Northumberland Trip Part 1 - The Farne Islands

August 11, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

 My first day in Northumberland was arguably one of the best and most memorable days of my life. It began at Seahouses at 9 in the morning, where I would catch a boat to my destination: the Farne Islands. Waiting by the harbour wall overlooking the sea my body was starting to fill to the brim with excitement. I was swimming with anticipation over what awaited me; 150'000 nesting birds of 23 species, hardly any of which I had seen before.  

Overlooking the bay,  bobbing up and down along the rocky shoreline were a group of about 20 large brown ducks.  "Eider ducks!"  I announced elatedly to my parents as I pointed to what looked like rocks out at sea.  It must be said, from a distance the female eiders and their young are surprisingly well camouflaged against the shoreline, which is useful as they are often found very  close to the coast. Eiders have such a rich connection to  Northumberland. St Cuthbert, a hermit who lived on the Islands in the 7th Century, protected them, giving the ducks the nickname 'Cuddy's Duck.' Later that day my experience with eiders was it was to improve 1000 fold, as I had the mothers and their ducklings feeding right from my hand!

Soon it was time to board the fishing boat towards the Islands. Approaching the islands I was keen to spot birds flying over the sea as they travelled back from fishing expeditions.  The first bird that greeted us was the great northern gannet, a super seabird with an impressive two metre wingspan, which towers above the sea. I was taken aback by how gannets soar gorgeously against the sky, with cloud white feathers and wings dipped neatly in black ink, as well as a soft ginger head of hair.

As the boat toured us around the islands, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of birds that I saw. Dressed up smartly to greet us as we approached the rock faces were the guillemots and the razorbills, wearing their neat tuxedo plumage. The Chubby little puffins added a splash of colour to the scene with their rainbow bills and matching flippers that flare out behind them as they zoom out to sea. The Shags stood proudly on the top of the rocks with their necks outstretched as if keeping watch, and the kittiwakes announced themselves by calling their own names.

Before it was time to stop and admire the birds though, we paid a quick visit to the grey seal colony. 3,000 grey seals live on the small rocky shores of the islands, and each autumn 1,000 pups are born.  As we approached the colony some very inquisitive heads popped out of the water just a few metres away.

Our first stop of the day was to Staple Island. There was so many birds to choose from I was a little overwhelmed as what to photograph, but  I soon focused on the puffins as, let us be honest, who can ignore a puffin?  The puffins were popping up everywhere and, with 10,000 pairs nesting on Staple Island alone, they were very enjoyable subjects. I took lots of portrait photographs using selection of techniques to get  a good variety of images.

Perhaps my favourite subject on staple island were the shags .  As the shags nested close to the path at the top of the cliffs, they were particularly good to photograph. Adult shags are a large, black and quite elegant bird, but if there was a competition for the ugliest chicks, shags would certainly win. The shags are often seen with their beaks hanging open and it is thought this is to cool them down, like a panting dog: this made for some quite humorous shots.

On staple island I also enjoyed photographing the kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots. One of my favourite shots from this island was of a guillemot and it's chick standing proudly on a rock edge against a nice dark backdrop. The adult guillemot in question was a bridled guillemot, with a white spectacle marking around its eyes due to a genetic mutation. I would be interested to see if the young inherits this when it develops its adult plumage.

Next we headed to Inner Farne.  On Inner Farne there is one bird that you cannot escape; the arctic tern. The air is filled with its piercing call which echos around the island.  As you walk along the paths, the terns dive bomb you from above, so a hat is certainly a useful bit of kit. The terns are trying to protect their chicks that are in the nests at the side (or even on) the path. Aside from the violence, arctic terns are pretty wonderful birds. They do the furthest migration of any other bird, clocking up a 43,000 mile trip each year. In its lifetime this is equivalent to travelling around the Earth 60 times or completing 3 round trips to the Moon! I spent most of the time risking being pecked time again to get some shots that I was proud of.

 

It was sad to leave, but as you will discover in my second blog, my second visit was filled with even more excitement!  


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