ATTACK OF THE TERNS @ FABULOUS FARNE ISLANDS

June 1, 2019

On Saturday I visited the Farne Islands which are located just a couple of miles off the coast of Northumberland at the village of Seahouses.  There are several islands that make up the Farne Islands with the main three being Inner Farne, Staple and Longstone.  The islands are home to more than one hundred thousand sea birds such as Puffins, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Shags, Eider Ducks, Common Terns, Arctic Terns, Sandwich Terns and Roseate Terns as well as many others.

 

The islands were originally inhabited by Monks and Hermits from as early as the 7th century with the islands first recorded inhabitant being Saint Aidan in 651, followed by Saint Cuthbert who died on the islands in 687.  Saint Cuthbert introduced special laws in 676 protecting Eider Ducks and other seabirds nesting on the islands and these are thought to be the first bird protection laws in the world.  The last hermit to inhabit the island was Thomas De Melsonby who died in 1246 and a formal monastic cell of Benedictine monks was established in 1255.

 

The cell was dependant on Durham Abbey, now a Cathedral, and was usually home to just two monks with the cell being dissolved in 1536 via King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.  Following the dissolution, the islands became the property of the Dean & Chapter of Durham Cathedral and remained part of County Durham until 1844 when it was transferred to Northumberland.  In 1861 the islands were sold to the Archdeacon of Durham, Charles Thorp and in 1894 the islands were sold again to industrialist William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong.

 

Ownership of the islands is now with the National Trust and remains still exist of the 14th century St Cuthbert's Chapel associated with the monks that inhabited the islands.  One of the islands more famous residents is Grace Darling who along with her father rescued nine people from the wreck of the Forfarshire during a strong gale and thick fog on 7th September 1838.  Her father William was the lighthouse keeper on Longstone Island, and she was just twenty-two at the time of the rescue. 

Today the islands have no permanent residents with only National Trust Assistant Rangers living on the islands between March & December.  On Inner Farne they live in the old pele tower (built around 1500 for the Prior of Durham, Thomas Castel) and in the lighthouse cottage on Brownsman.  The first lighthouse, Farne Lighthouse, was built on Inner Farne in 1673 but never lit and was replaced in 1778 and was replaced again with the current lighthouse in 1811.  Longstone Lighthouse was built in 1826, replacing Brownsman Lighthouse which had been built in 1811. 

 

There was a lighthouse on Staple Island, built in 1778 and blown down 1784, as was its replacement by heavy seas in 1800.  All the operational lighthouses on the islands are now automatic and have no resident keepers.  During the warmer months the islands are an important habitat for wildlife and are visited by boat trips departing from Seahouses.  Local boats are licensed to land passengers on Inner Farne, Staple Island and Longstone with landing on other islands not allowed to protect the wildlife.

Arctic Terns nest very close to the paths and will attack visitors who come too close and you are strongly recommended to wear a hat.  The islands are also home to a large colony of around six thousand Grey Seals with several pups born every year.  As mentioned earlier there are many birds that nest on the islands with more than 37,000 pairs of Puffins, 4,000+ pairs of Kittiwakes, 1,000+ pairs of Sandwich Terns, 50,000 Guillemots and more than 1,000 pairs of Arctic Terns.

 

A total of 290 bird species have been recorded on the Farne Islands with rarities such as an Aleutian Tern in 1979 and a Lesser Crested Tern every year between 1984 and 1997.  Arctic Terns can fly very long distances and a chick ringed on the Farne Islands in 1982 reached Melbourne, Australia just a few months later.  The Farnes are resistant igneous Dolerite outcrops and were originally attached to the mainland but were surrounded by areas of less resistance limestone turning them into islands. 

 

Because of the igneous Dolerite the islands have steep and, in some places, vertical cliffs with some stacks up to 66 feet tall.  The islands are very popular with bird watchers and scuba divers with a few different companies offering boat trips to the islands.  The island is popular with scuba divers due to the fact that hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the islands over the years and that provides the divers with plenty to look at as well as the inquisitive Grey Seals.

I had booked my trip with Serenity Farne Island Tours at 12:45pm so I set off at 8am for Seahouses as the journey takes around three hours.  It was a cloudy but fairly warm day as I drove northwards and I arrived at Seahouses just after 11am and after leaving my car in the main car park I walked the short distance down to the harbour.  I walked over to the Serenity kiosk and paid the £20 for the trip and was asked to return to that point at 12:30pm when I would be escorted to the boat.

 

As the Farne Islands are looked after by the National Trust you must pay a landing fee of £11.50 unless you are a member in which case it is free.  Once I had paid my landing fee, I headed to the right-hand harbour wall as the left hand one was currently closed for repairs.  Perched on boats and in the sea were several Lesser Black Backed Gulls whilst flying overhead were Starlings and House Sparrows.  I now walked down onto a short stretch of sand and followed the sea wall round to a rocky area where a group of House Martins were swooping in and landing at the edge of small rock pools for a drink.

 

They were also probing small areas of mud near the rockpools for food whilst a lot further out I spotted several Eider Ducks.  After a few minutes three female Eider Ducks swam a little closer to me with several chicks in tow before they disappeared behind a long and large pile of rocks to my left.  Halfway along these rocks I spotted what looked like a Pipit, but it dropped out of view only to reappear a little further to the right.  It made its way down the rocks and onto an area of seaweed which was covering the rockpools in front of me where I was able to identify it as a Rock Pipit.

I watched the Rock Pipit searching amongst the seaweed for food and after a few minutes I walked back round to the Serenity kiosk as it was now approaching 12:30pm.  As I neared the Kiosk, I could see several Starlings perched on a wire close to a stone wall with a couple of House Sparrows gripping onto the stone wall.  Whilst I was waiting for the boat to arrive in the harbour, I had a look over the wall behind the kiosk.  From here I could see the sea to the left of the harbour where on the rocks below me I could see several Lesser Black Backed Gulls and Herring Gulls whilst further out I could see a pair of Oystercatchers.

 

A Herring Gull now picked up what looked like a chip from the edge of the water but on closer inspection it turned out to be a short strip of hard plastic.  It proceeded to take it up onto the rocks and began to move it about in its beak trying to work out how to eat it but thankfully gave up in the end.  At 12:40pm everyone booked on the tour was escorted through a narrow steel gate as the boat pulled up in the harbour and at 12:45pm the boat moved through the harbour, passing the Eider Ducks as it reached the entrance to the harbour. 

 

The water had been calm in the harbour, but as we made the journey across the sea towards the Farne Islands, the sea started to get a little rougher as a couple of Shags flew low over the water back towards Seahouses.  When we were around halfway, I started to see small groups of Guillemots flying over the water with the odd Puffin on the surface.  As we got even closer the number of Puffins and Guillemots increased with several on the water close to the boat with a few more Shags flying on towards the islands.

We had now approached Inner Farne and the boat turned to the right and on the precarious rock face round the edge of the island I could see hundreds of Guillemots as well as Kittiwakes, Shags and Puffins.  After a couple of minutes, we turned to the left and sailed between two small islands as Puffins, Guillemots, Gannets and Arctic Terns flew over the boat with several more Guillemots on the water around me.  We had now arrived at Staple Island and the boat turned left into a cove where the cliffs surrounded the boat on three sides.  The rocks were awash with Guillemots and Kittiwakes with a few Shags and Lesser Black Backed Gulls.

 

There were also around a hundred Guillemots in the water around the boat with more edging their way down the rocks occasionally looking up at the boat.  When they reached the edges of the rocks the Guillemots almost looked nervous as they prepared to jump as they dithered on the edge before jumping off and into the water.  The boat rotated one hundred and eighty degrees in the cove, and I was able to see close up views of Kittiwakes on their nest. 

 

The boat now moved out of the cove and sailed alongside part of the island called the Pinnacles which were covered in yet more Guillemots.  There were four pinnacles, but in December of 1783 the fourth pinnacle came down during a storm and at low tide the remains can be seen.  The boat rounded the submerged fourth pinnacle and headed a short distance down the other side where on the cliff tops, I could see Puffins, Guillemots and a lone Shag.  On the top of a rock a little closer to the boat was a Razorbill busy preening before it paused to look out across the water before then flying off.

We were now between Staple and Brownsman Islands and the boat stopped next to Brownsman Island to allow a view of the rocks which were occupied by hundreds more Guillemots with a few Kittiwakes dotted amongst them.  Our next stop was Longstone Island where the lighthouse was the home of Grace Darling and her father William.  On September 7th, 1838 the SS Forfarshire ran aground on nearby Big Harcar Island during its journey from Dundee to Hull.  Of the 60 crew on board 9 managed to escape in the ship’s lifeboat whilst Grace and William rescue 9 more from the rocks whilst the rest sadly perished. 

 

Across the water heading westwards I saw a group of seals basking on the banks of Big Harcar Island.  The boat now turned and headed for our final destination, Inner Farne Island and after waiting for another boat to depart the jetties, our boat docked, and I now had one hour to spend on Inner Farne before the boat would return.  I stepped off the boat and I had only walked a very short distance when I saw several Arctic Terns on the rocks to my right and on the small beach known as St Cuthbert’s Cove to my left with even more overhead. 

As I stepped onto the boardwalk it turned to the right and began to climb the hill towards the visitor centre.  Arctic Terns were nesting right next to the path with some of them flying up and giving visitors a tap on the head with the tip of their beak trying to move you away from their nest site.  As there were hundreds of Arctic Tern nests on this part of the island, once you had moved away from one you were immediately walking beside the next one.  As I walked up the hill, I could see several Arctic Terns sat on nests hidden amongst the undergrowth with one sat on a wooden post.

 

I made my way up to the top and turned left just before I reached the visitor centre, as I turned to the left and walked up a short steep wooden ramp as I was given a couple of taps on the head by the Terns.  The path now levelled out and on a stone wall to my right, sat on a nest, was an Arctic Tern whilst along the side of the path and on the stone wall were several more Arctic Terns, most on nests with a couple of them having Sand Eels in their beaks.  A short distance along the path it splits in two to form a loop taking you round the island and here I turned right as I received more taps on the head from the Terns. 

Close to the path on my left were four female Eider Ducks, all sat on nests whilst over to my right on the stone wall were a few Black Headed Gulls who were also on nests.  As I walked along, I got another tap on the head from a Tern but in the middle of the grass to my left, I spotted a group of Sandwich Terns and a couple of Puffins.  An Arctic Tern perched on a short wooden post just in front of me as the stone wall turned away from the path.  Further away from me I could see a group of around forty to fifty Puffins on the rocks at the cliff edge with more further round to the right and left.

 

On the middle of the island to my left Puffins were coming and going from their burrows with the Black Headed Gulls trying to snatch the Sand Eels from them when they returned.  Back to the other side of the path and I could see a pair of Eider Ducks on the rocks a short distance away and a short distance to the left of them there was a lone Oystercatcher preening itself before it walked across the rock towards the Eiders.  Amongst some gulls there was a tug of war between a Herring Gull and a Lesser Black Backed Gull with the beaks locked together as they pulled back and forth arguing over a piece of food.

I watched the Puffins milling about in the middle of the island and every time one returned with Sand Eels it was immediately mobbed by Black Headed Gulls as it scurried across the ground and disappeared down its burrow.  At the western corner of the island there is a path leading off to the Quarry viewpoint and from here I could see a couple of Shags on nests as well as several Guillemots and Puffins and a couple of Razorbills.  I returned to the path round the island and headed uphill towards the Inner Farne Lighthouse and halfway along I stopped to watch the Puffins as they returned to their burrows on the island to my left.  

 

I saw a Puffin fly in with Sand Eels and landed amongst the White Campion flowers and it was immediately set upon by the Gulls, but it managed to escape and drop down into its burrow with its catch intact.  Over to the other side of the path I spotted a Puffin stood surrounded by White Campion flowers and I now finished the walk up to the lighthouse where there were picnic tables and a viewing area with hundreds of Puffins close by.  I spent several minutes watching the Puffins with some returning with their beaks stuffed full of Sand Eels.

They had to weave between the other Puffins before darting down their burrows, but on this side of the path they were not being mobbed by the Gulls.  I now walked round the Lighthouse to the Cliffs viewpoint and at the other side were Shags, Kittiwakes and Razorbills nesting right next to it, just inches from you.  Stood over to my right were more Puffins and a pair of Shags whilst over to the left were hundreds more Puffins with quite a few asleep right next to the viewpoint.  One of the Puffins was stood with two long Sand Eels hanging from it and another Puffin kept trying to pinch them.  The Puffin with the Sand Eels kept waddling away closely followed by the other until it gave up chasing and flew off. 

 

My hours stay on Inner Farne was nearly up, so I retraced my steps and then continued round the loop and around fifty yards from the visitor centre there are small ponds either side of the path which currently had Mallards on.  Beyond the ponds I re-entered the gauntlet of Terns as I could see large numbers of them nesting close to the path and one of them gave me a tap on the head with its beak.  There were also Arctic Terns perched on the walls either side of me as I headed towards the visitor centre and on the ground next to the path, I noticed a Tern with a different coloured beak to the Arctic Terns around me. 

I took a picture of it and I was later able to identify it as a Roseate Tern, taking the number of Tern species to three with Arctic, Sandwich and Roseate having been spotted on my trip.  Before I returned to the boat, I had to make the journey along the path between the visitor centre and St Cuthbert’s Chapel.  In this little enclosed courtyard, there were Arctic Tern nests everywhere you looked, and I received several Tern taps on the head going there and back.  As I reached start of the path down to the jetty there was an Arctic Tern perched on a wooden post with a Sand Eel in its mouth with several people crowded round taking photos of it.

 

There were still around a hundred Arctic Terns either side of the path as I walked down to the jetty and this time, I managed to avoid the tap on the head.  I re-boarded the boat and it took us out round past the lighthouse where the rocks below the viewpoint were covered with Puffins and Guillemots.  The boat now turned and headed back towards Seahouses harbour and on the journey across the sea there were more Guillemots in the water with an Arctic Tern even flying along over the boat for a short distance.

 

Back in the harbour the Eider Ducks were still around the rocks on the right-hand side of the harbour although the tide was further in and covering most of the rocks.  Once the boat had docked, I took another look over the wall behind the kiosks where there were still several Lesser Black Backed and Herring Gulls as well as a lone Oystercatcher.  There were also several Feral Pigeons and Starlings on the walls close to the harbour as I walked back up the hill towards the car parks.  Before I headed home, I popped into a fish & chip restaurant for a bite to eat and around an hour later I walked back to the car and began the three-hour drive back home.

 

I have attached quite a few photos and a full sightings list from my visit to the fabulous Farne Islands.