MAGICAL PUFFINS @ FABULOUS FARNE ISLANDS
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 CountyDurham 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, StapleIsland and Longstone with landing on other islands not allowed to protect the wildlife.
Arctic Terns nest very close to the path 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 a large number of 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 FarneIslands 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 FarneIslands 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 island has 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 islands are 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 hadn't been able to visit the Farne Islands in 2020 due to the pandemic and it was looking like I wouldn't be visiting this year until a couple of weeks ago. I had checked the Serenity Boat Tours website and three weeks ago they had announced they would be starting to land on Inner Farne from 21st June. I immediately booked and on Saturday I set off at 9am for the three hour trip to Seahouses where the boat departs from.
It was a warm but cloudy day when I arrived in Seahouses and as it was just after midday I went and sat on a bench overlooking the harbour. I could see on the water several Eider Ducks with chicks whilst flying overhead were Black Headed Gulls, House Martins and Swifts. There was also a Grey Heron fishing close to the waters edge whilst on a wall to my right were a pair of Jackdaws. A few people were feeding the Eider Ducks with Black Headed Gulls circling looking to get in on the act. One of the Black Headed Gulls made the mistake of landing near some Eider Duck chicks and within seconds the mother Eider Duck went for it, viciously attacking it and almost drowning the Gull.
Eventually the Black Headed Gull struggled free and flew off and I doubt it will be making that mistake again. Once I had finished my lunch I ventured onto the rock pools where there were Starlings sifting through the seaweed and near the edge of the sea was a Grey Heron fishing for food in the shallow water. I walked back round the Harbour to the Serenity Boat Tours kiosk and checked in for my 2:45pm trip and then over to the National Trust office to pay the landing fee as they currently look after the islands.
It was still around an hour till the boat departed so I took a look at the rocky area behind the various boat tour kiosks. Just over the wall I could see House Sparrows, Black Headed Gulls, Starlings and pair of Lesser Black Backed Gulls with an even larger group about a hundred yards to my left. Both the House Sparrows and Starlings were landing on the walls trying to get people to feed them. A pair of female Goosanders swam along near the water's edge, regularly diving under the surface of the water and an Oystercatcher landed on the rocks in front of me.
After preening itself for a few minutes it began to call out to another Oystercatcher which I couldn't see and then began to explore the rock pools, prising Limpets from the rocks and under the water. I watched for a long time as it moved around each rock pool and a few times it disappeared down a large crack in the rocks only to re-appear a few seconds later. It was now time to board the boat for the Farne Islands so I followed everyone else on the trip along the long left harbour wall right to the end and boarded a boat named Serenity II.
Just a few minutes after we left the harbour I began to see Guillemots and Puffins flying low over the sea. The nearer we got to the islands the greater the number of birds either flying low or resting on the sea. The boat first headed over to the east of a pair of islands called the Wideopens before round to a pair of islands called Little Scarcar & Big Scarcar. The boat edged through the narrow gap between the islands with several Shags on the right and around a dozen Grey Seals on the left. Once through the gap the boat spun round and as it began to go back through the gap between the islands I could see Shags, Cormorants and Herring Gulls on the rocks above the Seals.
From here the boat sailed across to Staple Island which during non Covid times you could also land on. The boat moved into an area known as Kittiwake Gully where as the name suggests there were large numbers of Kittiwakes as well as thousands of Guillemots. Amongst the Kittiwake nests were several chicks but the sheer number of Guillemots was staggering as they seemed to be almost everywhere. As we moved on to an area called the Pinnacles the tops of these rocks were covered in Guillemots and round the other side a few Kittiwake nests.
The sea was now starting to get a bit rough so the boat moved round to the other side of Brownsman Island where the sea was a bit calmer. As we moved along the edge of the island I could see large numbers of Guillemots, Puffins and Kittiwakes as well as a few Shags and a single Fulmar flying over head. A little further along I could see Great Black Backed Gull waiting for its opportunity to snatch one of the chicks and the further we went along the island the number of Guillemots grew and grew. From here the boat moved across to the Longstone Island which has one of the two lighthouses on the Farne Islands with the other being on Inner Farne.
It was now approaching our allotted time to land on Inner Farne so the boat began to make its way across towards the island. During the journey over there were large numbers of Arctic Terns flying overhead as well as a few Gannets. Once we neared the island the previous group had not yet departed the island so the boat took us along the western cliffs of the island giving us excellent views of Guillemots, Puffins, Shags and Kittiwakes. After a few minutes the boat returned round to the point where we were to disembark the boat and the previous group were just leaving so as their boat left ours moved in to let us venture onto the island.
Normally there are large numbers of Arctic Terns nesting on Inner Farne but this year there wasn't a single nest as the Arctic Terns were nesting elsewhere in the Farne Islands as well as other islands further away. As I started to make my way up the ramp towards St Cuthbert's Chapel there were three Puffins perched on top of a small stone building just to the left of the path. Once I reached the chapel I turned to the left and up onto the main path which runs in a loop round in Inner Farne. There were a few Black Headed Gulls perched on the stone wall to my right as more Arctic Terns flew overhead.
The path was currently only one way due to covid regulations, going in a clockwise direction and after a short distance I could see large numbers of Sandwich Terns with several chicks amongst a bare patch in the vegetation. I had seen Sandwich Terns on the FarneIslands before but not this many or with chicks and as I was watching them a couple of Puffins waddled through the middle of them. I walked a little further along and on the opposite side of the path there was a Common Tern busy preening itself and a Pied Wagtail scurrying along the edge of a small pond.
Further along there were large numbers of Puffin and sadly a Great Black Backed Gull busily tucking into a juvenile Puffin which it had recently caught. I had now reached the lighthouse on Inner Farne where the path branches off along the side of a white painted stone wall at the eastern side of the lighthouse. However as there were the maximum number allowed I decided to follow the loop path and try again on my second walk round the loop. At the other side there were huge numbers of Puffins along the cliff tops with more perched on the wall to my left.
There were one or two Puffins sat stood at the cliff's edge with beaks full of Sand Eels and over on the inside of the path there were similar numbers of Puffins. The Black Headed Gulls were poised amongst the Puffins waiting for returning birds with Sand Eels and as soon as the Puffins landed they were after them, trying to pinch the food before the Puffin could disappear down its burrow. A little further along there was another short path leading a little closer to the cliff's edge and from here I could see Shags and Kittiwakes with chicks as well as yet more large numbers of Puffins.
A little further round I could see large numbers of Guillemots as well as more Puffins and as I turned round I was able to see down a couple of Puffin burrows where their heads were just visible at the entrance. After a minute or so one of the Puffins emerged from its burrow before walking over the path and flying off in search of food. I continued on round the path and in a little gully to the left of the path was a single female Eider Duck and further along on the rocks was a Great Black Backed Gull with three chicks.
I now completed the loop and began my second walk round it and as I reached the lighthouse again I was this time able to go along the path that branched off. This path takes you right up to the cliff edge with the white painted stone wall right to the edge and perched on the top, only a few feet away, was a Puffin with several Sand Eels in its beak. On the tops of the cliff were Kittiwakes, Shags, Razorbills, Guillemots, Lesser Black Backed Gulls, Great Black Backed Gulls and a pair of Fulmars. Over to my left were yet more large numbers of Puffins with a lone Great Black Backed Gull stood amongst them, waiting for its chance to strike.
I returned to the main path and continued round with vast numbers of Puffins seeming to have increased and the Black Headed Gulls still trying to pinch the Sand Eels. I had reached the point where the female Eider Duck had been sat and there were now four small chicks with it which were hidden on my first walk round. My allotted hour on Inner Farne was now almost up so I made my way back round to the ramp down to the jetty where, perched on the edge of it about half way down, were four Puffins. The Puffins didn't seem at all bothered as people walked past, staying there until I had gone past and stepped onto the boat.
It was now time to head back to Seahouses and it had been another fantastic visit to the Farne Islands even though it had been cloudy and foggy with a few rain showers. Just after we had disembarked back at the harbour, as I was walking along the harbour wall, a Great Black Backed Gull landed near some Eider Duck chicks. As soon as it did the female Adult went for it, viciously attacking the much bigger bird and after a few seconds the Gull gave up and managed to get free and fly away.
I paid a visit to the Neptune Fish Restaurant for a bite to eat before heading back to the car and beginning the long journey home. I have attached a full sightings list and quite a few photos from my 3rd and certainly not my last visit to the FarneIslands with the superb Serenity Boat Tours.
FARNE ISLANDS - 03/07/2021
10+ ARCTIC TERNS 30+ BLACK HEADED GULLS
2 COMMON TERNS 2 CORMORANTS
20+ EIDER DUCKS 3 FULMARS
4 GANNETS 2 GOOSANDERS
10+ GREAT BLACK BACKED GULLS 10,000+ GUILLEMOTS
20+ HERRING GULLS 4 HOUSE MARTINS
10+ HOUSE SPARROWS 2 JACKDAWS
200+ KITTIWAKES 20+ LESSER BLACK BACKED GULLS
1 OYSTERCATCHER 2 PIED WAGTAILS
3,000+ PUFFINS 10 RAZORBILLS
2 REDSHANKS 30+ SANDWICH TERNS
30+ SHAGS 20+ STARLINGS
2 SWALLOWS 10+ SWIFTS