Farne Islands

Farne Islands; Beginners Photography Workshop 28/06/2014

by on Jul.02, 2014, under Birdwatching, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Photography

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.

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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 🙂

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A game of two halves; Farne Islands Safari 24/06/2014

by on Jul.01, 2014, under Birdwatching, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

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

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After an hour amongst the Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Shags and terns, we crossed back to the mainland and headed south.  Miserable morning, magical afternoon 🙂

 

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Bottlenose Dolphins; Farne Islands safari 06/06/2014

by on Jun.11, 2014, under Birdwatching, Druridge Bay, Farne Islands, Northumberland

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 🙂

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Drizzle; Farne Islands Press Trip 04/06/2014

by on Jun.10, 2014, under Birdwatching, Farne Islands, Northumberland

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 andRazorbillsKittiwakes 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 🙂

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Choosing your battles; Farne Islands bespoke photography trip 31/05/2014

by on Jun.02, 2014, under Birdwatching, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Photography

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…

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Unbridled Passion

by on Jul.02, 2013, under Birdwatching, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Photography

I love a lot of things; seabirds, cetaceans, Northumberland, photography and, of course, Sarah 🙂

When news broke yesterday that a Bridled Tern had been discovered roosting near the jetty on Inner Farne I immediately began wondering whether it would hang around until today and, if it did, how could I fit a visit to Inner Farne into my schedule, between office work this morning and a meeting with the Northumberland Wildlife Trust this afternoon?  After getting a few of my admin tasks out of the way first thing, a quick ‘phone call to Billy Shiel’s booking office secured my place on a sailing at 10:00.  The drive north on the A1 was plagued by the ever-present worry that accompanies a twitch – would the bird still be there?

Arriving at Seahouses harbour in good time for the sailing I was chatting to William Shiel when he mentioned that he was about to send a boat across to the islands to collect one of his crew…and would I like to go across on that one?  So, I had the extraordinary experience of being the only passenger on Glad Tidings IV and was soon watching the tern, although it was quite distant.  The 10:00 boat arrived and the birders on it had a view of the bird for about five seconds before it flew off.  At about 11:00 I heard the bird calling, but it couldn’t be located anywhere in the roost.  Then, half an hour later, Phil found it roosting on the rocks just below a group of Puffins.  As boats arrived and collected their passengers, I was eventually left on the island with two other birders and a few of the National Trust Rangers.

We could see our boat heading across Staple Sound from the outer islands then, the stuff of dreams; the roosting terns lifted and the Bridled Tern flew past us, then back, then past us, then towards us…then settled on the rocks no more than 30′ away 🙂

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With excellent help from William and his skippers, the very accommodating Farne Islands rangers who were ‘enjoying’ the unusual experience of visitors on Inner Farne in a morning, and the remarkably obliging Bridled Tern posing in front of my camera, I headed back down the A1 for my meeting full of enthusiasm…not that I’m ever anything other than enthusiastic when meeting with NWT of course 😉

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Sailing the ocean blue; Seal Safari 20/06/2013

by on Jun.26, 2013, under Bamburgh Castle, Farne Islands, Grey Seal, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

In any list of ‘Northumberland’s Big 5’ there will always be disagreements about the species that should be included.  One species that really epitomises the wildlife of North Northumberland is the ‘hook-nosed sea pig’…or Grey Seal to give it a less offensive handle than the translation of it’s Latin name 😉

I collected John and Jennifer from Church Point and we drove northwards along the Northumberland coast.  Arriving in Seahouses, ready for our Seal Cruise on Glad Tidings V, conditions were near perfect; beautiful blue sky, calm sea and just the slight breeze that always seems to be present on the coast, even on calm days.  As the distance between ourselves and the mainland increased, streams of Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills were heading to and from the islands, Gannets were passing by in impressive groups, Cormorants and Shags were sitting like sentinels at the gates of some mystical wildlife world and then we came across the seals.  Bathing in the sunshine, and only occasionally lifting their heads to avoid unexpected sprays of breaking surf, they allowed a close approach that had an entire boat full of camera-wielding visitors clicking away like a knitting circle.

Back on dry land we sat and had lunch, just along the coast from the impressive bulk of Bamburgh Castle, and then continued north to look for more seals.  As high tide approached they could be seen ‘bottling’ close to Holy Island, and we made our way back down the coast.

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Back to school

by on Jun.21, 2013, under Farne Islands, Northumberland, Photography

Occasionally I still get to do the whole school teacher role…but it’s enjoyable for me and my students 🙂

I met up with Carol at Seahouses Harbour last Saturday for an all-day one-to-one photography session, only to learn the inevitable – conditions weren’t suitable for landing on Staple Island, so we were going to be sailing at noon, and spending 3hrs on Inner Farne.  We had a wander down the coast and worked through all of the relevant settings on Carol’s camera, so that once we were on the island and the air was filled with birds, the only thing to concentrate on would be technique; camera settings were all sorted and should take care of themselves 🙂  It was a rewarding afternoon as Carol soon worked out where to stand to get the shot she was after, how to decide which bird to follow through the lens and when to hit the shutter release.  Minor adjustments to camera settings were made as needed and the birds offered lots of opportunities.  Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots, Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Shags all passed before the lens and Carol was delighted at her ability to capture that classic Farnes shot of a Puffin flying with beak filled with Sandeels.

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Tuesday brought another Farnes photography session, this time the latest in our Beginners Photography series.  Dave had been with us on our Dawn on the Coast session in April, and was back for something a bit warmer at a more civilised time of the day 🙂  We sailed around the islands before landing on Inner Farne.  Puffins were again flying by with substantial beakfuls of Sandeels and the cold southerly breeze was a reminder of the often harsh conditions faced by the Farne Islands birds (and Rangers!), even during the summer months.  I’ll be giving a talk about the Farne Islands at the Bird Fair at Rutland Water this year so if you’re there please do come along and find out more about this extraordinary wildlife experience.

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Seabird Spectacular 10-13 June 2013; birdwatching on the Northumberland coast

by on Jun.13, 2013, under Birdwatching, Coquet Island, Druridge Bay, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

Arriving at The Swan on Monday evening I met up with Ronnie and Liz at the start of our Seabird Spectacular holiday.  Of all of our holidays, this is the one that concentrates on the really outstanding wildlife available on the Northumberland coast in the summer.

Tuesday started out very nice, although cloud cover was increasing and, by lunchtime, eventually it was overcast, misty and spotting with rain.  We’d spent the morning around Druridge Bay, with one of the highlights being a very obliging male Reed Bunting who sat just a few metres away from us and sang for over 20 minutes, Wall and Green-veined White Butterflies flitted across the tracks ahead of us, Sedge and Reed Warblers played hide-and-seek in the edge of the reeds and a male Marsh Harrier quartered a reedbed, giving prolonged views at relatively close range.  As we ate lunch, overlooking the North Sea, watching Eiders, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Gannets, the southeasterly breeze was starting to build a noticeable swell…

The inevitable happened and our planned sailing around Coquet Island was cancelled on safety grounds, so we continued around Druridge Bay.  Sandwich Terns and a Grey Seal were near the weir between Amble and Warkworth and we ended up watching five Otters as they munched their way through a feast of Eels 🙂 A Great Northern Diver flew south between Coquet Island and the mainland and we could see clouds of Puffins and a few ghostly white Roseate Terns from our clifftop vantage point.  Swifts were around in good numbers – a scythe-winged menace to flying insects – and at the end of the day we returned to The Swan and were joined for dinner by Sarah.

After Tuesday’s cancelled boat trip it was a relief to see that the wind had died down by Wednesday morning, and our all-day birdwatching trip to the Farne Islands went ahead as planned.  There were lines of Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills streaming back towards the islands, Gannets were effortlessly heading either to or from the Bass Rock, and the sights, sounds and smells of the seabird colony were just a few minutes away when we came across two Harbour Porpoises. Cormorants and Shags perched sentinel-like  on the Scarcar rocks and landing on Staple Island we watched Guillemots, Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Razorbills, Shags and Rock Pipits at close range before having our picnic lunch in superb weather conditions on this magical rock just a few miles offshore from the Northumberland coast.  Transferring across to Inner Farne at 13:00, via a brief detour to look at the Grey Seals lazing in the sunshine, we were greeted by Head Ranger David Steel and then enjoyed the very different experience of running the gauntlet of a succession of angry Arctic TernsCommon and Sandwich Terns were around too, and we watched Puffins skilfully avoiding the attention of Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.  A pair of Rock Pipits nesting beneath the boardwalk were carrying beakfuls of food and I had a Farnes ‘tick’ in the shape of a Swift soaring over the lighthouse buildings.  We tried to find a Roseate Tern in amongst the roost by the Inner Farne jetty, but without success.  Back to The Swan for tea, reflection on a successful day and my Plan B…

Today was planned to be a one-day extension to the holiday, visiting the North Pennines, but we’ve moved that to tomorrow and the ladies have an extra afternoon out with me, to take the boat trip around Coquet Island 🙂

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Seal of approval

by on Sep.18, 2012, under Bamburgh Castle, Farne Islands, Grey Seal, North Sea, Northumberland

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…

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