Saturday 20 April 2024

To the Farne Islands and Beyond 14th April 2024

Sunday morning at 6am in Kilwinning, after a less than a peaceful night's sleep in the Portmann Hotel, greeted us with sunshine.We let ourselves out of the hotel and rather than drive direct to Northumberland I suggested we might try Saltcoats for a last throw of the dice with regard to finding the Black Guillemots.

It is but a fifteen minute drive from Kilmarnock and at this time on a Sunday morning the roads and the harbour were devoid of human life. We drove onto the harbour wall, the weather conditions unrecognisable from yesterday with a relatively calm sea and best of all nothing more than a moderate wind.There was no sign of the Eiders but there were two Black Guillemots, squatting together on the harbour wall just metres from the car. It is always welcome to get off to a good start and both of us felt the day was already a success.

Mark had another lifer and also got some nice photos of the pair. Checking the harbour we found another six, either swimming or stood on the walls where they nest in holes. They are always confiding wherever I come across them, for me with the look of a pigeon or dove and, unlike their near relative the Guillemot, less sociable, forming pairs that prefer to keep to themselves.

However nice it was to see them we needed to get going as it was a long drive to Seahouses.We  were aiming for an 11am sailing to Inner Farne where you are now allowed to land for an hour. This is the first island to be re-opened to visitors since avian flu struck the seabird colonies there.

It was a pleasant drive south, skirting Glasgow and Edinburgh on virtually empty roads, such a contrast to the usual traffic congested conditions one usually comes up against.The sun shone and the scenery of Scotland became a picture postcard as the green of Spring took a firm hold of the land and the hills a majesty under an infinitely blue sky. I called Billy Sheil's number en route  and booked ourselves on their 11am sailing, the trip lasting  two and a half hours including the one hour on the Inner Farne. We crossed the border into England and headed east along the coast, eventually arriving at Bamburgh and its impressive castle that has featured in so many films.

This morning there was a lot of activity due to a charity bike ride and fun run as we passed through the village but soon afterwards by St Aidan's Dunes we came to a large flash of water beside the road.We stopped to check the water for ducks and much to our surprise and delight found three Long tailed Ducks feeding there. A drake and two females, they dived continuously before eventually going to sleep.

At Seahouses we parked close to the harbour, today looking very picturesque in the morning sun and walked down to Billy Sheils colourful wooden shed to collect our tickets.

Once this was done we bought a coffee and sandwich from a stall nearby and then got acquainted with the local Starlings that had long since learned how to ingratiate themselves with visitors such as us in order to extract some crumbs from whatever we were eating.

We had forty five minutes to wait until our boat sailed so enjoyed leaning on the seawall and looking out to the Inner Farne and its  lighthouse across a blue sea. 

Two early returning Arctic Terns flew by but the main influx of terns to the islands would not be for a week or so. 
Many of the other breeding seabirds had also to arrive so we did not expect to see the wall to wall spectacular of seabirds on the islands that is normal from May to August but by taking a trip early in the season we would not be on a boat crammed with people and would have space and time to wander at our ease on Inner Farne.

The Arctic Terns, such a feature of Inner Farne had yet to return but there were already good numbers of Puffins which, let's face it everyone wants to see. Small numbers of Guillemots, Razorbills and Shags were also present and Kittiwakes were already in impressive numbers. Give it a couple of weeks and with the arrival of the terns the numbers of seabirds nesting on the islands will be huge but then so will the numbers of people wanting to see them.

I am always unsure about this as the sight and sound of such a multitude of seabirds is admittedly a tremendous experience but it is now very much a commercial enterprise with many boats visiting the islands bringing many visitors every day. There is now no real sense of a truly wild experience but rather more that of one of Attenborough's natural world programmes. However this is how it will be forever more and the National Trust wardens who man the islands during the breeding season keep quite strict control of all the visitors, so best to enjoy the chance to get really close to some beautiful seabirds and experience the awesome spectacle of so many birds in so small a space and forget about any lingering concerns.


European Shag


We boarded our boat at the appointed time for the twenty minute crossing and there could have been no more than twenty five people on board which from both a viewing and photography point of view was perfect.We could move around at will on the boat and  no-one would unwittingly get in each others way.The boat headed out to the islands across a turquoise blue sea. It was just so exhilerating to be surrounded by sea and sky and nothing else. Such a beautiful day.

The first Puffin flew across the boat's bows about half way out, always a cause for excitement even to a hard bitten birder such as myself. 

Then came pairs and trios of Puffins, nicknamed Sea Parrots for obvious reasons, floating on the sea, their heads and bodies alternately visible or not as they rose and sank in the swell. Nearer to the islands we came across larger gatherings of Puffins, that eyed us warily and if unsure, skittered along the wave tops, rising into the air on fast moving wings, their stout bodies whizzing away like stray ordnance.

First the boat toured the other islands, coming in close to the rocks and low cliffs as the skipper gave a tannoy tutorial about the various seabirds we could see. Then it was on to the Grey Seals, so many it was incredible, their fat bodies  lay close together, flopped on the rocks like huge furry slugs as they looked at us through myopic, fathomless black eyes.

Then it was on to the Longstone Lighthouse where the skipper related the remarkable story of Grace Darling and her father, the lighthouse keeper, both of whom, in the early hours of the 7th September 1838, rowed an open boat for a mile in a howling gale and across huge seas to rescue passengers from the paddle steamer Forfarshire that ran aground on the rocks of nearby Big Harcar and was wrecked by the storm.They rescued nine passengers and another forty four were lost. 

On this benign day it was hard to imagine the bravery and tragedy that had taken place literally within a stone's throw of where we were. Involuntarily a shudder passed through me as if the souls of the drowned, including two children, still haunted this place.

Leaving the lighthouse we headed for Inner Farne to be welcomed by the island's wardens and spend an hour on land, wandering the boardwalks, getting close to the Puffins which were everywhere you looked. This early in the season the newly arrived birds were checking out their burrows and excavating earth from them. A seabird version of Spring cleaning to prepare for the laying of their single egg. Some were noticeably muddy of breast from their labours 

They stood by their nest burrows looking at us, whether inquisitively or anxiously I could not be certain Their numbers had yet to build up but there were plenty of Puffins wherever you looked, popping up out of burrows or furtively slipping underground.

Their appearance and confiding demeanour cannot fail but to enchant the average visitor and so it was today with our fellow passengers. The colourful bills so like a parrot and smart black and white dinner suit plumage proving irresistibly and perennially attractive.

I stood, alone on a temporarily deserted part of the island, in a period of brief reflection as a Puffin emerged from its burrow, the bird's normally silky white breast sullied by the wet earth. How strange it must be that after spending six or seven months far beyond the sight of land, out on the trackless deep of the Atlantic Ocean, night and day, sleeping and feeding on a constantly moving sea, the Puffin now finds itself on the solidity of land, digging a hole into the earth that will be the birth place and nursery for its single offspring.Of course such fanciful thought is unknown to the Puffin. It is following its genetic programming, nothing more nothing less.It is left to such as me with the luxury of a brain capable of imagination to ponder such things.

I looked at the Puffin and it regarded me in turn.Two beings that share this planet and both of us with an absolute right to exist here but occupying two very different worlds that neither will ever know.Such a paradox.

A pair of Sandwich Terns,betrayed by their harsh, excitable calls, flew elegantly above us as we returned to the boat. Our hour on Inner Farne was up.We headed back to Seahouses, passing yet more Puffins during the early stages of our journey before the sea became empty of birds apart from an occasional Eider and Great Black backed Gull floating on the water..

Back at Seahouses we found a bakers for a quick coffee and snack. Every time I go to Scotland or in this case am a few miles from the border I involuntarily revisit in my mind the annual childhood holidays I spent at my grandparents in the far north of Scotland where I was indulged in such unhealthy things as Iron Bru and Snow Balls, the latter a vein clogging concoction of marshmallow, coated in thin chocolate and coconut flakes that would cause Nurse Mitch who gives me my annual health check back here in Oxfordshire cause to roll her eyes. It is a sweet reminder of childhood that I find impossible to resist but only when in or near what I regard as my homeland.The baker at Seahouses had Snowballs for sale so I will not say anything more.Being Scots I am used to pleasure being accompanied by an innate feeling of guilt!

We headed further south for Bempton in Yorkshire and Ako's, our favourite B and B where we have stayed before. Nearing our destination we had some time to spare so I asked Mark if he was interested in seeing some Red Grouse. A bird that is unknown in Oxfordshire haha!

The answer not un-naturally was in the affirmative so we made a slight detour to the North Yorkshire Moors.Yes those same moors that are responsible for the disgraceful and scandalous killing of Hen Harriers and that goes on to this very day regardles of the law.

The male Red Grouse at this time of year are very territorial and can often be found by the roadside either standing sentinel on a clump of heather or displaying to another male.It is comparatively easy to locate them by driving along the usually deserted roads across the moors and we soon found plenty, right by the road.

I learnt one new thing from watching them in that the male's red wattles inflate when it is territorially aggressive. As I regularly remind myself there is always something new to discover about birds no matter how much you think you know.

Our quick success with the grouse meant we arrived at our B and B just outside Bempton at a reasonable hour. We decided on an early night as it had been a long but very rewarding day.

Tomorrow we would go to the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs to see the Gannets that come there every year to breed.

to be continued

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