Thursday 27 June 2019

Full up on Seabirds on a Staple Diet, May 30th 2019

Taking a trip out to the Farne Islands wasn't originally on my list of things to do during my week in Northumberland. Yes I know that it's an excellent place to view many species of Seabirds up close but it's also swamped by tourists as well as lots of birders and toggers and birding in crowds isn't really my bag. It's also administered by the National Trust for whom I have very little affection. However, having not been able to book on the much quieter Coquet Island round tour until Friday and with the weather, having been very unsettled, which could always put the kibosh on that trip, I was slightly concerned that I may miss out on a few birds whilst here so I had booked Mrs Caley and myself on one of the short trips to Staple Island and back. We would get to spend just an hour on the island.

As we waited at Seahouses harbour, from where the trips leave, I watched the folk assemble for the all day tour which takes in Inner Farne as well as Staple Island and felt glad that I hadn't booked to be on it. That tour allows 2 hours on each island but I had the view that although the Farnes have a multitude of birds to offer, there are only around 20 different species and I imagined that I'd get bored, Mrs Caley certainly would, if I just snapped away with the camera for half a day! I mean. if you've seen one Puffin then you've seen them all, right? Ok, maybe not, but how many photos do you need! There was also the bare economical fact that for the two of us to go on the all day trip would cost over £160! Our trip would only(!) cost £63. To visit one island incurs a landing fee of £11.60 from the NT, visit both and it goes up to £33.60! I'd love to know why?

We watched a pair of Eider Ducks drinking, presumably fresh water, from small pools in the rocks next to the harbour wall. Despite the fact that the harbour is undergoing extensive reconstruction they were entirely unfazed by the noise and after taking their fill retired to slumber.

Eider Ducks
It was our turn to board our boat and we filed on to the Glad Tidings II which held maybe 30 or so like minded souls. Interestingly though I was the only person aboard carrying a long lens camera whereas on the all day boat just about every passenger held one. 

A "Glad Tidings" sailing
We scurried across the bay towards the small cluster of islands that make up the Farnes and just to make us feel more acclimatised it, of course, began to rain. I would have been upset if we hadn't had some rain during our trip after the weeks weather that we'd had so far! As we neared the islands then we also encountered the first of thousands of the Seabirds that make the islands their summer homes. I was keen to take photos of birds either swimming in or flying over the rough surface of the sea. I spotted a couple of Shags reasonably close to the boat and fired off a few shots and quickly realised that photographing birds from a rocking boat was far from easy! 

Puffins. #225 on the Old Caley year list and everybody else's favourite judging by the ooh's and aah's, were everywhere you looked so I tried to capture a few of those. Puffins move fast on small whirring wings and are not the biggest target so it proved difficult to keep focus but a few of the images were salvageable. 

Next up I concentrated on a Guillemot that was flying straight towards us although to be truthful it was a case of just pointing and shooting at any bird that made a likely subject since there were so many coming and going! One of my resulting images gained a Notable Photo on Birdguides so I must have done ok.

The skipper of the Glad Tidings II made a close pass of Brownsman Island (I think) allowing us all to get close up views of some of the "Seabird Cliffs". Kittiwakes, Shags and Auks all proliferated on the cliffs and the noise, and smell, was quite something. I've been to many Seabird colonies over the years and that smell is something that you never forget but never get used to either. It certainly makes your nose wrinkle!


It was now our turn to dock and disembark on Staple Island. I say our turn because we'd been kept in holding formation while several other boats also unloaded at the small quay. The Farnes are very popular and there are a lot of boats spilling their passenger cargos onto them. There is a system in place though whereby Staple Island is only landed in the morning and Inner Farne in the afternoon, presumably to give the Seabirds some breathing space. The juggling act between making some valuable money to aid conservation work and actually conserving the islands and its avifauna must be difficult. I did get the feeling that the NT are using the islands as a cash cow and are therefore more than happy to get as many people out to them as possible but then who could blame them? The amount of people on the islands, most of them with little interest in the birds and largely treating the islands as little more than a Puffin zoo, does mar the experience somewhat. If you could spend time alone here then it would magical.

For the first few yards up the steps that lead onto Staple Island it was difficult not to trip over the folk who had stopped in their tracks to marvel at the thousands of Puffins! Puffins are every non-birders most favourite bird (along with Kingfishers and Barn Owls) but of course us hardened birdwatchers play it cool and just walk on past. The problem was that the latter group consisted of just me and Mrs Caley so we had to climb over the swooning masses to get to the rest of the island. Staple Island isn't big, none of the Farnes are, and a lot of it is cordoned off to allow the birds space to breed and also to keep visitors away from the cliff edge. As a result the available space is fairly packed with people but with a bit of perseverance we managed to find a couple of quieter spots. Once settled I tried to ignore the Puffins and look instead at some of the other birds on offer but it wasn't long though before I'd fell under their spell and was taking shot after shot of the Clowns of the sea! The first grass covered bank you arrive at is absolutely swarming with "Fratercula arctica's" and I just couldn't resist.

But I really was more interested in getting some nice images of other species so went in search of Shags, Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Guillemots that would make interesting shots. A problem here though is that it's actually difficult to ignore the frenzy that is taking place all around you and to single out individual birds. Also many of the birds are nesting so close to the paths that, with a 400mm lens, you can't get far enough back from the subject to get a sharp image without somebody else invading your space and getting in the way. Still, I managed a few!

The Shag is a particular favourite of mine, not only because of its amusing name (snigger), but because of its reptilian appearance. Not that I'm into reptiles at all  but you have to agree that they do have a prehistoric look to them. I think they are beautiful birds despite the fact that they stink. Maybe it's those piercing green eyes. I recall a comment made by an Oxon birder when a group of 11 juvenile Shags turned up at Farmoor Reservoir a couple of autumns ago, "I haven't had a Shag here for ages, then I get 11 in one day"! That appealed to my childish humour and made me chortle then and still does now, fnaaar, fnaaar! 

Guillemots live in huge colonies and have to put up with argy bargy on a daily basis. Here on the Farnes they are forever flying in and out on feeding sorties. When they arrive back at their own patch they often have to run the gauntlet of other Guillemots who are displeased at the intrusion. There is a form of the Guillemot known as a "Bridled" because of a white stripe that goes around and behind the eye and looks rather like a pair of spectacles. I believe that around 3% of the Guillemot population is of the Bridled form but don't quote me on that figure. I only saw 3 of them amongst the thousands in the hour or so that I spent on the island so there must be an awful lot of them somewhere else.

"Bridled" Guillemot

Razorbills tend to nest in isolated and smaller colonies towards the edge of the more numerous Guillemots. Superficially similar to its cousins, I think that Razorbills look a bit more stately, definitely more statuesque. They also have an amazing bright yellow mouth which is eye-catching when the bill is held open. The Shag also shares this brightly coloured inner mouth so there must be something to it, perhaps fish are attracted to it, very unscientific I know, but then I am just that.

Kittiwakes, our most maritime of Gull species are also the most demure looking. They appear as if butter wouldn't melt. But they are noisy birds and the cliffs echo to their onomatopoeic calls and yet when sat upon their nests of mud and just about everything else that they can build one from, they sit so quietly. Nest building material is a prized commodity in a Seabird colony and any bird that finds some has to be wary of others that may try to pinch it.

Less conspicuous here but still present in small numbers are the Fulmar, a northern relation of the southern Albatrosses. They glide around the islands using the updrafts of the cliffs and are complete masters of the art of flying. To my eyes they appear as if they are smiling!

There are predators on the islands too in the shape of several Gull species. Some of these actually have nests within the "visitors area" marked by canes and tape flags to prevent eggs getting trampled. I inquired about whether the eggs would survive being unguarded but was assured by the wardens that they can survive for a fair few hours between incubation periods. Another good reason that each island is only allowed visitors for a few hours in any day. 

Herring Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull
And of course there are the Puffins! Everybody's favourites. Except that they wouldn't even get in my top ten, or twenty even. I've never been a great fan of garish things, preferring stuff that's more sedate, and Puffins with that comical bill and big orange feet are definitely gaudy. But they do have that rather comical look and are not known as the clowns of the sea for nothing. And don't forget that ridiculous Puffin noise that they make, a deep "arrr-uh" as Collins so accurately puts it. I spotted one Puffin that appeared to mimicking Monty Python's "Ministry of silly walks" sketch!

I reminded myself that I'd never yet taken a photo of Puffins with a beak full of fish, so found myself a spot away from the crowds, left Mrs Caley admiring the stationary birds and tried to capture one of those iconic images. In the next 15 minutes I must have rattled off 200 frames of flying Puffins! But I did get a few of those photos that I wanted.

I found one Puffin, well it found me and my camera, with a different mouthful. This one had a feather to line its nesting burrow.

It was almost time to catch the boat so we made our way back towards the jetty. I paused to take more photos of everything! A Puffin with nesting material, a sleepy Guillemot and a pair of amorous Shags all caught my eye and my lens. Now I was thinking what I could do with more time on the islands if on the all day trip! Maybe next year.

Once our boat had been cleared for landing we boarded safely and were treated to a round island tour while the skipper related some of the history of the islands, including the tale of the heroine Grace Darling. I hardly listened to a word since history has never really interested me, philistine that I am and it is yesterday's news after all. I was far too occupied taking more photos since I had convinced myself, rather snobbishly I'm ashamed to admit, that shots taken from a moving boat are worth far more than those taken from terra firma. I was pleased to discover that, when I pointed the camera towards an incoming Guillemot, it was of the Bridled form. A Kittiwake carrying a piece of a weedy plant to add to its nest also made for a pleasing image.

We cruised past a Seal colony on an island, I can't remember which one since I wasn't listening as usual and besides I can't get excited by Seals at all, apart from the fact that when they stick their heads out of the water they remind me of my beautiful dear departed Cocker Spaniel, Bobby Box (aka Burberry).

Dozy Seals
A friend of mine works for Trinity House the lighthouse people, Grace Darling is probably his heroine too, so I always take photos of any lighthouses that I see and then test him on them. He always gets them right and so he should since he is the chief light bulb changer. 

Longstones Lighthouse
Inner Farne Lighthouse
As we turned away from the islands an Arctic Tern flew alongside the boat. The main Tern colonies are on Inner Farne, the island that we wouldn't be landing on but I'd already seen all British breeding species except for the Roseate and we'd be seeing those tomorrow, fingers crossed.

Arctic Tern
The Farne Islands are a bird photographers paradise and my own personal claim that "I'm a birder first and foremost and a togger second" was severely tested for its validity. And I definitely think that I could take photos for over 6 hours by taking in the all day trip and not get bored, although I'm not sure I'd ever find the time to edit them all! I'm not sure whether that £160 plus outlay for the two of us is justified though.

And guess what? It was chucking it down once again when we arrived back in port!