Helen and I were enroute to Scotland today, but with the weather being so beautiful, we decided to take a detour and visit Inner Farne, the innermost of the Farne Islands, which lie off the Northumberland coastline and are easily accessible by pleasure boat-trips from Seahouses harbour. We’ve been on Inner Farne several times before, so knew exactly what to expect at the height of the breeding season in late May.
The three-hour Inner Farne Cruise starts with a tour around the Islands during which the skipper of the boat gives a running commentary on the history and wildlife of the Farnes. In particular, the story of Grace Darling’s heroic rescue of the survivors of the wrecked ship Forfarshire features strongly in the story.
For me, the highlight of the cruise around the Islands is the visit to ‘The Pinnacles’, a formation of several sheer cliffs jutting out of the sea like jagged teeth at one end of Inner Farne.
At this time of year, The Pinnacles form the nesting-site of many thousands of Guillemots and Kittiwakes. The birds are literally crammed together onto every available ledge, and when one bird flies-off, another immediately lands in its place. The boat can get within a few feet of the birds, which seem to be totally oblivious of the dozens of excited humans gaping at them and snapping pictures of them (from a very rocky boat!)
The real excitement, however, starts from the moment of landing on Inner Farne itself.
As we got off the boat today, we were immediately thrust into the midst of an Arctic Tern breeding colony. Hundreds and hundreds of the birds were either nesting, quite literally at our feet, causing us to take great care where we trod, or raucously-circling around our heads demonstrating their great annoyance at our intrusion into their breeding territory.
Now Arctic Terns are tiny, two-ounce birds that shouldn’t worry a hulking-great human very much. However, you’d be quite wrong if you thought that. The thing about the Arctic Terns is that they will physically attack any creature, humans included, if they feel threatened. On Inner Farne it is necessary to wear a hat to reduce the impact of the bird-strikes.
Today, I must have been pecked around twenty times. On one previous visit, (when I didn’t have a hat on my head), I was forced to hold a hand over my head for protection instead. One particular bird took such a dislike to my presence that it pecked me hard enough to draw blood!
The really cool aspect of all of this, of course, is that you’re in amazingly-close proximity to these beautiful birds as they fly around and round your head. The photographic challenge is to ‘capture’ a bird completely within the frame of your image. Rules of composition go right out the window as you struggle to bring your camera to bear on these fast-moving, dive-bombing ‘hooligans of the sky’, whilst simultaneously praying that your camera had been able to focus on the little blighters in time! Fabulous fun!!
Once you’ve run the gauntlet of the Arctic Terns and passed through their territory, it’s pretty-much Puffins all the way!
All the way up the boardwalk pathway, Puffins have their burrows on either side of you. Every now and then you may come on a female Eider Duck sitting tightly on her nest, as we did today. At one point there is a particular spot which is always inhabited by a large group of Sandwich Terns. In short, each bird species pretty-much has its own, established territory which they return to year after year and other species respect that order of things.
The gulls, typically, are the exception to the rule. Each time a Puffin returns to its burrow, laden-down with a beakful of juicy Sandeels (that it may have flown up to sixty miles away to catch!), it must try to evade a phalanx of squabbling gulls which try their best to ‘mug’ the Puffin and steal its hard-won catch. Sometimes the gulls are successful, but usually the Puffins manage to scurry into their burrows to feed their young ‘Pufflings’, relatively unscathed.
Up by the lighthouse on Inner Farne, you find yourself standing atop The Pinnacles. Just on the seaward (wrong!) side of the safety fence, a number of Shag have their nests. Each time Helen and I have visited this spot we are amazed by the fact that we can be literally only a few inches away from these large, primeval-looking, glossy-greeny-black seabirds as they sit on their ramshackle nest-heaps, incubating their eggs. They really do look like their dinosaur forebears when you’re up close to them!
Coming round the bottom part of the boardwalk, on the return journey towards the jetty where the boat is waiting, is an excellent spot for trying (mostly unsuccessfully!) to photograph Puffins in flight. Along with many other photographers, Helen and I have spent time here trying to do just that. During today’s attempt I was rather more successful than usual, and managed to capture some images that I’m very pleased with.
All too soon, however, our hour on the island was up and it was time to return to the boat. After steeling ourselves for the relentless onslaught of Arctic Tern attacks on the way back down the boardwalk path again, we made a dash for it! It was only now that I realised their attacks consisted of more than just pecks to the head; by the time we had got back to the boat we were liberally-doused in Arctic Tern poo! The monsters!
The half-hour or so run back to Seahouses harbour gave us a chance to review some of our images of the day. Out of 1200-ish shots I had taken, I eventually whittled that number down to 172 ‘keepers’. That’s a lot of ‘good’ images for a single day’s birding (well, three hours in fact!), and is a testament to how exciting an Inner Farne cruise can be.