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Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Fabulous Farne Islands - on 16th July, 2012

Whilst on holiday in Northumberland I took a trip to the Farne Islands. I'd been there before on a bright and sunny day in late June three years ago, and found it to be an amazing place.

Several operators will take you to the Farne Islands from Seahouses in Northumberland. For some reason Billy Shiels' trips seem to be the most popular. That's who I went with last time, and that's who I booked with this time.

Four different trips are on offer: a non-landing trip where you can see the birds and Seals from the boat, a morning trip which gives you an hour on Staple Island, a trip which gives you and hour on Inner Farne,  and an all-day trip which gives you two hours each on Staple Island and Inner Farne.

Last time I went for the trip landing on Inner Farne, and it was so good that I chose the same trip this time. The cost was £13 for an adult and this must be the best value boat trip available anywhere in UK!

I arrived a little early in order to collect and pay for my ticket, and then took a stroll along the mole. A couple of Shags were fishing for crabs in the harbour.

Shag - Seahouses
Departure time was set at 12:00 noon, although it was shortly after this when Glad Tidings VII (all of Billy's boats are named 'Glad Tidings') arrived for our group.
MV Glad Tidings VII - Seahouses

There was plenty of space on board, with most of the seats round the edge taken up, but with virtually all of the centre seats free. Having left the harbour, the water was somewhat rougher, but not uncomfortable, as we headed over to the Farnes. I was, initially, a bit disappointed that the weather was quite dull and grey, and a bit windy. However, in retrospect, it probably made photography a little easier as most of the birds we were to see were, broadly speaking, black and white, and balancing exposure of such birds in bright sunshine is hazardous with the likelihood of 'burn out' of whites, or total loss of detail in the darker colours. As it happened such problems only happened a few times on this day, and the only real downside was the lack of glint in the eyes of the birds.

I apologise, in advance, for the number of images there will be in this post. I was tempted to drastically reduce the numbers, but I want to try and convey to you the amazing photographic opportunities you can get in just two hours - yes, two hours!! I banged off about 800 frames in this time! The trip lasts approximately two and a half hours. Half an hour of this is travelling across open water, with little seen on this occasion.

As we approached the islands we started seeing sea birds out on the water. Some of these took to flight as we approached.

Puffin - Farne Islands

We first approached Staple Island - a bird sanctuary with thousands of birds nesting on the cliffs. Here we were treated to nesting Shags.

Shag - Farne Islands

The best way to see the Kittiwakes is also from the boat as these tend to be half way down the cliff faces.

Kittiwake - Farne Islands
I think of Kittiwakes as being extremely elegant birds, but their very different juveniles also look rather smart.

Kittiwake (juvenile) - Farne Islands

The Puffins confined themselves to the cliff tops, except when they were out on the water, fishing.

Puffin - Farne Islands

We took a break from birdwatching at the cliffs, and went off to find Grey Seals. It wasn't hard!! We must have seen at least a couple of hundred of them! Mainly we saw heads bobbing in the water, often very close, but we did also see a number that were 'hauled out'. The seal in the first image seems to have been in a scrap. It was on its own, looking rather sorry for itself, and was bloody on its side, left flipper, and neck.

Grey Seal - Farne Islands

After our session with the seals, it was off for some more cliff watching from the boat. The Shags gave us more opportunities.

Shag - Farne Islands

A solitary sighting of a passing Fulmar was much appreciated - by me at any rate!

Fulmar - Farne Islands

We also passed by the legendary Longstone Lighthouse of Grace Darling fame.

Longstone Lighthouse - Farne Islands

Further on I took a shot of an Eider - I think that this was an eclipse male, rather than a juvenile male?

Eider (eclipse male?) - Farne Islands

We had more encounters with Kittiwakes.

Kittiwake - Farne Islands

As we approached Inner Farne, we could see that the Puffins were starting to congregate into groups on the cliff tops, prior to setting off on their long winter at sea. In the second image, below, you can see (in the background) other Puffins sitting outside their burrows.

Puffin - Farne Islands

Just before landing I managed some shots of a pair of Razorbills.

Razorbill - Farne Islands
All this was before we landed on Inner Farne. The best was yet to come! We were given an hour on the island, and those people that were not National Trust members had to pay an extra £6.20 to land on the island - it still meant less than £20 for the whole trip!!

The first thing that you find is the Arctic Terns. You can't miss them, and they won't miss you! On my previous visit in June they still had ground nests with eggs, or very tiny chicks. They often choose to nest very near the walkways, and tend to attack anyone who gets near them. You are advised to wear a hat and, if it is a thin one, stuff a newspaper under it. The Terns will land on your head and peck at you. Sadly, a few chicks are lost each year to people who don't watch where they are putting their feet. On this visit I didn't witness such aggressive behaviour from the Terns, although many of the Arctic Terns were flying threateningly close.

This was the only small chick I saw - maybe worryingly small?

Arctic Tern (chick) - Farne Islands
There were plenty of juvenile Arctic Terns around.

Arctic Tern (juvenile) - Farne Islands

- but the adults put on a good show!

I'd have liked to have spent more time taking flight shots, but time was short and there was so much more to see!

A good place to go is a cliff-top viewing area past the lighthouse. First I concentrated on some Shags there.

Shag - Farne Islands

Next up were a couple of Kittiwake who were nearer the top of the cliff.

Kittiwake - Farne Islands

There were also Razorbill up here.

Razorbill - Farne Islands

However, the clue to the real stars is in the last two images. Those Puffins are just so cute and photogenic! Their bills appear to be stitched on - as you can see in the close-up head shots.

Puffin - Farne Islands
I'd have liked to get some Puffin flight shots as these can be really appealing. However, time was running out on me and I hadn't yet found the Sandwich Terns, which had moved from the area that they were in on my previous visit. When I did find them they were somewhat more distant than all the other species seen, and photography was rather more problematic, it being more difficult to get ground shots than flight shots.

Sandwich Tern - Farne Islands

All too soon it was time to return to the boat for the trip back to Seahouses. First, however, we called in under the cliffs where there were Guillemot, and a few images were obtained.

Guillemot - Farne Islands

This just has to be some of the best value birding anywhere - all this in less than three hours and for less than £20! If you've not been before, I hope that I've given you the inspiration to go there, although you might be best off waiting for next summer as the birds are probably thinning out by now.


  1. Richard, these are absolutely superb photos. Thank you for sharing them. and whetting our appetite! My wife and I are visiting the area in mid-September this year, for the first time. I know there won't be so much birdlife, (and no Puffins!) but we're looking forward to experiencing this special place anyway. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Paul. I hope that you have a great time in the area, although the Terns and Puffins will have gone. However, there could be some interesting migrants passing through! Northumberland is one of our favourite English counties.


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