Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Islands of Pilgrims

By Nigel Blake

Television allows us to experience the many great nature spectacles in this world, exotic places that we can often only dream of visiting, so it is perhaps a surprise to many that we have some very special places ‘on our doorstep’ that in my opinion rival the likes of Serengeti and Bharatpur for wildlife watching excitement.

I remember reading about the Farne Islands in ‘Where to watch birds in Britain’ by John Gooders, I had been given the book as a Christmas present by my parents when I was about 18, within its covers it told of Puffins and Guillemots close enough to touch, and Shags and Terns that pecked at you when you got too close. I had never been to a Seabird colony on an Island then, and I wanted to just get on my way to see this for myself, but my heart sank when I read at the end of the section that the best time to visit was May to July… it seemed like a lifetime away.

With the 5-month wait over and having passed my driving test I headed off up the A1 in my little purple mini on what was for me an epic birding pilgrimage and the chance to photograph Puffins for the first time in my life.

Inner Farne

Situated about 3 miles offshore from the fishing village at Seahouses in Northumbria the Farnes are a group of low granite islands; they have been the destination of pilgrims since long before the sixth century, when St Cuthbert lived in solitude on the nearest isle to the mainland, Inner Farne, at 16 acres this is the largest of the islands.

St Cuthbert, (whose name is connected by the local name ‘Cuddy Duck’ for the Eiders that breed on the islands) did not quite live as secluded a life, he was held in high regard as a healer, this gift of his bought many pilgrims who sought his powers, indeed the name of the islands may well have derived from the Gaelic ‘Farena ealande’ meaning Islands of the pilgrim. Cuthbert became the Bishop of Lindisfarne and spent some time at Holy Island before returning to the Farnes, where he had the greatest affinity with the nature that lived there, he is claimed to be the first real conservationist, deteriorating health led to his death in 687A.D. his grave can be found at Durham cathedral and a small chapel built in 1370 and dedicated to his name is still on Inner Farne.

On my first visit to the islands I could have been walking in St Cuthbert’s footsteps, other than a huge white painted lighthouse on the highest part, the Island has possibly changed little since he was there, and has not changed since I started visiting nearly 30 years ago, he probably had to withstand the spiteful attacks of Arctic terns too. From the moment you get off the boat these birds flap around your head, defending their eggs and young with almost kamikaze vigour, often drawing blood from the unwary visitor, so remember a sturdy hat when you go! Around the jetty there are many Terns, Arctic and Common, just across on the beach there is a Sandwich Tern colony that has increased in size since my first visits to the National Trust managed islands, there are often Ringed Plover sitting on eggs here too.

Just up from the landing stage Cuthbert’s Chapel, the Pele Tower, once the home of monks and now the wardens accommodation, the visitor centre and toilets are the first buildings you reach after queuing to pay a small landing fee, dotted around here (and usually under the wooden seats) are female Eiders, sitting tight on their down filled nests they incubate clutches of up to 6 eggs for about 4 weeks. Occasionally two females will share a nest with a huge number of eggs in, when hatched they will herd all the ducklings together into large crèche groups.

The top of the Island has lots more nesting Terns, you will have to mind where you tread as they will lay their eggs on the footpaths, also there are many Puffins nesting in the warren of Burrows that honeycomb the Thrift and Sea Campion infested turf. In early summer the Puffins gather in groups on the cliff edge and make endearing little grunting noises. June and early July is the best time to see these gaudily beaked seabirds, with rapidly growing hungry young to feed, the adults, with bills full of Sand eels have to run the gauntlet of marauding gulls, often they crash land and run the last few paces into the burrow to avoid losing their hard caught fish supper, sometimes though the gulls win.

The most stunning sights though are from the highest part of the island, the cliffs by the lighthouse, here Fulmar and Kittiwakes hang on the up draughts, and sit on nests alongside Shags and Guillemots right at your feet and Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots whiz back and forth on the wind. The same wind that carries the acrid, nostril tingling ammonia smell from the guano-spattered rocks below has Herring and Black backed gulls, Oystercatchers and the occasional Gannet drifting effortlessly on it too, the whole scene backed by the squawking cacophony soundtrack of all these birds calling is quite an assault on the senses.

Inner Farne is open to the public in the afternoons only and is accessible for disabled visitors; of the group of Islands just two others, Staple Island and the Longstone, are open for landing by boat. Staple Island is not recommended for disabled visitors as it has steep steps up from the landings and it is rocky and difficult walking in some areas, stout shoes/boots are a must when visiting this spectacular island.

Staple Island

I have lost count of the times I have visited the Farnes, for me Staple Island has to be one of my most favourite places in the world, being greeted on the steps up from the boat by Guillemots, Shags and Razorbills that are just an arms length away is overwhelming, as a photographer it is hard to calm down and be selective about what to shoot first. Puffins and Eider Duck are also so close that you do not need long lenses, and all this is before you get to the top of the steps!

The top of the Island is no less fantastic, there are Fulmars nesting on the grass amongst the burrows occupied by some of the Farnes 35,000 or so pairs of Puffins, thousands of Guillemots crammed together on ledges that seem to precarious for laying eggs on, among these you will see the delicately ‘spectacled’ bridled form dotted about.
The life here seems hectic, sporadic fights and aggressive pecking at the neighbours, interspersed with mating and incubating the eggs, fending off piratical gulls that try to steal eggs or young birds, the comings and goings of adults with food for incubating partners or youngsters
 Then there are the Shags, prehistoric and slightly lizard like in appearance they sit and pant, their yellow speckled throats rapidly vibrate as they while away the days until their eggs hatch, at this close range you can see just how beautiful these birds are, the black looking plumage is an amazing shade of iridescent green, and they eye you up with an emerald stare, stabbing out with dagger beaks if you get to close.

Down through the middle of the island is a rocky ravine called ‘the Gut’ Kittiwakes and shags nest in here and there are a few Rock Pipits, but during spring and autumn migration all kinds of migrants might show up in this sheltered gulley, the Farnes have quite a list of rare birds.

Looking south from the island’s highest point are ‘the Pinnacles’, these rocky stacks are the perfect tenement accommodation for yet more Auks all vying for the slightest bit of room upon which they will bring their next generation, but to get an impression of the scale of these rocks you need to see them from the boat.

Staple Island is open for visiting in the mornings only. 

Amazing Grace

The Longstone has little to offer now that the Lighthouse has been automated, as its unmanned now it is closed to public visiting, there is a Seal colony there but it is best viewed from the boat.

Longstone Island however was the place of Grace Darling’s epic rescue mission. The lighthouse was built in 1825, thirteen years later the ‘Forfarshire’ a paddle steamer on route to Dundee from Hull was smashed onto the rocky outcrop of ‘Big Harcar’ during a storm, many of the passengers were washed away in the stormy seas, but at around 7 a.m. on that fateful September morning Grace could see from her bedroom window that there were survivors. The 22 year old and her father William set off in a small coble rowing boat managing to save nine souls in two trips, taking them back to the shelter of the lighthouse. Grace, though a shy girl became quite a celebrity as a result, so it seems extra sad that she should have died just four years later from consumption, her grave is in Bamburgh, so too is a museum with her boat and other items connected with her life, its well worth a visit.

Visiting the Farnes

I will be making my annual pilgrimage to the Farne Islands again this year, along with many others who cannot resist the spectacle of all the birds there. The ‘Glad tidings’ sails out from Seahouses harbour at 10 a.m. and at roughly half an hour intervals after that, there is usually quite a queue by 9 o’clock especially if the weather is good, however you should perhaps be prepared for a couple of days stay in the area as sometimes, despite favourable looking weather, the sea conditions can make landing on the islands impossible.

During the breeding season the islands are open from May 1st to July 31st at the times noted in the article and are very easy to visit, the boats are run by Billy Sheil, at the peak of the season it is wise to book in advance, the rest of the season, April August and September the islands are open for the whole day. There are separate charges for the boat and landing fees for the islands, National Trust members are of course able to visit for free under the terms of membership.

I prefer to do the full day trip as it enables me to have over two hours on each island, not really long enough for photography, and not necessarily at the best time of the day, but its still possible to get great images.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Some Welsh birds

This was a day that turned out to be very productive, I haven't photographed Redstarts since I was shooting film, a big gap in my digital bird image library that needed filling! 
I planned a day when the weather forecast looked good and headed to Wales armed with a pot of Mealworms in the hope of getting a few images, and within 2 hours of getting to the site I had blasted 28 gig on both Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers, as well as Nuthatch and Robins too!
 Once I had checked out the images on the camera and was happy with them I decided to head off to Gigrin farm and get some Red Kite and Buzzards, a good decision as I did well there too and eventually headed home with a couple of days worth of editing and processing to do, quite handy really as it kept me busy while it rained again!

More local birds

Some more local birds photographed in the bright spells between the rain and cloudy weathe, the Corn Bunting population seemed quite high with at least 13 singing males in the small area around the farm that I regularly take pictures on, they are not always very accomodating, but this one favoured the newly planted Hawthorn hedge  and would come back to the perch soon after I parked near it, by staying in the car (a great mobile hide) I got some nice images. 
 The seed on the feeder patch soon drew in Pheasants, this one I nicknamed Dyson!
There were 2 days when there was a massive passage of Meadow Pipits, I counted 27 at one point, they were fun to look at due to the plumage variations, one had me guessing if it was Olive backed or not!
A star bird locally was the Barn Owl (last pic) they were nested in a fallen willow by a stream but hunted a piece of set-aside land away from the nest site, often coming to close to focus when I was there, you could almost set your watch by the time of their visits!

Local birds

It seems odd looking back at some of this years pictures as it looks like we have had lots of sunny weather when the reallity is that it's been very wet, so I am surprised that the Lapwings were as successful at raising young when it appeared their nests would have been washed out, all seven pairs on the field near my feeder site had 2 or 3 chicks!
 It was another great spring for Wheatears and Yellow Wagtails on the dungheap, it didn't take many days to get them coming to mealworms, but the surprise bird was a real tame Skylark, I've never managed to get them on supplied food before, and wonder if it was down to the weather making finding natural food difficult to get. Whatever the reason I have ended up with several hundred great images of one of the Larks, what a poser it was too!
 Linnets also came for seed, however the shot here was taken as one perched on the Oilseed Rape flowers in one of the surrounding fields.

Pasque Flowers

These flowers are the plant world equivalent of Swallows to me, they are an indicator that summer is just around the corner.
 There are not that many sites in the UK where Pasque flowers Pulsatilla vulgaris grow, so I consider myself to be lucky in that I am not far from a few of the Chiltern hill sites and the ones that grow on Therfield Heath near Royston. 
 I photographed these with a Canon EOS 1DsMkIII &100mm f2.8 macro lens whilst laying on the ground, obviously it is very important that you pick out individual flowers or isolated groups and don't trample on the others while you take your shots, I also used a silver Lastolite reflector and sprayed some of the flowers with water to get a nice "Dew" efffect as well!

Sunday, 22 January 2012


I can thoroughly recommend David Whistlecraft's woodland bird hide, here's some of the images I took on my visit.

Owl photography

If you want to learn the best ways to photograph wild owls without disturbing them why not book a full days tuition, e-mail me for details.