As the falcon chased close on it’s tail, the Skylark continued singing. It might seem a strange thing to do, but it has been shown that Merlins chase non-singing, or poorly singing, Skylarks for longer periods than they chase Skylarks that sing well and they’re more likely to catch non-singing Skylarks. As the birds rose higher and out of sight, we didn’t see the outcome of the chase, but the experience of watching a small bird filled with bravado as a predator closes in on it was one of those moments…
Saturday’s Whale and Dolphin Cruise from Seahouses turned out to be an excellent few hours of birdwatching off the Northumberland coast.
As we left the harbour, the swell of the tide had the boat rocking gently up and down. A mile or so later and we were in what I think of as ‘proper’ pelagic conditions; choppy sea, lots of whitecaps, an eerie wind whistling around the boat…and birds everywhere. The atmosphere when the North Sea is like that is filled with anticipation. A Pomarine Skua, athletic, muscular and menacing harrassed Kittiwakes, our first Great Skua of the trip (the first of several) lumbered by, Arctic Skuas flew along the wave troughs and the fragile, delicate figure of a Long-tailed Skua headed north in the rapidly strengthening wind. Fulmars soared effortlessly by, small groups of Gannets, those masters of efficient flight, featured throughout the trip and Sooty Shearwaters, a real seawatcher’s bird, entertained as they circled the boat. Added to that there were Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Manx Shearwaters and Herring, Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed and Black-headed Gulls and Arctic, Common, Sandwich and Roseate Terns. With so many whitecaps, and some ‘interesting’ swell, we weren’t fortunate enough find any cetaceans, but one participant summed up offshore wildlife so well “You’re on a boat, it’s an experience, enjoy it, you never know what you’ll see.”