Wednesday, 7 June 2017

29th May - The Farne Islands, Northumberland, Part 2

So after the journey around the islands on the boat we were finally being able to walk on one of the islands.  All the time we had been out there had been the threat of rain, and there was always a few drops about.  We had to wait to leave the boat, and as we watched people walking up the hill towards the visitor centre, the Arctic Terns were going crazy, hovering above the heads of the visitors and dive bombing on to the hats and hoods as they made their way.

When our turn came it wasn't with trepidation that I walked up the hill it was with excitement.  The terns could be seen on the side of the path, and as they flew up you could see the lovely olive green spotted eggs left in amongst a small amount of grass.  The terns called at you from the posts, their little red bills chattering away as they did so, then they would burst up into the air and you could hear them above your head, then feel them as their dagger sharp bills landed on your head.  Thank goodness I had a hat and hood, as with my lack of hair they would most definitely have drawn blood.

What it did mean was that for the short walk I didn't get the camera out, and I assumed that there would be plenty of opportunities later.  When we reached the visitor centre I did manage to capture one of these feisty little birds as for once it sat calmly just watching me, sizing me up.

We headed along the board walk still being dive bombed by the terns.  One paid me particular attention, pecking at my head quite a few times, then bizarrely it settled on my head.

And it stayed there as I walked along the board walk for about 100 yards before leaving me a little present and returning to the area of its nest site, quite magical, I was in love with this place already

Our first Puffin in the grass was seen amongst a colony of Sandwich Terns, they always have that look of being totally lost about them.

We reached the Lighthouse and turned south to a viewpoint over the cliffs, a pair of Kittiwakes were reinforcing their pair bond with some bill rubbing and nuzzling around the neck.  The pure white of their necks and head contrasting wonderfully with the dark rocks behind them.

All around us were seabirds, and close enough you could reach out and touch them, but of course nobody did.  Guillemots and Razorbills were close in, but it was the Shags that took your attention.  Sitting on young of differing ages the Shags would look at you while fluttering their neck pouches, and showing off their bright yellow gape

 Face on you can see the almost binocular vision of the lovely green eyes.

I have visited the Treshnish Isles off Mull, in Scotland and Skomer in Wales to see Puffins but we have never managed to see them in that classic pose with a beak full of Sand Eels, but as I looked around this cliff top there was one with a bill full of fish.

It has always been a sense of amusement between a long time friend of ours as to how they manage to hold so many and not lose them.  Here a front on view of that bill and the eels.

And again that lost look, as if to say "I know it is around here somewhere"

Puffins were everywhere all in different poses, whether taking the chance of a well earned rest.

 Or showing off with a double bill!  Doesn't that expression cry out for a caption?

Portrait opportunities are not something you get with wildlife photography, but here you can get close to wild birds, and while it might seem like a captive situation it isn't, this Razorbill is totally wild.

The island isn't very big, unlike Skomer or the Treshnish it takes very little time to walk around, and it is the size and the concentration of birds, that makes it truly different from those other islands.  We walked back towards the Lighthouse.  While other terns continued the fight, pecking my head, another just sat on the whitewashed wall, and with the white walled background of the light house it made for a lovely composition.  The thing aboutthe terns that hit us most, was how tiny their little red feet are, and the fact that the middle claw stands out black.

Around the corner it wasn't just the Terns that liked to sit on the wall, the Puffins were using it as well.

The majority of the Puffin burrows were in the centre of the island away from the cliff tops.  This area is also covered in White Campion flowers, while in amongst the burrows were a few small Rabbits probably descendants of those bought here by the monks all those years ago.

The white campion was also an attraction to the only butterfly I saw on the island, a Painted Lady.  Unfortunately it was gone before I could get any chance to photograph it.

Just like the Great Black-backed Gull around the Guillemot colony earlier it was no surprise to see the slightly smaller Lesser Black-backed Gull patrolling the vegetation around the burrows.

The Puffins on the rocks keeping an eye on where exactly it was

 More Kittiwake bonding now, cue Marvin Gaye

A Puffin standing outside its burrow

Bedding down amongst the White Campion

And a close up portrait showing the remarkable eye make even Leo Sayer would be proud of, but this show really just keeps going on

While there were many Puffins visible both in the air, and on the rocks and grass around us, there were probably many below ground.  This burrow was alongside the boardwalk, and I noticed this little Puffin looking out probably wondering if it was all clear.

Puffins were flying in from the sea with bills full of eels, and as they arrived they would be chased by Black-headed Gulls who were looking to steal their catch intended for the pufflings (there I got it in without seeing one) in the burrows.  Puffins are not the best of flyers, let alone any good at landing and as they come in they aim for the burrow, and have to fly through the attacks of the Black-headed Gulls.  This involves a tumble and scramble and hopefully arriving at the entrance to the burrow with eels intact.  But on many occasions we saw the gulls win out and the Puffin drop its catch.  

This time though the aggressor wasn't the smaller Black-headed Gulls but the larger Lesser Black-backed, and it was much rougher, as if going for the Puffin, but thankfully the Puffin just let the eels go, and then bravely stared down the larger gull from the entrance to its burrow.

Back at the lighthouse a Puffin was back on the wall, this time with a bill full of eels.  we noted that the time the gulls appear to attack is when they fly in to the burrows, they are left alone when standing on the rocks, it must be that vulnerability as they come into land.

Closer up you can appreciate how they hold the fish tight.  The inside of their beaks have a thick orange layer of skin that acts as a gripper against the slimy scales of the fish, and its tongue is specially adapted to hold the fish against the orange pad, allowing for maximum grip. It is able to carry up to 10 fish in their beaks, but have been seen to squash even more in there for a short amount of time.

I turned my attention now to the Puffins flying in with their catch.  

Picking out one individual at a distance and then tracking it as it came close

Head on a different view.

As the Puffins flew above us we turned our attention back to the cliffs, first passing the gauntlet of the Arctic Terns once again.

The beauty once again of the Kittiwake in flight.

And the wonderful bottle green bronzed plumage of the Shag.

Of all the auks present I have the least fascination with the Guillemots, however, in amongst the common Guillemots there are a few Bridled Guillemots, These are so called because they have a white ring around the eye, and a white line running towards the ear.  Bridled means spectacled and they can be called Spectacled Guillemots. which in fact is what this mark looks like.  

These birds are not considered a sub species but the difference is said to be caused by a mutant gene.  The percentages of Bridled birds varies as you go north, in the south of Britain it is low at around 0.5% while in Iceland it can be the majority of the population.  here on the Farne Islands the estimate is that about 5 percent of the population have this quirk, and it does make them look a little bit special.

Another special portrait was of a Kittiwake against the blackness of the rocks and sea below.

We were walked back down towards the visitor centre, and turned the camera on the Arctic Terns, that were continuing to attack visitors as they walked up the hill from their boats.  As they hover above the passing heads the translucence of their white plumage fades to a blur against the white sky.

And in this shot you can see exactly what you hear above you as yo walk past the terns, the flurry of wings, the sharpness of that blood red bill, and the aggression.

But it wasn't all manic tucked away in the grass by the side of the path terns sat on eggs, and their mates would come in an offer fish to the sitting partner

Then all chaos broke out, terns were calling frantically, and the sky was full of flapping wings.  They concentrated their attack on the beach and we could see a Herring Gull on the sand.  The rangers went across the rocks to chase the gull away, but while the attention was on the gull we could see, another was behind us, and making several passes over the the terns nesting on the beach.  It landed and was immediately dive bombed and pooed on. 

It flew off again and was chased by the terns, you can see the droppings on its head and neck.

The terns immediate response is to leave the nest and take chase, but this played into the plans of the gull, and when it came back around again it found an unguarded nest and it swooped down and took an egg.  As it flew away the terns seemed to realise the attack was over, and a calm returned with the terns settling back down to their nests.

We had about half an hour left so we headed back to the lighthouse.  I stopped to check the Sandwich Terns that had been over looked earlier.

And I also managed to find a few Common Terns.

Back on the cliffs another Puffin close in with sand eels.

Again a nice portrait.

On the rocks they just seem to be considering when to run their gauntlet of the Black-headed Gulls back to their burrow.

A pair of Razorbills were sitting close to the fence, and were engaged in a bit of mutual preening.

Not often seen, or appreciated, the lovely yellow lining of the mouth.

The young Shags were now visible from beneath the parent bird begging to be fed.

It was now time to leave, and we headed back to the landing area.  On the chapel at the visitor centre Puffins lined the wall, while others flew in with that chaotic landing technique.

On the boat as we waited to leave the Arctic Terns were skimming the water alongside the boat, an attraction all the way to the end.

The boat made its way back to Seahouses through the rafts of auks, and the swarms of terns above us.  As we reached half way, an adult Gannet passed overhead, again heading south.

Coming into Seahouses harbour we passed once again the group of Eider.  Looking back on the day we did not really miss out on not being able to land on Staple Island, and in fact probably benefited by being able to see the dolphins and then spend more time on Inner Farne.  The weather behaved itself, although it would have been nice to have had some blue sky, but it was a wonderful day, the highlight being the Arctic Terns, and something I have longed to have seen and can now say I have experienced.  The photography opportunities are amazing, and I think I have taken every chance to get some really good shots.

All the island visits we have made have been different, and visiting any seabird breeding colony is something you just have to experience.


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