Friday 6 July 2018

The Fantastic Farne Islands 26th June 2018

Four years ago, in early July 2014, myself and Terry made the long journey north to pay a visit to The Farne Islands, which lie off the coast of Northumberland, are owned and wardened by The National Trust and have been designated as a National Nature Reserve since 1993. 'The Farnes' consist of 16-28 islands depending on the state of the tides, are split into the Inner Farnes and Outer Farnes and vary in distance from 1.25 to 4.75 miles from the mainland.

Our plan was to enjoy the famed seabirds and especially the terns on the main island, Inner Farne. There were just over 82.400 pairs of seabirds breeding on The Farne Islands in 2016 including Guillemots. Razorbills, the ever popular Puffins, Kittiwakes. Shags, Lesser Black backed Gulls, Sandwich and Arctic Terns.  The Shags, Sandwich and Arctic Terns nest on the Farnes in internationally important numbers whilst Common Eiders, Great Cormorants, Kittiwakes, Lesser Black backed Gulls, Guillemots and Puffins are present in nationally important numbers.

We only went for the day and Serenity Boat Tours landed us on the Inner Farne which is the most popular island to visit and where, apart from the assorted other seabird species you can 'enjoy' the tern experience as featured on many a wildlife documentary - with breeding Arctic Terns attacking you by pecking at your head. 

I was so impressed by this visit that I vowed to return one day and four years later I fulfilled the promise I had made to myself.

There were, however, some differences to last time. First of all I made this visit two weeks earlier to coincide with the absolute peak of the breeding season. Second, after doing some research on the internet I found that Serenity Boat Tours did a  special all day bird trip that sailed around the breeding cliffs and then landed you on Staple Island, where you got to spend two and a half hours on the island and then took you onwards to Inner Farne where you got to spend three hours onshore. They only do this five times a year in the breeding season and it is very popular with both photographers and birders. 

Staple Island is arguably even better for seabirds than Inner Farne, due to the sheer spectacle of  huge numbers of breeding seabirds that are to be found there, including many Puffins, and was somewhere that Terry and myself did not have time to visit. So the prospect of spending time on Staple Island this

time was enticing and I was eagerly looking forward to it. 

The boat, appropriately called Serenity II, sailed at 10.15am and to save a tiring night drive to Northumberland I drove up there the day before, having booked myself into a small hotel at Seahouses, which is where the boats taking tours to The Farnes sail from. There are a number of small local companies such as Serenity, all with their own colourful shed, each acting as both an  office and reception point for their customers, lined up side by side on the pier and each company have their own boat or boats that go out to The Farnes, offering differing cruises to suit every taste.

Thus, on Monday I left my  home at the beginning of a week that promised sunshine every day and drove north to Northumberland. It is a long way but I took my time and arrived in the small and pleasant seaside town of Seahouses, on the Northumbrian coast, at around 6pm.

The town, which seems to have an extraordinary number of fish and chip shops was still busy with tourists as I made my way to my hotel and checked in. Due to problems with my room I was upgraded at no extra charge to a very spacious double room and relaxed on the bed and watched Portugal and Iran play a World Cup football match. Afterwards I caught up with the weather forecast and was a little perturbed as it showed the likelihood of sea mist along the northeast coast  tomorrow morning.That would not be so good for viewing seabirds.

A restless night with little sleep, a condition that was self inflicted after drinking too much coffee, found me waking, a little bleary, the next morning and looking out of the window my fears about the weather were confirmed. It was misty and grey outside, although the mist was not dense enough to ruin the day and it was predicted that the mist was likely to lift by mid morning.

I walked down to the busy pierhead at 9am, checked in at Serenity's office and then went and paid my landing fee to the National Trust who own the Farne Islands. I had an hour to wait until boarding time and was amazed at the number of people assembling in front of each tour company's shed, all of us waiting to be called to our particular boat. It was busy, very busy and I was told this was because it was the height of the season to go and see the breeding seabirds. In fact around 50,000 visitors come each year to visit the Farnes between the beginning of April until the end of October and provide much needed income to the local economy. I found a bench, out of the way and that overlooked the harbour and 'people watched'. It was a sign of the times that virtually everyone had a camera and lens of sorts, ranging from the hugely expensive to the not so costly. Most of the people I saw did not have binoculars and talking to some it was clear that photography was the ultimate aim rather than watching birds.

Seahouses Harbour
Later I stood by the pier wall as a female Eider Duck paddled about in the rock pools, whilst other females  in the harbour shepherded flotillas of their precocious young, already diving with practiced ease, amongst the moored boats in the harbour. I looked out over the sea, flat calm and shrouded in a low lying light mist, rendering The Farne Islands, which are usually visible, being not that far offshore, invisible. I began to feel a little concerned.

Female Eider Duck known locally as Cuddy's Duck
Occasionally the mist would lift slightly and the sun almost shone through but then it closed in again. I was told sixty people would be on my boat which meant that space would be at a premium. The departures of boats sailing out to The Farnes are staggered to avoid collisions and confusion so when it was our turn we were led out to the far end of the pier and ushered down some slippery steps to board our boat, Serenity II. 

Serenity II
Apart from people like me there were also two large tour groups on board, one consisting of amateur photographers led by a presumably professional guide and another large group of Dutch photographers. We all crammed onto the boat and with no more ado set sail into a misty but not unduly cold future.

On board. Standing rooom only!
I sat, quiet and pensive, in a corner at the back of the boat, wondering about the mist and whether it would indeed lift. At the moment it seemed a little worse and fishing boats that had left earlier loomed as indistinct shapes on the sea. 

Slowly, as we got further out we began to encounter one or two Guillemots on the sea and as we came nearer to the islands Puffins commenced to whizz above us, returning with beakfuls of sandeels held crosswise in their outlandish bills, to feed their single youngster in its nest burrow. Steadily the birds became more and more  plentiful, until the sea was littered with hundreds of Guillemots as we neared the breeding cliffs. Some of these birds, temporarily free from the confined ledges on which they breed were vigorously bathing, their smooth brown bodies sunk low in the water, splashing and rolling over on their backs to expose their gleaming white bellies and giving their feathers a spruce up by running their pointed bill through them. Many must get splattered with droppings from birds on ledges above them so they have to indulge in this essential maintenance of their plumage

Eventually we were taken right under the cliffs, almost within touching distance of the Guillemots, ranged in ranks on every possible ledge or rock, along with nesting Kittiwakes and groups of Puffins above them.

It was an incredible sight as the birds looked at us uncomprehendingly as we floated close by them. To be looking at them at sea level was a whole new experience as usually from land you are looking down on the breeding birds from some distance but here it was virtually eyeball to eyeball. Chasms in the dark rocky cliffs held inumerable Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes, perching on implausibly narrow ledges, whilst hundreds of others peered at us from above, their ranks of brown and white bodies lined up or clustered in a huddle on every available space.

The Guillemot on the extreme right is one of the bridled form

Everyone, of course, wanted to see the Puffins and there certainly was no shortage of them, standing and surveying us from the top of the cliffs or at eye level. Although still present in large numbers I was to learn later from a warden that they are in  decline on The Farnes with the population having fallen by 12% this year from 39,962 pairs when they were last counted in 2013.

Unwittingly they have that certain something about their persona that instantly appeals. Maybe it is that quizzical look they give you, one of almost bemusement as if they are not sure what you are doing here.Their grossly enlarged, multi coloured bills make it all too apparent why they are called Sea Parrots and they too possess that similar connection with our psyche that make parrots so appealing to humans.

Puffins displaying.They mate for life, parting for the winter 
months at sea but reuniting in the spring when they come to 
land to breed

Atlantic Puffins
We spent twenty or so minutes here, cruising slowly around, admiring the birds from all angles possible and then sailed on to another smaller island where a number of Atlantic Grey Seals were hauled out on the rocks and looked up in mild surprise as we approached. There is a large colony of these seals that are resident all year round on The Farnes and they are counted each year by the National Trust. In 2017 the colony amounted to just over 8000 adult seals and 2295 pups were born in the autumn of that year. Of these pups 30% die in the first month of life and 50% will die before they are a year old.

The seals, obviously used to boats coming close to them merely lifted a head and shuffled their bodies briefly before resuming a prone position and went back to dozing on their chosen rock.Their fur, when dry, adopts various shades of spotted grey, cream and brown, only becoming darker grey when they are in the water and their huge roman nosed heads and fathomless black eyes bob up out of the sea to look at us passing.

We left them to resume their siesta on the rocks.

Now it was time to land on our first island, the much anticipated Staple Island. As we approached I was amazed to see how many boats were already landing people on the island and I was anxious about the number of people I could see walking up from the landing stage but was re-assured that once on the island and away from the landing point there was plenty of room. We had to wait a few minutes until it was our turn to land but finally got the go ahead and were welcomed off the boat by the National Trust Wardens.

Staple Island

The island is a designated Bird Sanctuary and can be visited in the breeding season from the beginning of May to the end of July. It is rocky, exposed and uninhabited but is wardened during the breeding season. In long past times there was an early monastic settlement on the island associated with Lindisfarne (Holy Island). which is situated not that much further up the coast.

There is no boardwalk on which to land at Staple Island, so instead you land and walk directly onto the rocks and have to be very careful with your footing. 

The landing stage at Staple Island with Serenity II offshore
Leaving the boat I walked up the steep, rocky incline to where the terrain flattened out and a boardwalk commenced, already lined with many people looking at and photographing the birds. 

I carried on and joined a group of mainly Dutch photographers at the end of the boardwalk, admiring and photographing Puffins that were stood on some rocks and looked at us in that surprised but  placid way of theirs, as we in turn regarded them. 

They appeared to be off duty or non breeding birds but to to my right was a large open area with low vegetation in which other Puffins had their nest burrows and patrolling the burrows, on foot, were formidable looking Lesser Black backed Gulls hoping to intercept Puffins coming in from the sea carrying a beakful of fish for their young or possibly grabbing a puffling if it came too near to the entrance of its burrow. 

Lesser Black backed Gull
Puffins were continually flying in from the sea with beakfuls of sandeels and the air was full of the flying birds, careering over our heads at high speed and looking none too aerodynamic. Some came very close, unable to manouevre away from me and possibly unbalanced by their load of fish, so close I could feel the air disturbed by their passing and hear the whirrr of their rapidly moving wings. 

They approach the land at great speed and if they get it right hit the ground almost at their burrow's entrance and dive down it almost in one scuttling movement.This way they avoid any awaiting gull's attentions but if they get it wrong they lose the fish and in the worst case their lives.

It is a ceaseless pageant as Puffin after Puffin arrive in off the sea and gamble they will not be the one to get intercepted by a gull. Other Puffins just stand about in pairs or little groups watching their fellow Puffins run the gauntlet of the gulls. Looking back and down to the sea, flotillas of mainly 'off duty.' Guillemots swam around washing and bathing whilst lines of others came in off the sea to crash unceremoniously amongst the thousands of their fellow Guillemots, already clustered on the cliff rocks. The island was a scene of constant  movement and sound with never a dull moment as there was always something to watch or learn.

Immediately on the other side of the boardwalk was a large Guillemot colony, the nearest birds standing within metres of me, the braying from the huddled birds a constant murmaration, a rising and falling vocal accompaniment to their massed presence. 

Many had well grown young, the whistling squeaky calls of the young a counterpoint to the harsher calls of the adults. These young birds are called jumplings due to the fact that when they are ready to go to sea they fearlessly jump down from the cliff to join their waiting parent on the sea below. Amongst the thousands of Guillemots, were one or two bridled individuals, which look very smart with a pencil line of white around each eye thence running back down each side of their smooth brown head. They are very much in the minority here, only about 3% are of this form on The Farnes. 

Bridled Guillemot amongst its commoner companions
Regularly, Puffins with small silvery sandeels arranged neatly crosswise in their bill would alight on the smooth flat rocks between me and the Guillemots. Here they were, for some reason unmolested by the gulls possibly due to my and others close presence and presumably they felt safe, and would remain here for a minute or so before flying to their burrow. It is always a source of amazement to me how  Puffins manage to achieve the trick of holding so many fish in their bill at one time. First they have to catch the fish underwater, then align it in their bill and then go on to catch others and similarly retain them in their bill whilst catching another fish. Not only that but the fish are arranged alternately head to tail! I counted at least ten fish held this way in the bill of one bird.Truly it was amazing.

Richard Perry in his book 'Watching Sea Birds' offered a plausible explanation as to how they manage this.

'Pleasant to look at, the alternating head and tail arrangement of his fish is explained by the zig zag course steered by the Puffin when under water. Progressing thus, he will take a fish to the right of him and then one to the left, then right, then left, nipping each one with the hooked tip and working it down his bill very easily: for the elastic folds of skin at its base permit either mandible to be raised or lowered independently of the other. And although he may already have caught eight or nine fish, a very slight opening of his bill will enable its hooked tip to acquire a purchase on a tenth, the other nine being being additionally held by a fat tongue....................'

Shag's nests, like isolated islands, were scattered at the edge of the Guillemot colony, the reptilian and singularly unattractive  young birds, clad in soot brown down, being sheltered by their equally reptilian looking parents, their emerald green eyes and iridescent green plumage imparting a strange and alien beauty. 

European Shags
The whole island was teeming with birds and also I have to say, people. Stopping to admire two Fulmars I spoke to a warden who told me this was the busiest day he had ever known for visitors but somehow it all worked and although never alone I did not feel impinged upon and could usually find my own space.

Fulmar Petrels
Refreshingly the warden also told me that the Guillemots and Razorbills were increasing in number but it was not such good news with the Puffins and Kittiwakes. The sight, sound and smell of so many seabirds, totally untroubled by our very close presence, as we almost stood amongst them is something I will never forget and I can say with no exaggeration that it was one of the most moving and memorable birding experiences of my life.

I moved on across the small island and found some Razorbills, my favourite seabird, and spent a lot of time admiring them. One was sitting on its egg and another, deep in a crevice between the rocks was sheltering a youngster. An adult brought it a sizeable fish which it had decapitated, presumably to make it more manageable or palateable for its offspring.

Kittiwakes also had their nests here, some incubating eggs and others already with impossibly cute young. 

Black legged Kittiwake
Through a gap in the cliffs before me, stretching away on further cliffs were countless Guillemots standing upright in close packed ranks like a myriad of brown and white stumps, all on their chosen piece of rock or ledge. It was jaw dropping in its sheer scale and magnificence.

Guillemot colony
Looking across the island I could see beyond the Longstone Lighthouse, forever immortalised by the daring sea rescue carried out by Grace Darling, who was only 22 at the time and her father William, the lighthouse keeper. A shudder went through me as I looked at the lighthouse, stood on its lonely piece of rock and I recalled the horrendous events of almost two hundred years ago that occurred on the very rocks that I was looking at, not far from the lighthouse. 

On the night of the 7th September 1838 a huge storm drove the paddle steamer Forfarshire, sailing from Hull to Dundee, onto the Big Harcar Rock and she disintegrated, battered to pieces by huge waves. Nothing could be done that night and it was only next morning that some survivors could be seen on the rock, clinging to what remained of the wrecked ship. Rescue from the mainland was impossible as the storm was still raging and it was too dangerous but Grace and her father put to sea from the lighthouse in nothing more than a rowing boat with the storm still raging and managed to take off five of only nine traumatised survivors in the extreme conditions, including a mother still clinging to her two drowned children, refusing to accept they were gone. Grace single handedly manouevred the tiny craft amongst the huge waves, holding it steady as her father assisted the survivors from the rock and wreckage into the boat. On getting the survivors back to the lighthouse her father went back out to rescue the remaining four survivors but it was Grace's heroism that caught the Victorian public's imagination and made her a celebrity overnight. Tragically Grace died just four years later of tuberculosis and William Wordsworth, the Poet Laureate, wrote a poem in tribute to her bravery.

I looked again at the lighthouse on this day of benign weather and reflected on the events all those years ago and that little shiver ran down my spine again.

The Longstone Lighthouse
Eventually it was time to return to the Serenity II and now, as we did, the sun finally broke through. It was going to be a good day after all and I was elated by my seabird experience on Staple Island. Next stop was to be Inner Farne and its main attraction, the Arctic Terns.

We sailed across a now very different looking sea, blue and with sunshine shining down on us but again we had to wait our turn to land due to the number of visitors. We were given advance warning about the terns by the skipper, not so much about the fact they would attack us but the fact that many had their nests right by the boardwalk and we had to be very careful where we trod to avoid crushing both eggs and young.

It is surely unique to walk up the boardwalk with Arctic Terns sitting on eggs or feeding young inches from your feet, whilst their mates stand guard on fence posts and attack your head as you make your way up the boardwalk.

You are warned of an attack, by the tern uttering a distinctive staccato clicking call which is followed by it hovering right in front of your face and then probably flying up and pecking you viciously on your head. Anyone with any sense wears some form of headgear to protect them but even then you can feel the thud of beak on skull as the tern dives and jabs its bill at you. You knew when someone had not taken the precaution of wearing headgear by the yells of surprise and dismay that were emitted as a tern hammered home its displeasure. Sometimes the tern will even stand on your head and peck you vigorously but all you do is move on and they soon desist or transfer their attentions to  other visitors following you.

There is a sandy beach to the left of the landing stage and juvenile terns of varying ages were running around to meet their parents bringing back fish almost as large as the youngster, for them  to swallow. To the right was a rocky area covered in 'off duty' Arctic Terns, a place for sleeping, preening or loafing around until it was their turn to resume parental duties. Continually terns were arriving to take a break whilst others raised their wings in an exaggerated gesture as if to say 'Oh well, back to the grind' and after a momentary pause, took to the air and swept back inland to the maelstrom of wheeling, crying terns above the nesting colony or flew out to sea to fish.

Others were still displaying. I watched as one bird of a pair carried a fish as an offering to its mate,  the bird carrying the fish was presumably the male and seemed reluctant to part with it but finally agreed to pass it over, red bill to  red bill, the two birds then adopting exaggerated attitudes as they strengthened the pair bond between them. 

Another pair were vigorously mating. Ridiculously I felt like a voyeur as I recorded the very public and noisy consummation.

I walked on up to Prior Castell's Tower, now home to the National Trust wardens but formerly a redoubt to defend, deter and warn of potential invaders, and to Saint Cuthbert's Chapel, both enclosing a courtyard, formerly the monks garden and now with a very different crop of juvenile terns, guarded noisily and aggressively by their attendant parents and hiding in vegetation spattered white from the adult bird's droppings. 

Prior Castell's Tower and the former Monk's garden.
Note the Arctic Tern coming in to attack
Saint Cuthbert settled on Inner Farne and died there on 27th March 687 and the chapel was built in his memory in 1370. 

Saint Cuthbert is said to be the first person to have protected birds and allowed Common Eiders to nest on the steps of his alter, and today the Common Eider is still known affectionately as St Cuthbert's Duck or Cuddy's Duck. In the chapel is a memorial to Grace Darling and her heroism with the words of William Wordsworth's poem inscribed on it, as also is a lovely stained glass window commemorating the Saints Aidan and Cuthbert who devoted their lives to God. However virtually nothing of the original chapel's furnishings or architecture remains as various restorations have taken place, the last as recently as 1997. Inside it still manages to retain a certain reverential echo of the monk's chosen solitude, devotion to prayer and a memory of less complicated times.

The memorial to Grace Darling
One particularly enthusiastic Arctic Tern stood sentry on a post by the entrance door to the chapel and roundly attacked anyone who tried to enter as its two young were right by the entrance. A lady asked me to take her photo being attacked by the tern and I was more than happy to do so. She in turn took one of me receiving similar treatment. 

I experience the tern treatment

The population of Arctic Terns on The Farnes in 2017 was 1330 pairs which reflects a continued downward trend since the 1980's but still there are Arctic Terns everywhere you look on the island with adults standing on the boardwalk or perched on the adjacent fence posts with juveniles of all ages scuttling about in the vegetation, their sandy, downy fluff, spotted with black, making them much less conspicuous than their immaculate grey and white parents.

To see an adult Arctic Tern within a foot or so of you is to realise  how beautiful, elegant and delicate they are. The bright red bill of poster paint intensity and black cap form a perfect counterpoint to their silvery grey and white plumage. A creation of streamlined elegance enhanced by their long wings and pointed outer tail feathers. Sea Swallows indeed, they are perfectly adapted for a life spent in the air, crossing oceans and continents on their incredible migrations, the longest of any bird species.

I walked onwards and upwards to a small rise, the highest point on the island where there is a lighthouse that was built in 1825, its garden inevitably occupied by the ubiquitous Arctic Terns. I reached an area of cliffs where yet more Puffins stood looking bemused at all the cameras and lenses pointed towards them. 

View back across the island to Prior Castell's Tower
Puffins were also flying up here from the sea, coming over the highest part of the island like miniature squat missiles, hurtling past us and down a slope on the other side, to land in a maze of burrows on the further side of the island. 

Personally I found it was a little too crowded for my peace of mind with all the other people crammed in such a restricted space admiring the Puffins, so I moved back and away to the nearby cliff edge.

I could lean over here, if I wanted, and touch a Shag shading her four panting young from the sun. 

Kittiwakes and Razorbills sat on the adjacent cliff ledges with two Razorbills sheltering a well grown chick on a perilously narrow cliff ledge and another was fast asleep in the hot sun, the white rocks of the cliff reflecting the brilliance of the sun and the blue sea acting as a counterpoint. 

Birds were everywhere around me, flying along the cliff edge or sat on ledges, the warm sea air carrying a susurrus of braying and growling from the Guillemots and Razorbills and the higher pitched, wilder cries of the Kittiwakes. It was truly magical but there was more to see and so I moved on.

I came to the area of open ground, covered in sea kale, where the Puffins had their burrows sunk into the soft earth. 

As on Staple Island there were Puffins regularly coming in from the sea with sandeels for their young and this time the attendant  gulls with malign intentions were Black headed Gulls. 

Their strategy was different to that of the Lesser Black backed Gulls which operated alone, in that they hunted in small groups, standing around waiting until they saw an incoming Puffin carrying fish and tried to intercept it before it could get down its burrow. They posed no physical threat to the adult Puffin but on the Puffin landing would attempt to seize the fish from its bill before it got to its burrow. Time and again you would see a Puffin come hurtling in off the sea, wings whirring at high speed to land on the open ground. If it misjudged where its burrow was it had to run for it which usually resulted in it being enveloped by a swarm of gulls that snatched all or some of the fish from its beak. At other times the Puffin seemed to literally fly straight into its burrow and so beat the gulls. A few minutes later the Puffin would sidle up out of the hole, its head appearing just above ground level, sussing out the situation, the very embodiment of insouciance.

Other Puffins stoically stood about amidst this constant struggle with one noticeable grouping standing together and  looking at the burrow of another pair of Puffins, for all the world like they were indulging in some critical inspection. Maybe they were. I remained here for some time enjoying the spectacle and excitement of the Puffins versus the Black headed Gulls. A small colony of Sandwich Terns was also established in the vegetation with adults regularly crossing before me carrying fish to their young.

Sooner than I liked it was time to return to the Serenity II, my allotted three hours having passed far too quickly. On getting to the boardwalk leading down to the landing stage I found that there was now a mass of people awaiting their particular boat. I found a space and just watched various unsuspecting people in the queue being attacked by the terns as each boat came in turn to the landing stage to board its passengers. Quite a send off. 

Arctic Terns seem compelled to accomplish every minute of their lives with raucous cries, and they were also everywhere you looked, flying out to sea, coming back, diving at people's heads, a constant panorama of sound and movement, the white birds against the blue sea forming a perfect picture.

I forgot about the camera and studied the loafing terns on the nearby rocks in my bins and found an Arctic Tern still in its non breeding plumage of white forehead, black bill and black legs. No one else was bothering to actually birdwatch as they awaited their boat but this was an Arctic Tern that had returned one year early to its breeding grounds.Normally they remain in their winter quarters for the year after they were born and only return in their third year of life. So here was a quiet victory for birdwatching against all the cameras, lenses and assorted technology currently on view.

First summer/second calendar year Arctic Tern
My day on 'The Farnes' was over and I enjoyed a period of reflection as I sat on the Serenity II, now setting a course for Seahouses. I was shaken out of my reverie as the skipper announced that there was a pod of Bottle nosed Dolphins coming up on our starboard bow. Thankfully this was my side of the boat and for the next thirty minutes we were treated to a highly mobile grandstand view of the dolphins as the skipper moved the boat to anticipate where the dolphins would next surface.They came close, so close I was able to see one pass under the boat right below me and hear others exhaling through their blowholes as they came up for air, making the same noise but louder, as when you inflate a rubber ring.

It was difficult to estimate how many there were, as they were surfacing in small groups or just singly but I reckoned on nine at least and in one group was a smaller individual that had skin much lighter coloured than the battleship grey of the others. Probably it was a young dolphin.

Note the slightly smaller pale skinned Bottle nosed Dolphin in the group
Probably a young dolphin
This rounded off everything perfectly on what was a truly magical day. So many experiences.So many memories. So many things happened that it is inevitable that much is forgotten. An experience of a lifetime you could say.

The stellar cast of the show


To come across a massed army of Puffins as I did on Staple Island, standing about in ones, twos or small groups or coming hurtling in on an unsteady flight, whizzing over rocks and rough terrain to land by their burrow or with flapping, braking wings descend gently with outstretched orange legs and webbed paddle feet to join their fellows on a particular rock, is to witness one of nature's annual and marvellous spectacles.

Sometimes they depart en masse like black and white shrapnel, scattering and flying high out and round over the open sea only to return to where they were before and with no apparent cause for their precipitous flight.

To be amongst hundreds of Puffins as they continually alight and depart, stand or sit on favoured boulders and rocky ledges is one of continual delight

They are sociable birds that remain for the most part silent, content to stand peacefully with their fellow Puffins, rarely showing any aggression towards each other.

Many Puffins were feeding young and would come flying in from the sea, their bills crammed with sandeels held sideways, alternately head to tail. Some would land in the open if they felt safe, others head straight for their burrow whilst yet others aborted their landing and in a great sweeping curve would fly around to try once more.

They are inveterately inquisitive of their neighbours, wandering over to inspect nearby burrows  and their owners as we would chat over a garden fence, or joining small groups and stand as if to mull over the day's events. Often, as they stand, they feel they must flex their wings and raising themselves up, they flap them briefly before, re-assured that all is well, they shuffle them back across their back.


The population on The Farnes in 2017 was 28,493 pairs

Angular, lithe and upright they stand, row upon row, shoulder to shoulder facing inwards and outwards on the ledges  of the cliff face or flat topped rocks, presenting a line of white bellies and angular brown heads peering, their thin brown necks bowed down, craning in anxiety to look at us. Others squat, often facing inwards to the cliff face with wings akimbo and eyes closed sheltering their single youngster or egg from the outside world.

A constant rising and falling of guttural sound emits from their ranks, wafting on the wind, as if they would feel insecure without the re-assurance of endless calling from the ranks of thousands of their neighbours on the cliffs.

Some birds are of the 'bridled form', which are found more frequently further north in their breeding range and are very much in the minority here comprising just 5% of the population. They look as if they are wearing white wire rimmed spectacles.

The bridled form of Guillemot
Others swim in the waters around the cliff base, their long  bodies low slung in the water, so the sea washes over their backs, and they duck their narrow heads below the surface as if snorkelling. In small groups, never happy when alone, they paddle about with ease and a grace borne of a creature in its natural element 

Some have a fish held firmly, lengthwise, in their bill, its tail or head protruding beyond the bill tip. Whether this is for its offspring or a courting gift to its mate I do not know. 


There were 310 pairs breeding on The Farnes in 2017 

Scattered amongst the thronging Guillemots and Kittiwakes, Razorbills stake out a little piece of rock for their own purposes, wandering short distances on flattened black legs and feet as if aimlessly, never seeming quite content with where they are.

They sit and raising their head, partially open their bill, holding the position for long periods but no sound is emitted or if it is, it is a single scrarling note, deeper and more guttural than the Guillemot's call.

Their tiny eyes become invisible in the dense black of the head feathers at any distance but at certain angles when the sun shines the plumage adopts a shade of dark brown.


The population in 2017 on The Farnes was 325 pairs

Unlike the Guillemots and Razorbills they build a substantial nest of dry sticks, stalks and other dead and discarded matter in which to raise their young which are quite the most ugly and reptilian looking of offspring when in the nest and before they have moulted the dull grey brown down of early life and begin to acquire feathers.

The parents too are reptilian looking but this is redeemed by the beauty of their plumage which varies in the changing light from black to a beautiful shade of iridescent bottle green and dark copper, each feather scalloped with a black fringe imparting a scaly appearance. Combine this with the adult's emerald green eyes, snake like neck and long thin bill and without too much imagination you can easily conjure up the image of a small dragon.


As of 2017 there were 2875 pairs breeding on The Farnes but this is likely to have dropped this year as this species is in alarming decline in Britain

The soft all white contours of its rounded head and black eye impart a benign look to the adult bird.

Often hidden in secret gullies and fissures their discordant wild cries echo off the cliff sides and dark waters, betraying their presence.

Their nests are perhaps the most precarious of all, balanced on the smallest of ledges without even room for the adult bird to turn around.The chicks sit and stand on the nest and dare not move more than an inch or two for fear of toppling over to their death below.

They nest colonially although they do not seem to generally get on with their neighbours, each pair of birds crying in querulous argument and waving their heads about at a perceived imposition by another.

In flight they appear pristine against a back drop of blue sea as they soar and glide out from the cliff on the upcurrents of air, then to return, land and immediately call loudly in a greeting to their mate.


  1. Superb! I must go sometime - if only to see the arctic terns & get pecked!!! Some brilliant shots too! (I hesitate to say that the best one is the one taken by the ter-woman of you being pecked...!

  2. A great and atmospheric write-up Ewan, thankyou.......