Tag: Shag

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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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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Against the light

by on Aug.03, 2012, under Birdwatching, Farne Islands, North Sea, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

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.

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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…

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Some Hobby

by on Jul.02, 2012, under Bamburgh Castle, Birdwatching, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

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 🙂

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Farne Islands 20/06/2012

by on Jun.26, 2012, under Birdwatching, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Northumberland Coast

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 🙂

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Farne Islands 11/06/2012

by on Jun.15, 2012, under Birdwatching, Farne Islands, Northumberland, Photography

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 🙂

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North East Marine Wildlife Festival Pelagic 10/06/2012

by on Jun.13, 2012, under Farne Islands, North Sea, Northumberland

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?”…

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