There is no doubt that the Farne Islands, located off the coast of Seahouses, Northumberland, are rich in history as St Cuthbert historically lived on Inner Farne, and various lighthouses have been situated on these perilous rocks. As well as the history there is another aspect that draws the public to this place – the huge colony of over 100,000 seabirds that come to nest each year.
Having visited, several years ago now, every detail of being immersed in a seabird colony remains, from the noise to, well let’s face it, the rather potent smell, and it was an unforgettable experience.
Arriving at the harbour in Seahouses the weather was a little cold and damp but it would soon be the place I was to depart from for the islands I had always wanted to visit. Before then however I took a walk along the pathway from the harbour, to discover what species the mainland held, we couldn’t let the islands have all the glory.
You can see the shapes of what many would call ‘another gull’ nesting on the cliff edge, their nests of mud, grass and seaweed tucked amongst the cliff ledge as you hear them calling ‘kitti-wake, kitti-wake’. It couldn’t be easier to identify these beautiful birds as they go about raising their young. Watching from the path you can get a glimpse of their eggs which have been laid in May and even chicks. These birds should never be overlooked as they are remarkably beautiful with their delicate appearance, bright yellow bill, red eye ring and throat.
Another of my favourite birds, there is nothing quite like watching the fulmar in flight. Mating for life, these birds will not make a conventional nest but lay their egg on a safe ledge. They are remarkable looking creatures, the UK albatross, with two obvious nostrils on their bill, which allows them to get rid of salt from their system. Their voice is a sinister cackling, a somewhat frightening sound if you don’t know what is making it. These birds are truly fascinating, but be careful not to get too close as they will eject a potent smelling oil if threatened.
The day has come, the weather has held and you have queued patiently before shuffling onto the boat and squeezing into your seat along with many other expectant voyagers. Setting out from the harbour the sea becomes rough quickly and the islands seem too far away but the journey is filled with anticipation. The first specks of seabirds start whizzing past the boat, so busy collecting food for their growing young, as you catch your breath in delight. Gannets too are seen flying past the boat, a graceful giant compared to the smaller seabirds. You know you must be getting close to the islands now as the intense smell of the seabird colony swirls up your nose, it’s part of the experience just go with it, and you can see the cliffs completely covered in specks of black and white as the guillemots crowd together. Soon the boat docks, and one of the wardens comes to give you a safety chat – ‘Wear a hat’!
Stars of the Farne Islands include the Arctic terns, you literally can’t miss them as you constantly feel a sharp stab on your head as you run the Arctic tern gauntlet, when walking the boardwalk along the island. Eggs are laid in nest scrapes made by the adult birds before the chicks hatch and then within days they will leave their nest and hide in nearby vegetation. These cute little chicks are visible as you walk along the path, a very valuable bundle – no wonder the adults are protecting them with such ferociousness. These birds really are remarkable, not only in the way they defend their young but because of the astonishing migration to the Antarctic they make.
A much loved star of the Farne Islands is of course the puffin. Their brightly coloured bill makes them unmissable as they clumsily wander about on land. These birds generally nest in burrows, and will have an adorable chick called a ‘puffling’. The chick will not leave the safety of the burrow however until they are around six weeks old. Watching the puffins on the Farnes is a true delight, as some wander about with nesting material, others return from fishing trips with a beak full of sand eels and the ‘arrrr’ noise that they make is incredibly memorable. Although they look somewhat clumsy and cute they are ‘hardy’ birds and will spend the winter out at sea.
All inches of the bare rock are covered in seabirds, with many being the beautifully smart guillemot. Their egg is laid directly onto the rocks of the cliffs and is pear shaped to stop it from rolling off. The ‘bridled’ form of this species, which have a white circle around their eye, can also be seen on the Farne Islands.
This species, although a little smaller in size than guillemots are equally as impressive with their white striped black bill. Both adults will incubate their egg and raise the chick.
Another beautiful bird their dazzling emerald green eyes stand out against their brilliant black plumage, along with that crest full of character they too are unforgettable. Building nests along the cliff top, their fluffy grey chicks look a little unruly but are equally as precious as their neighbours. Both adults will feed the chicks, and watching the parent bird moving sticks, attempting to keep their nest organised is a true delight.
You may catch a sighting of this beautifully smart species. Female eider ducks will line their nest with feathers they have plucked from themselves – if that isn’t devotion I don’t know what is.
Another of the islands you are allowed to land on is Staple Island, although a little more rugged and inaccessible than Inner Farne, it is well worth a visit. It is puffins galore here, with them nesting all around you and flying to and from the sea, intent on finding food for their chicks. They do however have to run the risk of the gulls here, and watching the gulls chasing the puffins is a terrifying sight. After all that devotion the puffins are putting into feeding their chicks, your heart is in your mouth as the gulls make a dash for them.
Having visited Inner Farne a few days before somehow I had managed to escape the inevitable droppings of the Arctic terns, seeing others completely covered and there wasn’t even one on me. I was obviously lucky that day, but not on this trip and it was puffin poo that seemed to be hitting me – all over my coat (no problem it’s just a coat); in the grooves on my camera (oh no I need a tissue) and bam on my lip (just ew)! Despite the shower of puffin poo it is worth it to get great views of them flying. Most satisfying of all is watching them scurry into their burrow with a beak full of sand eels and knowing the chick is getting a successful feed.
The cliffs of Staple Island are also full of guillemots, with kittiwakes on the cliff edge. It is truly astonishing to see them all crammed in together – well it’s true what they say, it really is safety in numbers.
Overall the Farne Islands are one of the most magical places to visit, not just because of the huge array of species, with the main characters mentioned here, but being on the same level as the birds and really getting to see their life and behaviour is a truly unforgettable and inspiring experience. It reminds you how amazing nature is and why you don’t have to go to the depths of the Amazon for an awe inspiring natural encounter.