Tuesday, 6 June 2017

29th May - The Farne Islands, Northumberland, Part 1

We awoke early to overcast skies, the forecast was not too bad, but there was rain about, and there was the potential for it to head our way, but maybe later on this afternoon.  After a quick breakfast we walked down the road into Seahouses, we were booked on an all day trip that would sail around the 20 odd islands (depending on the tide) that form the Farnes archipelago, with landings in the morning on Staple Island, and then in the afternoon on Inner Farne.  As always I was panicking over being late, and ended up rushing up to the appropriate hut on the harbour.

The concern was quickly dispelled when I was informed that the National Trust had been informed it would be raining around 10.00am (despite all the forecasts saying different), so they would not allow a landing on Staple Island due to safety concerns of wet rocks.  The whole trip was not cancelled though, the intention now was to leave at 11.30am when we would sail around the islands to start with, and then land on Inner Farne at 13.15pm when it opens to the public, we were also told w would get more time on this island than previously planned.

So what to do now?  We had now just over two hours to kill, so we headed down to the beach to the north of the harbour.  Looking out across the rocks we found a creche of Eider ducks, in total 18 ducklings being escorted by six females.

Eider are colonial breeders, and will often return to the same sites to breed.  This results in a high degree of relatedness between the nesting individuals, they all know each other, and they all look out for each other, the most striking being the cooperative breeding behaviour of creching where the female Eider team up and share the raising of the ducklings.

We watched this creche move across the rocks, into the open water, one or two of the ducklings struggling to keep up.

From the open water they swam around to a small bay full of kelp, and probably rich in insects to feed.

The cloud cover was now darkening as we walked along the top of the cliff.  A sign that probably rain was on the way were the Swifts that flew from the houses on the cliff top along the edge of cliff.

We dropped down onto the beach fro a short while, but with drops of rain falling we decided to make our way back into the town to find a cafe for a coffee.  Looking out from the beach we could see Inner Farne and its lighthouse and we wondered if we would get there.

 As we reached Seahouses, it started to rain quite heavily - it was 10.00am! - we had a cup of coffee and waited for the rain to ease then walked down to the harbour again.  At 11.30 with the rain stopped we boarded the boat and started the journey out to the islands.  As we left the harbour we passed more Eider feeding around the exposed kelp.

After about five minutes into the trip the boat's engines eased and the captain announced there were dolphins about.  Then in front of another boat close by, two Bottle-nosed Dolphins appeared on the bow wave.

It then became clear that there were at least five dolphins along side us although it was difficult to get a good clear view to photograph them.  Finally with the boat turning and the Dolphins heading towards us I was able to get a clear shot.

They were clearly enjoying the interaction with the boast and cam alongside, so close that you could almost reach out and touch them.

A great start to the trip, and would we have seen them if we had of gone out on time?

Leaving the dolphins we headed on towards the islands.  Now for some geography and history. 

The islands are scattered about 1½–4¾ miles from the mainland, and as stated previously consist of 15 to 20 islands depending on the state of the tide.  They are divided into two groups, the Inner Group and the Outer Group. The main islands in the Inner Group are Inner Farne, Knoxes Reef and the East and West Wideopens (all joined together on very low tides) and (somewhat separated) the Megstone; the main islands in the Outer Group are Staple Island, the Brownsman, North and South Wamses, Big Harcar and the Longstone. The two groups are separated by Staple Sound. The highest point in the island group is on Inner Farne, at 62 feet.

The islands are first recorded in 651, when they became home to Saint Aidan, followed by Saint Cuthbert. Cuthbert isolated himself on the islands until he was called to the bishopric of Lindisfarne, but after two years he returned to the solitude of the Inner Farne and died there in 687.  Saint Cuthbert introduced special laws in 676 protecting the eider ducks, and other seabirds nesting on the islands; these are thought to be the earliest bird protection laws anywhere in the world.

The islands were used by hermits intermittently from the seventh century.  A formal monastic cell of Benedictine monks was established on the islands around 1255. The cell was dependent on Durham Abbey, now Durham Cathedral. A very small cell, it was usually home to only two monks, although on occasion this rose to as many as six. The cell was dissolved in 1536 

Following the dissolution of the monastic cell on the islands, the islands became the property of the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, who leased them to various tenants. In 1894 the islands were bought by the industrialist William Armstrong, whose residence, Cragside is about 45 minutes from Seahouses.  Today the islands are owned by the National Trust.

As we got closer to the islands we started to encounter large rafts of Guillemots and Puffins on the sea, and in amongst these Razorbills and Shags.

 As we would not be landing on Staple island, the boat headed east to the farthest side of the islands.  We came alongside a large colony of Grey Seals, some in the water but the majority out on the rocks.

Squabbles would break out amongst the large males on the rocks, and the air would fill with mist, condensation from the seal's breath as it hit the cooler air.

The Atlantic Grey Seal is the largest breeding mammal in the UK, and can be identified from the other seal seen around our shore the Common Seal by the conspicuously long and broad head that has no obvious forehead.  

Adult males are up to three times larger than the females, and have a larger head and snout.  The males are generally a dark grey or brown in colour, while the females are lighter and more silvery with dark spots.

As with all seals they are very ill at ease on the land but this changes as they slip into the water.

We left the seals and started to cruise around the shoreline of the smaller islands.  Auks and terns flew past us.  I could quickly identify the delicate Arctic Terns, but one stood out as different as it passed the boat.  It had smaller wings than the Arctics, and as a result appeared to have long tail streamers, the flight was also different, the wing beats not being as deep as the surrounding Arctic Terns, finally it had an all black bill.  Unfortunately as I tried to get the camera on it I lost it, and with it my one good chance to photograph a Roseate Tern.  Roseate have a breeding colony to the south from here on Coquet Island, and there have been attempts on the Farne Islands.  It was shame I didn't get the photograph but I was pleased with the find.

There were plenty of auks on the rocks and water.  The commonest is the Guillemot, followed by the Puffins, the least frequent in numbers but probably the most charismatic are the Razorbills.

The Puffins too showed little concern for the presence of the boat.

Depending on the direction of the wind adjacent to the boat position there was the possibility of experiencing the islands with the sense of smell.  All the rocks were covered in white from the many droppings of thousands of sea birds, and with the droppings came the smell.

But despite all these numbers it is the Puffins that all the visitors come to see, and after seeing them on the water as we sailed towards the islands we had our first views of them on the rocks.

The general opinion of the others in the boat was how much smaller they were than was expected.  I am not sure how big they were expected to be!

The Razorbill is always distinguished from the Guillemot not just through the shape of the bill, but with it being much darker, almost black.  Up close though it is very much a brown bird.

 The Shags on the lower rocks, again from a distance they can be dismissed as another black cormorant but up close you can see they have a beautiful irridesant bottle green plumage.

And amazing green eyes

Eider were also feeding around the edge of the islands, and now it was possible to get quite close to the drakes.  

The black and white plumage supplemented with the green patch on the nape.

Everything was so busy and noisy, and no where more so  than in amongst the hundreds of Guillemots collecting on the rocks.

And as always is the case, where large numbers of breeding birds gather so do the predators, and the main apex predator around these islands of the nesting seabirds is the Great Black-backed Gull.

The boat now sailed through Staple Sound where hundreds of Arctic Terns were nesting on the rocks, and as we passed they all went up in snow storm of birds, the long deep wing beats adding to the spectacle.

On the rocks we now came across Kittiwakes nesting, the pairs going through an intimate greeting when one returns to the nest.

We were now on our way to the island of Inner Farne, where we would be able to land and spend some time amongst the sea birds.  Looking south across the sea and through the islands it was possible to make out the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle while dotted all around it were the birds as they raced too and fro from the sea to the islands.

More Razorbills on the water, again quite unconcerned by the boat, and showing their perfect adaptability to the water rather than their clumsy movements on land.

 Face on, you can see the lovely white stripe of an eye liner.

The first Gannets  of the day passed by, they do not breed here, but were either wanderers from the Firth of the Forth, or returning south to Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire.

A better view of Dunstanburgh Castle now as we headed towards the Inner FarneOn the mainland it is close to where we had dinner last night in Caster.  This picture was taken in black and white

As we approached the docking area there were many more Arctic Terns, on the beach and over the water.  As they skimmed low over the sea they would send reflections into the water.

Finally we came ashore and the moment I had been looking forward to walking amongst the birds on the Farne Islands.  I have seen it on the television, and have always wanted to experience it, lets hope it doesn't disappoint.  This ends the first part of the trip, I don't believe that we missed much by not being able to land on Staple Island, maybe just the experience of the seabird colony close up.  However as a result we could spend more time on Inner Farne and as a result there is plenty more to come

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