There’s always something special about days out with clients who have a connection with the north east; often we’ll visit locations that they haven’t seen for a long time, and they’ll share their memories of the place. One thing that’s constant though, is that they always have a passion for Northumberland, no matter how long they’ve been away, or where they live now.
I collected Dickie and Caroline from Church Point and we set off on the drive north along the Northumberland coast, heading towards Seahouses. The main part of the trip was a Seal Cruise on Glad Tidings 5, although in the ‘stiff’ breeze I wasn’t certain that we’d be sailing. We arrived in Seahouses to be greeted by the good news that we would be sailing, and the ‘interesting’ news that a party of 30 schoolchildren was booked on the same sailing. As we headed across to the islands, with John expertly guiding the boat to avoid everyone getting wet (as far as possible!) the school party were having a whale of a time. Then when the first Grey Seals began to bob their heads up out of the water and stare at the boat they got really excited Gannets were soaring overhead, Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers were fluttering around the base of the rocks, staying just above the breaking surf, and Shags and Eiders were bobbing around in the increasing swell. After an exciting journey back to the mainland, we had our picnic stop in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, and only a few hundred yards from where Dickie and Caroline used to live. A big bull Grey Seal made his way north just beyond the surf, and Caroline went for a paddle in the icy-cold sea As we made our way back down the coast (after a Caroline-requested stop at Swallow Fish in Seahouses), the weather was an extraordinary mixture of blue sky, sunshine and that breeze…
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…
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…
Things weren’t looking too promising as I headed up the A697 to collect Ian and Barbara from their holiday accommodation at The Coach House; rain, mist and fog were all conspiring to reduce visibility. Once we were on our way towards Holy Island things improved though, and our walk on the island was in reasonable weather. Plenty of Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwits were along the water’s edge and little parties of Guillemot and Red-breasted Merganser were spotted on the relatively calm sea. Back on the mainland, things took a turn for the worse and the rain hammered down, making the mudflats seem to be boiling. The numbers of Curlew grew and grew, all demonstrating just how vigorous their feeding technique is. As everything began to disappear into the rain, the eerie calls of Grey Seals came echoing across the mud. Eider, Common Scoter, Puffin, Shag, Cormorant, Guillemot and Razorbill were all on the sea in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, Turnstones were doing just what their name suggests, 2 Little Egrets were in Budle Bay and 3 Common Buzzards were soaring around as the sun finally began to beat down on the northern edge of the Cheviots as we returned to Crookham at the end of a day of changeable weather, and good birdwatching.
I met with Geoff and Jenny, Roy and Lorraine & David and Linda on the Wednesday evening in the bar of the Bamburgh Castle Inn and, after introductions and drinks, we went upstairs to the conservatory for dinner. A steady stream of Gannets was heading north and I outlined the plan for the coming days; modified in light of the weather forecast!
An 06:30 start on Thursday morning appealed to three of the group, so we set off to walk around Seahouses Harbour and along to the golf course. Lorraine had dreamt the night before that we found a Bluethroat. Not just any Bluethroat though; a Fork-tailed Bluethroat (something that doesn’t exist…although we spent the rest of the holiday looking for one!). The heavy swell and breaking waves gave the sea an imposing look, and the strong, cold southeasterly wind and dark clouds all around added to the atmosphere. With high tide approaching, wading birds were concentrated onto just a few exposed rocks; among the Oystercatchers, Redshanks and Curlews were a single Ringed Plover and 5 summer-plumaged Knot, their peachy-orange underparts showing why, in some parts of the world, they’re known as Red Knot. A Whimbrel flew by and Linnets, Pied Wagtails, Rock Pipits and a reeling Grasshopper Warbler were all added to the day list and we headed back to the inn, and breakfast. No less than 6 Rock Pipits were outside the window during breakfast and an all too brief Hummingbird Hawkmoth whizzed by.
The main question was whether our all-day birdwatching trip to the Farne Islands with Glad Tidings would go ahead; the weather forecast wasn’t promising, and the sea looked foreboding. I was optimistic though – by our planned departure time the tide would be ebbing and should take off some of the swell. Sure enough, we boarded Glad Tidings III just after 10am and headed towards the islands. Gannets soared majestically above the swell, Puffins raced by on whirring wings and our passage wader list grew with the addition of Grey Plover and Purple Sandpiper. Grey Seals bobbed around, watching as we passed by on our way to Staple Island. Enjoyment of the breeding auks, Shags, Kittwakes and Oystercatchers was enhanced by the wild feeling of the islands, as waves smashed into the cliffs and fountained high above the birds. Transferring to Inner Farne at 1pm, we were the first group onto the island for the day. The Arctic Terns gave us their usual warm welcome and we spent the afternoon enjoying the fascinating bird behaviour that can be witnessed at close range. The group were keen to fix the separation criteria for Common and Arctic Terns firmly in mind, so we spent some time looking carefully at lots of birds and considering individual variation. We spent a lot of time watching Puffins as well; not an identification problem, but endearing and fascinating! With mobs of Black-headed Gulls waiting to rob the adult Puffins as they return with beaks filled with Sand eels, the Puffins have quickly developed strategies to deal with this; circling back out over the sea until the gulls have moved away from your burrow is an obvious one, but the one that is most fascinating involves a Puffin running into another bird’s burrow, waiting until the gulls have moved and then running to another burrow – sometimes visiting as many as 5 or 6 sanctuaries before reaching their own chick. In an increasingly heavy swell, the journey back to the mainland was quite an experience.
After postponing our Seal and Seaduck Special last Saturday (sea conditions were ideal, but it would have been really irresponsible to encourage anyone to drive on Northumberland’s roads at the time) we arrived at Seahouses Harbour yesterday morning ready for our final boat trip of the year.
Everyone was well wrapped-up and we were soon boarding Glad Tidings VI. As we sailed out of the harbour a veritable battery of long lenses was produced in readiness for the anticipated wildlife. With a skipper and crewman with excellent eyesight and wildlife-spotting skills, 2 NEWT guides, and clients with sharp eyes as well, the boat was soon being manouvered to offer the best possible opportunities to view or photograph the wildlife. After 13 years of organising offshore wildlife trips we know the importance of the skipper to the success (or otherwise…) of the trip and, with Craig and William, we were in excellent hands.
The first half of the trip concentrated on the Farne Islands themselves. A lot of the Grey Seals had well-grown pups, quite a few of the adults were moulting and there were a couple of cow seals still heavily pregnant.
Shags were sitting around on the islands, Little Auks were bobbing about like corks in the increasing swell, and we had a brief view of a Black Guillemot as it flew from Gun Rock towards Inner Farne. Heading north we enjoyed the sunny (but cold) weather and scoured the sea just south of Holy Island. Plenty of Eider were sitting around, along with a pair of Scaup and several Red-breasted Mergansers but a Slavonian Grebe near Guile Point proved elusive. Red-throated and Great Northern Divers were seen but in much smaller numbers than we would normally expect. The journey back down the coast featured one of our favourite birds; Long-tailed Ducks were sitting around in groups of 10-15 and offering some excellent photo opportunities.30 or 40 Common Scoters proved a bit more skittish and didn’t come near the boat. 2 Gannets were a bit of a surprise before we returned to the harbour.
Although the wildlife was very obliging perhaps the best thing about the day was the truly beautiful lighting conditions, a real bonus for wildlife photography and something that all of the photographers on board commented on. We can’t control the light, or the weather, but we keep taking clients to the right places at the right time…