Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Farne Islands 9th July 2014

During the past couple of years I have been slowly catching up on visiting all those birding places that you hear a lot about and then make a mental note to go and see  but somehow never manage to get round to actually visiting.

Well, so far I have been to Fair Isle last year, Skomer earlier this year and now have been to the Farne Islands. In fact I did go to the Farnes last year to twitch a Bridled Tern with Justin  but never got to fully explore the islands and experience the amazing 'ternfest' that annually occurs in the breeding season. The Bridled Tern had returned this year but unfortunately was not around on our visit but no matter the 'tern experience' was just as good if not better.

Terry and myself set off from my home at 5am on Tuesday for the six hour drive to Seahouses in Northumberland where we had two seats booked on Serenity Boat Tours, one of the local companies that take visitors out to the islands. It is an awfully long way to Seahouses, 335 miles to be precise and never was the 'Far' in Farne Islands more apposite. Mind you we did not help ourselves by driving up the M6 when we should have gone up the M1 to join the A1, which was my fault for not concentrating and necessitated a thirty minute backtrack to get on the right road. This achieved we eventually found ourselves slowly winding our way north, caught up in the nightmare that is the A1, all average speed checks for mile upon tedious mile, and hours later passing the landmark of The Angel of the North, now orange with rust and not in my opinion quite the sensational sculpture it used to be. Then ominously, dark grey clouds covered the land and it started to rain as we passed Newcastle, coming down in torrents, flooding patches of road and my heart sank as I anticipated the purgatory of being on an open boat in this deluge and noting there was not a sign of a break in the lowering clouds. The online forecast we belatedly consulted, predicted heavy rain until mid afternoon so we pulled in to a layby and I called Serenity Boat Tours and expressed my concerns about the weather and asked about the possibility of changing our booking and to my surprise was advised that at Seahouses, only twenty miles away, it was hardly raining at all. I could hardly believe it but as we neared Seahouses the sky was indeed clear but when we got there the rain clouds caught up with us and inevitably so did the rain. We waited in the car hoping for the heavy rain to pass and miraculously, twenty minutes later it did  allowing us to keep to our original booking

Each shed contains a rival boat tour company. No lack of choice here!

Terry ready to board the boat
We had a quick look around the harbour and found a few female Eider then it was back to the car for a change into wet weather gear in case it rained again and now it was time to board onto Serenity Two, the boat that would take us out to the islands. 

Female Eider Duck
Unsurprisingly, considering the earlier downpour, there were not that many of us venturing out to the islands and those that did join the boat were mainly tourists and as far as I could see we were the only die hard birders. Instead of the ship's cat we had for company an elderly large collie type dog, presumably belonging to Andrew the skipper.

An Old Sea Dog!
The boat does an hour's sightseeing tour of the various islands before landing its passengers at Inner Farne so we got a little bit of interesting local history from the skipper over the tannoy as we progressed from island to island and the welcome opportunity to get very close to the colonies of Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Puffins. Not so welcome was the unsavoury wafts of rotten fish and guano coming from the colony but the skipper said this was a good day compared to a hot and sunny day when the smell was overpowering. I could only imagine! 

Part of the Common Guillemot colony
Also of great interest to me was the opportunity to see both an example of the uncommon bridled form of Guillemot in the colony, which is reputedly more prevalent further north and also an oddity in a Guillemot apparently in winter plumage. The skipper told us it was an old bird and no longer capable of moulting into summer plumage which did not seem correct to me.

Common Guillemot in winter plumage

'Bridled' Common Guillemot
Adult Kittiwake
Young Kittiwakes
Adult Puffin
A final stop was made off some rocks for the obligatory look at seals, Atlantic Grey Seals, including a mournful looking pup.

Atlantic Grey Seals
Grey Seal pup
and then it was a short trip across the sea to Inner Farne where we left the boat and joined others on the island and the sight that greets you is hard to describe adequately.

Another boat load for the tern experience
There are seabirds, mainly terns, literally everywhere you look and lots of them. Sandwich, Arctic and Common Terns  the latter belying their name and being the least populous here. To either side of the jetty were low rocks and small beaches providing loafing areas for off duty terns with many washing and preening or just fast asleep. Each species discreetly kept to itself and in its own area. 

Adult and juvenile Sandwich Terns with the adult beginning to moult its black cap

Adult Sandwich Tern still with its fully black shaggy cap

Displaying Sandwich Terns

Sandwich Terns - juveniles and adults
Sandwich Terns with chick

Adult Arctic Terns
The sight everyone had come to see and experience were the nesting terns and I guess the Puffins. Many of the terns now had almost fully grown young, others were with just hatched young or even sitting on eggs. The terns were completely fearless and as you walked up the path towards St Cuthbert's Chapel they stood their ground chiding you with sharp calls and then bombarding you with aerial attacks. 

The Seventh Century St Cuthbert's Chapel and the pathway from the jetty
along which you run the gauntlet of irate terns
Tern Paparazzi
We walked the gauntlet of tern alley and I received several sharp pecks on my head from outraged tern parents. These pecks are not light taps but full on stabs from a stilletto like, blood red (how appropriate) bill. 

Yours truly getting seen off by an angry tern
c Terry
It hurt so I raised my hood but still the terns persisted and pecked at the cloth. One lady took matters to extremes by wearing a crash helmet and I pitied the tern that tried to hammer that but I failed to find any with a bent beak! 

Adult Arctic Tern
The whole island and sky was full of birds, raucously calling, departing out to sea or arriving from the sea carrying sand eels for their young which scuttled around the beach or hid in the vegetation at the back of the beach. You could sit here for hours and not be bored with this constant procession of activity

Every conceivable corner of the island was occupied by nesting birds and although the wardens said many had left in the last few days there were still thousands of nesting birds here. The eggs and young of mainly Arctic Terns were often right by the path and you had to be really careful not to tread on them especially when your attention became diverted to concentrating on warding off attacks from the parent birds. 

Arctic Tern's nest and eggs 

Arctic Tern chicks

Recently fledged Arctic Tern
Adult Arctic Tern with fledged juvenile
Juvenile Arctic Tern
Second year Arctic Tern. These do not usually return  to the northern hemisphere
until they are adult although I saw at least three similar individuals
on Inner Farne during my visit
We walked to the top of the island by the Victorian lighthouse and found many people there, attracted by the Puffins. There are an incredible 37,000 pairs breeding on the Farne Islands. Here are sixteen of them!

Puffin watchers
Of more interest to me were the Shags with their emerald green eyes, sitting and nesting literally inches from us on the cliff top and showing not the slightest concern. The Kittiwakes were just as untroubled by our presence as indeed were the Arctic and Common Terns.

European Shag

The Sandwich Terns and Puffins kept more distant from us but I do not think they would be troubled about us even if they nested closer.

Sandwich Terns and Puffin

A small pool harboured some juvenile Black headed Gulls and much more interesting, a fully fledged juvenile Puffin. Grey of face and showing no sign of the adult's multi coloured bill it swam around looking a little confused at its unusual habitat. 

Juvenile Puffin
The photo opportunities were endless and many times we had to walk backwards as the birds were so close to us. There was something here for everyone, from small tern chicks, incredibly fluffy and cute for the kids, photo opportunities for those with cameras and even the bonus of an odd rarity for birders like us, when a Roseate Tern briefly joined the off duty terns down by the jetty. It was a job to know where to look and what to admire next but the abiding memory for me was the unbelievably close encounters with the terns which on many occasions stood or sat literally at your feet or perched just inches from you on a fence post completely unafraid. It will live long in my memory and I am sure I will go back again sooner rather than later.


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